Fifteen years ago, Sherry Hoppen was a mom of three, a ministry leader in her church, and a volunteer at her local pregnancy center when her younger brother was killed in a drunk driving accident. The tragedy triggered her own slow spiral into alcoholism—one that nearly destroyed her marriage and her life.

Over the next decade, Hoppen evolved from a casual drinker to an addict who barely recognized herself, always secretly drinking or causing scenes at family holidays due to her dependence. Like many who struggle, she thought she could “fix” herself and moderate her drinking, even as she daily hid vodka-filled water bottles inside her purse.

“I was scared to tell anybody because I knew if I did, my drinking days were over,” Hoppen said. “And I didn’t want people to see [our family] fail.”

Her husband was a church elder, she led the children’s church choir, and they were beloved businesspeople in their small Michigan community.

“I couldn’t imagine letting anybody see what was really going on,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to rehab because … everybody knows if you go to rehab, including my kids.”

It took Hoppen four more years after recognizing her dependence to commit to sobriety. Her story as a churchgoing suburban mom concealing alcohol addiction is increasingly common.

In 2023, around 9 percent of adult women in the US struggled with alcoholism—about 11.7 million women. This means that in an average church of 500 people, at least 20 women attending likely struggle with alcohol dependence as well.

If you add in women who might admit to being uncomfortable with their relationship with alcohol, it’s a lot more. This discomfort, often called “gray-area drinking,” is the kind of hush-hush thing women Google on incognito mode in the middle of the night.

Alcohol abuse is rarely discussed with or even known by a woman’s closest friends or spouse. Most of us assume that regular churchgoers, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and pregnancy center volunteers aren’t the ones dealing with substance abuse.

While men have a higher risk of struggling with alcoholism, the gap between men and women has been shrinking in recent years. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from the past two decades found that rates of alcohol-related deaths have increased more in women than men, especially those in their 30s.

Drinking is a gendered experience: Women are more easily and quickly addicted and more affected by long-term health consequences. Underage drinking, which is more common among young girls than boys, has major impacts on brain development.

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In her 2013 book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Ann Dowsett Johnston quotes a research director at the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, saying that alcohol is “the issue affecting [teen] girls’ health” and it is “being marketed as ‘liberation.’”

There’s no reason to think the percentage is different for Christian women and secular women who struggle with drinking, although some Lifeway surveys have shown that Christians generally drink less than their secular peers. Substance abuse doesn’t discriminate, but the church has a long way to go in ministering to women in this category. Like secular women, Christian women are often unknowingly swayed by cultural shifts and advertising.

Until recent decades, alcohol brands marketed themselves primarily to men: emphasizing images of dark, frosty beers ready after a long day of work or playing up the sweet burn of scotch that tasted of refined masculinity. In the 1990s, however, the industry recognized that women were an undertapped market.

David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University, points to the increase in alcohol marketing toward women in the late 1990s with the introduction of sugary drinks for “entry-level drinkers.” A decade later, “skinny” versions of premade cocktails launched for women who wanted low-calorie options. Rates of alcohol use disorder rose by 83 percent between 2002 and 2013, on par with the rise in feminized alcohol marketing.

Simultaneously, more Christians were shunning the hard boundaries of teetotaling fundamentalism, preferring not to be labeled “legalistic.” This combination of factors meant church ladies and stay-at-home moms joined the ranks of those tipping back far more frequently than ever before. It’s your right to indulge, they were told.

With more alcoholic beverages targeted at women, the normalization of drinking to assuage the stress of motherhood amplified quickly. As social media grew, so too did “mommy wine culture” memes and “rosé all day” slogans celebrating alcohol as an end-of-day necessity that women deserved.

Before becoming “sober curious,” writer Halee Gray Scott didn’t identify as an alcoholic but questioned her drinking. “I caught myself anxiously watching the clock for 5 p.m., when I could open up a bottle of Pinot Grigio,” she wrote for CT.

