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The Uncertain Ministry of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

Recognizing the effects of my childhood has led me to a healthier mindset as a pastor.
The Uncertain Ministry of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Ondine32 / Getty

In my third year of seminary, I could scarcely bring myself to request meetings with my professors. I felt immense pressure to prove my conversation warranted their attention. I couldn’t bear the devastation of disappointing them and wasting their time.

I was newly married, and I will never forget the first time I shared this anxiety with my wife, Sharon, who had also been through the program. The concern had never crossed her mind. “You know this is their job, right? We are paying them to meet with us. It’s not like they are doing you a favor by holding office hours.”

The contrast between her nonchalance and my anxiety was profoundly disorientating. How could we see this so differently? What was wrong with me?

The more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that my fear of disappointing significant figures in my life might have something to do with my father, who was an alcoholic throughout my childhood. I eventually stumbled upon a concept I had never heard before: Adult Children of Alcoholicsand a book by the same title by Janet Woititz.

It wasn’t Al-Anon, or Alateen, but Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs), referring to adults who had grown up with an alcoholic parent. I began to read through Woititz’s 12 common characteristics of ACoAs, and I was stopped dead in my tracks at the very first one: ACOAs guess at what normal is.

This short statement was a life-altering revelation. I was not even aware I had been doing this, but as soon as I read it, I knew it was true. Throughout my life I had so lived in fear of people’s disapproval that I constantly guessed at what a normal human relationship with them would be. I guessed at what I believed they were looking for from me and what I should do to meet their expectations.

Later I would realize how this dynamic had affected my ministry as well. As a young student pastor in my sophomore year of college, I recalled more than a few parents of my students whose intimidating presence paralyzed me. I assumed they were disappointed in me, simply by the looks on their faces. In this pastoral role, I found myself crushed by the inability to meet the endless list of unknown yet presumably reasonable expectations I imagined they surely had of me.

In hindsight, I can now see how little of this anxiety had to do with me, much less anything I had done right or wrong. Like many ACoA pastors, I functioned with little to no awareness of how my own upbringing in an alcoholic home was undermining the effectiveness of my ministry.

Here are a few of the characteristics Woititz lists in her research on ACoAs and how they compound the challenges of ministry.

  1. ACoAs judge themselves without mercy. As pastors, we are already hard on ourselves, but this self-criticism is amplified by voices of discouragement that have been ingrained in us from our earliest days.
  2. ACoAs sometimes have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end. This is not about work ethic or procrastination. Instead, it can be challenging to do something we have never seen done before. ACoAs have seen all kinds of projects start, but go unfinished, be it a house project or the fulfillment of a promise.
  3. ACoAs often take themselves very seriously and are very responsible. On the surface, this may seem at odds with No. 2, but many (though not all) of those very same ACoAs also learned to be extremely responsible. This responsibility was not developed as a matter of character, but to avoid embarrassment. Living in the shadow of an alcoholic parent often means managing circumstances, almost as a defense mechanism. As pastors, the weight of responsibility can feel crushing because anything less than perfection means humiliation.
  4. ACoAs have difficulty with close relationships. This can manifest itself either in holding people at arm’s length out of self-protection or clinging tightly to relationships out of a desperate need for approval. One response prevents us from truly empathizing with our people, while the other prevents us from seeing our people at all, since we cannot see past our own need for approval.

Once I had a name for these patterns, it helped me understand aspects of myself that I wrestled with for much of my life. It gave a clear and evident explanation for things that confused me early in my ministry. Like many other ACoAs, I finally had some of the answers for why I am the way I am.

Of course, these obstacles are not unique to the experience of ACoAs. Many who have grown up in other dysfunctional household circumstances struggle with its implications for their ministries. Based on my own experience, in conversation with ACoA research and the help of a counselor, here are four truths that have enabled me to be healthier in ministry:

  • You are more than what you have done for your people lately. Several weeks ago Sharon and I were binging a show on Netflix, in which one of the main characters has an abusive, alcoholic father. In several episodes, the father beats his son. Then, near the end of the season, the son has an encounter with his father that you would expect to be similarly violent, but instead his father embraces him, tells him what a good boy he is, and that he loves him dearly. The son tenderly whispers back, “I love you too, Dad.”

    As the scene ended, Sharon turned to me full of confusion: “What in the world just happened?” But I understood completely. This scene perfectly captures the push and pull of a child’s relationship with their alcoholic (or dysfunctional) parent, in which we never really know where we stand. Our acceptance and approval is constantly in question, and we carry this emotional relational uncertainty into adulthood and into our ministry: How will my people receive me today? What have I done lately to ensure embrace and not abuse?

    For me, one truth I have had to remember again and again is that I serve a God who has never been disappointed with my best efforts in ministry. The same Father who approved of Jesus’ ministry before it began also takes joy in my life as I delight in him. No matter what I have accomplished or achieved, I am God’s child, with whom he is unconditionally well pleased (Matt. 3:17).
  • Not everything about you as an ACoA is something that has to be overcome. Part of what has made me the pastor that I am is the experiences I have had. My hyper responsibility or my deep loyalty are good qualities to have, not bad qualities to overcome. However, understanding what motivates these behaviors has liberated me to be driven by and directed toward the right things.
  • ACoAs have a uniquely prophetic opportunity. If prophecy is proclaiming a different future, ACoAs have the credibility to declare a better future is possible than their past may suggest. Only a Joseph can declare with authority, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good” (Gen. 50:20), and we have a similarly prophetic power. We are credible speakers of hope and possibility.
  • Finally, for heaven’s sake, give yourself a break! No one has higher expectations for you than you do, and no one is going to judge your mistakes more harshly than you. This is a lesson you’ve probably had to learn all over again during this pandemic. Under quarantine, no one is expecting you to operate at the level of a full-time pastor while you are locked down in your home, moving your church online, and learning how to homeschool your kids.

On those days, you have to remember why the yoke of Christ is just so easy and light: it’s because he—unlike you and unlike your alcoholic parent—loves you no matter your accomplishments, and he deals with you with an unsearchable abundance of grace (Matt. 11:30, Rom. 5:17, 1 Tim. 1:12-17).

Ike Miller is the author of Seeing by the Light and holds a PhD in Theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is lead pastor and church planter of Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their three children.

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