Updated: Feb 23, 2021
By the time former Holston Conference pastor Jabe Largen was in his twenties, Pastor Shannon Berry said Largen had attended more funerals because of the opioid crisis than weddings of his friends. For the 872 congregations in the Holston Conference, the opioid crisis became an issue in need of addressing at this year's annual conference in Junaluska, North Carolina.
Although the United Methodist Church has no statement about the opioid crisis on a national scale, the United Methodist Book of Resolutions states: "The church has a fundamental role in reorienting the public debate on alcohol and other drugs by shifting the focus from punishment to prevention and treatment. This is rooted in the Christian belief in the ongoing possibilities for transformation in the life of each individual and in our world."
The Holston Conference is one of 57 United Methodist conferences that spans east Tennessee, southwest Virginia and northern Georgia. According to Tim Jones, the director of communications for the Holston Conference, the opioid crisis was an evident problem seen among the congregations and needed to be addressed.
"When we realized it was affecting every single one of us within the room, there were about 30 of us in there; it was just a no-brainer to focus on that," Jones said.
Stephanie Strutner is the executive director of ASAP of Anderson, formerly known as Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention. As the lay delegate of the Holston Conference, she shared her perspective on the opioid crisis at the annual forum.
"I think the first step is ultimately just to have the capacity to allow folks to address the opioid crisis as it presents what is in their niche of the community," said Strutner. "That is where we have found prevention to be most effective is at the local level. What the Holston Conference is doing is in many ways exactly what needs to be done because we are able to identify the needs of the people we serve."
At the annual conference, there is a special offering taken for mission opportunities. As of July 18, the Holston Conference has raised $143,597 to fight the opioid crisis, according to Holston.org. This money will go toward making grants for churches to start or enhance their own recovery ministries. Jones said there are multiple ways Methodist churches can and are getting involved.
"Some of the ministries that our churches will be focusing on is ministering to families that have a loved one that is going through this addiction to be able to offer them support and show them love," said Jones. "We understand that it is such a trying time for everyone that is involved. The churches being equipped with multiple people, we hope we can surround others to love on them and help them through their journey."
Jodie Ihfe, the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, said she hopes to create more specific programs to benefit those dealing with opioid addiction to supplement the programs already in place.
"We have a food pantry, and we have some other services that we offer for people in a lot of different situations," Ihfe said. "Several of our children and youth are from homes and situations where they are directly affected by opioid addiction. We are working with those families and trying to serve those children and provide some stability for them. In the future, we are working toward some specific program, or elements of our program, that would be related to the opioid crisis."
The First United Methodist food bank is open on the first Saturday of every month. They are partnered with Second Harvest to help more families and ask for donations of paper goods and hygiene products to better meet the needs of the communities they serve. The church has a Family Promise program, which hosts families three or four times a year and offers meals, counseling and a place to sleep for a week at a time. It is geared toward families with children to help provide a better life for them, according to Scott Huff, Family Promise co-coordinator.
Matt Hall, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, has been heading up a recovery ministry for six years. It is called Celebrate Recovery, which is a 12-step recovery program incorporating Bible verses and weekly worship services. His inspiration to start this ministry at his church came from his own struggles as a recovering addict. He has his own ideas of what churches could do to improve their assistance to those affected by addiction.
"Take in a budgeting class because many people when they first get into recovery have no idea how to budget, have very few life skills to be honest," said Hall. "Or even get involved in jail ministries instead of waiting for folks to get out and hope they come into the church or stumble across a Celebrate Recovery."
Even among congregations of the Methodist conference, no one is immune to the addictive nature of opioids. Pastor Shannon Berry from Fremont United Methodist Church in North Carolina experienced this first-hand.
"There was a young person in our congregation who was an addict, is an addict, remains to be an addict, who has been into rehab more days than I can count," said Berry. "They were actually sober for a little while and ended up having to have an intervention. Sometimes I thank God that I was not there for the intervention. I am not sure I could have done it because I felt very close to her. It not only touched me personally in that moment, it affected our entire congregation."
Jones said more could be accomplished if everyone joined together on this specific cause; one of the ways to do this involves better communication.
"What we tend to do is be ministry and mission silos, and everyone is trying to do their own thing," said Jones. "I think that if we could come together, especially on a topic this big, we could do more and be more helpful sharing resources, knowledge and wisdom, moving forward to best help our communities."
Ihfe agrees more conversation about addiction should be happening at church.
"We know that everybody feels stress or everyone has worries," said Ihfe. "Everybody has these certain things that we struggle with. It is really easy to talk about that at church, so I think that churches need to be more willing to talk about this type of addiction, a cause that so many people are affected by."
The Holston Conference will continue to accept grant applications for recovery ministries dealing with the opioid crisis through June 1, 2020. To keep up with Methodist Church's ongoing efforts to fight opioid addiction, visit https://holston.org