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Alcohol use only increased during the pandemic, with an average of 488 deaths per day in the US during COVID-19’s height in 2021. With lost social connections (including church), many turned to alcohol as a way to deal with stress, isolation, and uncertainty.

And it’s not just the US. Twenty years after the alcohol industry began marketing to women, “the UK has an epidemic of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer among women in their 20s,” Jernigan said. “The cancer doctors in the UK are blown away; they have never seen anything like this.”

Alcohol affects women’s bodies in more significant ways than men’s. Initially, female bodies absorb more alcohol and take longer to metabolize it, resulting in higher blood alcohol levels that happen faster and remain longer.

This often results in steeper long-term consequences as well. Among these are higher risks of liver disease, shrinkage in brain development, heart damage, and a variety of cancers, including breast cancer. It also puts women at higher likelihood for experiencing sexual violence or attack.

But the reasons women drink are notable too: Women are more likely to have suffered childhood abuse and past sexual assault than men, and mental health in young adult women has been declining for years. Many people with substance abuse issues have experienced significant trauma. The more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) a person has, the more likely they are to develop addiction in adulthood. Addiction is an attempt to soothe a wound, but admitting an issue with substances can be seen as a moral failure—especially among evangelical women, and mothers in particular.

Christian mothers have historically been viewed as stabilizers of the home when men succumbed to drunkenness. These women led the temperance movement in the early 20th century, specifically to address the harms alcohol was causing in society and family life. “Women were more likely than men to vote to shutter the saloons that were destroying their homes,” wrote Jennifer Woodruff Tait in an article for CT.

Today, with cultural messaging and marketing targeted directly at mothers with brands like Mom Juice or Mom Water, and the fear of many women in the church of appearing legalistic in their denouncement of alcohol, the double standard is apparent.

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“I think the church would be more forgiving of a man who was an alcoholic than they would be of a young mother,” said Laura Cain, a 17-year volunteer with the Christian ministry Celebrate Recovery. “We are expected to be super holy and saintly, and there’s so much pressure on women.”

This false messaging of empowerment in an alcohol-obsessed society, paired with assumptions about churchgoers, makes it difficult for the Christian woman to share her struggle.

And the recovery world—within church and without—hasn’t caught up to the epidemic of women’s drinking problems.

Advocate Kristen McAvoy says she was addicted to Xanax and alcohol while attending church and a small group Bible study. Nobody knew what she was going through.

“I was the most involved I’ve ever been in church in my life at that time,” she told CT. “I would go to church sometimes on Xanax or when I was drinking.”

Now sober from both substances for three years, she says she was terrified to admit to her small group that she had a problem like this. Even now, while hosting a very public sobriety platform on Instagram, McAvoy still feels like addiction is a taboo topic and is nervous discussing sobriety in church settings.

Image: Illustration by Ibrahim Rayintakath

It’s one thing to ask friends to pray for your stress levels and quite another to confess to substance abuse. Many Christian women, hamstrung by reputation and image, feel incapable of revealing their struggle, believing they will eventually conquer it alone. This is rarely the case.

McAvoy said that the only reason she confessed her problem at church is because her pastor transparently shared his own experience with addiction, creating a safe space for her own admission. Despite many churches’ aims to be welcoming, Christians are often fearful of revealing their faults—creating a superficial culture of perfection.

Secular addiction researcher Yohan Hari famously said, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection.” This might be why the most successful recovery effort of all time is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA began as a faith-based program, based on the idea of what Hari calls “social recovery.”

Christian therapist and sobriety expert Caroline Beidler, who is 10 years sober, calls AA meetings the “downstairs church”—also the title of her book. She agrees that Christian women specifically have a “kind of double stigma” in recovery. Beidler, who cofounded a recovery house and speaks at sobriety events for women regularly, said there are far fewer resources for women than men with alcohol use disorder.

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“I live in a small town in Eastern Tennessee, and when I see a woman in a meeting, I’m surprised because there are hardly any women attending,” she told CT.

