Addressing Relapse in Ministry Settings


carroll-1-fetters_140320_2943Stephen Carroll, Ph.D., LCPC, 

Coordinator, Saint Luke Institute Visitation Program


Recovery is a life-long journey.  Any experience of sustained recovery will most likely include one or more scary episodes of possible relapse. 


For the recovering addict and the people who support him or her, the word “relapse” causes fear because it indicates the return of chaos, hopelessness and self-destructive behavior. 


Fears about Relapse


Men and women in ministry can experience feelings of shame and disappointment if they notice they are more often experiencing craving for a substance or triggers to indulge in old forms of escape.  They can feel overwhelmed with a sense of spiritual failure that they are regressing to self-defeating behaviors because they are not committed enough to their vocation. 


In our work with clergy and religious in recovery here at Saint Luke Institute, we encourage them to acknowledge these fears about relapse as a reality check. Sobriety requires daily vigilance.


Communication and Support are Essential


We often hear from members of our Continuing Care Program that in the months and years after discharge, it was essential to their recoveries to speak openly with colleagues in ministry about their current cravings or triggers to fortify their desire to not relapse.  Most importantly, this rigorous self-honesty reminded them that they are not alone.  


Many people in ministry often hold themselves to unrealistic standards in their pastoral responsibilities and in their recoveries.  For someone in recovery, it is critical that members of his or her support group regularly challenge the person to name the worries about relapse and to gently process the emotional triggers for these cravings s with a 12-Step sponsor and close friends. 


Signs of a Relapse


Those in leadership should carefully monitor signs of a return of at-risk behaviors for people in recovery such as

  • Abrupt mood swings and increasing periods of isolation
  • Inconsistent attendance at 12-Step meetings or therapy sessions because he or she is too busy with pastoral or administrative responsibilities
  • Minimizing the emotional impact of an unpredicted life event such death of loved one, diagnosis of serious health condition or change of assignment
  • Avoidance of close friends and family who might challenge him or her
  • Decreased involvement in pastoral work for which the individual has long exhibited a passion
  • Decreased interest in leisure activities that were most often part of person’s weekly routine
  • Increased tendency to intellectualize feelings and make impulsive unilateral decisions (“I quit the committee because no one wants to implement my idea”)

How to Respond to Relapse Flags


When one or more of these at-risk behaviors is noticed, an immediate conversation should take place with the person because recovery can quickly become in jeopardy. Most often, the individual is struggling to maintain sobriety, and may remain unaware that these at-risk behaviors are expanding and gradually moving him or her toward relapse.


It may take multiple members of a support network to challenge the individual with their concerns about these regressive tendencies.  


Finally, investigate potential resources for more intensive therapeutic support if the person in recovery cannot reduce the frequency of these at-risk behaviors.


Consider consulting with a local mental health provider or call the staff at Saint Luke Institute to explore treatment options.  Individuals have a much higher likelihood of achieving long-term recovery when they acknowledge at-risk behaviors and refine their recovery skills to pre-empt a relapse. 


About Dr. Carroll and the Visitation Program


Dr. Stephen Carroll is coordinator of the Visitation Program, which provides short-term (three-month) residential treatment for clergy and religious who have relapsed with addiction or mood issues, are on the verge of relapse or need more intensive treatment than outpatient therapy has provided. He can be reached at or 301-445-7970.