Neither culture nor the church is well-equipped to work with women facing addiction. In many church settings, as alcohol is normalized and even considered missional, there is often little consideration that someone might struggle with substance abuse. Nor are there ample opportunities to admit one’s struggle in a safe environment.

Many churches serve wine for Communion. In some contexts, it’s common at unofficial church social gatherings to serve alcohol—and in some churches, at more official events.

When I was drinking, I would go out with my church small group on the weekends and drink with them. A mission team I joined had trip-planning meetings at a bar, where people would sip whiskey and wine while brainstorming outreach events. At a church retreat, my cabinmates suggested we “sneak” some wine in—while I was trying to escape alcohol’s call by being at the retreat.

Because churches often have close connections with AA and social services, they should be the perfect place to ask for help. But meetups with titles like “Pastors and Pints,” “Wined Down Wednesday,” and “Beer and Hymns” or other alcohol-infused gatherings are confusing and unhelpful while implying that the church is not the place to seek help.

In The Recovery-Minded Church, Jonathan Benz writes that even “experienced pastoral caregivers with all the right recovery resources at their fingertips” see their role as making referrals rather than as being a partner to walk with.

“Too often, church leaders’ care for addicts ends with this referral step,” Benz writes. “That is actually just the beginning, not the end, of an opportunity to encounter the prodigal God who loves you beyond your wildest imagination.”

But if alcohol is a part of the church culture, officially or not, that role may not be clearly visible. A few jokes from church members about “needing wine” after wrangling kids into the service, and someone may permanently give up on sharing their struggles—or falsely believe that everyone drinks to calm down.

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Erin Jean Warde, author of the book Sober Spirituality, was working as a priest at her Episcopal church when she realized she had to deal with her own alcohol dependence. Ministry leaders often find it more difficult to seek help due to added shame and the threat of job or reputation loss.

When Warde tried to get sober, she used the 40 days of Lent as her “excuse” to stop drinking. But even then, friends reminded her she could technically still drink on Sundays, when the Lenten fast is not observed.

“Even inside the safest excuse to take a sober curious break,” she wrote, “I was not free from people encouraging me to drink.”

Warde felt no support in her quiet quest to quit drinking and put it off for fear of becoming an “outsider” in her church community. Even worse, the only local AA meeting was held in her own church basement.

Hadley Sorensen, a mom of three living in the Washington, DC, area, understands this well. Like many Christian women facing issues with alcohol, no one else thought she had a problem. She was a successful woman, active in her church and community, with a strong marriage and plenty of friends.

Image: Illustration by Ibrahim Rayintakath

“I didn’t appear to be doing anything out of the norm,” Sorensen said. “No one knew I was struggling, but I just had this deep sense of shame—like I was out of alignment with my values and my faith.”

Only in the past decade have more addiction resources specifically for women emerged. Though Alcoholics Anonymous has had exclusively female groups for years, popular online communities like Sober Sis and She Recovers now often host in-person retreats as well.

Still, it’s common for women of faith to feel alienated from secular sobriety support groups. Though AA refers to a higher power, plenty of members are not personally religious and the focus is definitively not on Christ. Many Christians are also wary of New Age concepts and the language of “finding my truth” common to secular recovery programs.

McAvoy never felt comfortable in those communities. She’s now part of one of the only exclusively Christian, women-focused recovery support groups, She Surrenders, which Hoppen founded.

“I really like it because we always incorporate faith into the meetings,” said McAvoy. “I feel like it was exactly what I had been looking for.”

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Having support options outside of church is important, because things like anonymity matter to someone taking first steps into recovery. But there are also ways churches can encourage more sharing and “recovering out loud.” Most women I interviewed agreed that churches need more public testimony and normalization of addiction issues that speak directly to those suffering silently.

“All I know is I found Jesus in an AA meeting, because that’s where people were really honest and vulnerable and broken,” Beidler said. “Scripture tells us that God is close to the brokenhearted, so you go to an AA meeting and there are broken hearts sitting in a circle, sharing it all.”

Jesus should be just as easy to find in a church sanctuary as a church basement. Through Celebrate Recovery and organizations like The Center for Addiction and Faith, Christian groups are addressing this gap, but there are still ways to improve in evangelical churches more broadly.

Laura Cain’s pastor launched a chapter of Celebrate Recovery after conducting an anonymous survey of his congregation to see what issues they were dealing with. He was “shocked and horrified” by how many people said they were struggling with substance abuse problems. Behind the pleasantries of a Sunday morning gathering, the anonymous survey unveiled the truth about an ailing flock.

In recovery meetings, foundational rules like anonymity give people the space to talk without being offered advice. And it’s often helpful for women to have a smaller—and sometimes single-gender—group in which they can speak openly. Particularly for women with histories of sexual trauma, it can be hard to open up in front of men.

For churches, Cain suggests that small group leaders employ “safety” rules, like Celebrate Recovery does, to assure confidentiality, anonymity, no interruptions, and a chance for everyone to share, even about sensitive topics.

As Benz writes, churches must move from “a position of meeting needs and providing ‘service’ to empowerment and ‘kinship’” as they welcome alcohol-dependent people into their communities.

Pastors, leaders, and church members can all step forward and go first with powerful testimonies of what God has done in and through their brokenness. One needn’t struggle with substance abuse specifically to understand the pain of trauma, hurt, or addiction.

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“The truth is we are all broken,” Cain said. “We are all messed up, and it’s a relief that I don’t have to put a mask on [at Celebrate Recovery] and they’re not expecting me to.”

Four years ago, I stood in front of my church and told them through tears how God had empowered me to stop drinking after two decades of struggle. It was the most vulnerable and scary thing I’d ever done, but I knew God was calling me to “go first.” I knew someone else would see themselves in my struggle and finally feel like they weren’t alone.

For many years prior, I had suffered in silence, unable to find many resources outside of AA (which intimidated me) or feel safe confiding in anyone about my problem. Quitting felt nearly impossible. It’s why I’m so thankful that Christian women today are starting to step out of the shadows, share openly, and be beacons of light for others who may feel alone in their struggle.

After the service, several people came up to me and confessed their current or past addictions. I received messages online and began to create a space on social media for those suffering in silence to come to the Cross.

Our silent shame robs others of community, solidarity, and support. Churches have an opportunity to meet women in the midst of their brokenness. People ultimately just want to belong, feel seen, and not be judged in their brokenness.

Ruth Stitt, who has been a licensed professional counselor for more than two decades, agrees that women of faith may especially carry more shame and secrecy about an addiction.

“Christians who have a certain expectation—having grown up in the church, maybe—really struggle,” Stitt said. “Even people that I see [in therapy] don’t tell the truth on the intake form asking how much they drink.”

Cain said the ability to speak openly and at length about one’s issues, without interruption or “tidy” solutions being recommended, is key. “I don’t try to fix people,” she said. “I let the Holy Spirit do that.”

The last time Sherry Hoppen tried to drink, she gagged so much she couldn’t swallow. She believes God physically prevented her from being able to swallow alcohol because this had never happened to her before.

“I only saw this in hindsight,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know if I was sick or what was going on, but that is what I believe to be true today.”

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She had relapsed “too many times than I could possibly count” and had nearly given up on the possibility of lifetime sobriety. But that day, God lifted that burden from her hands.

“I ended up on my living room floor, flat on my face, and just told God, ‘I surrender,’” she said. “I said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want’ … and in that moment, I knew it was over.”

Ten years later, she leads the female Christian sobriety support group McAvoy attends and has published her memoir, Sober Cycle.

She’s far from alone. As more Christian women become vocal about their addictive experiences with alcohol and change evangelical church culture, we can all work to open a safe space to others who wouldn’t otherwise ask for help.

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women.

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