Is It Harder to be Sober in Progressive Churches? | Sojourners

Is It Harder to be Sober in Progressive Churches?

Paul Ashton, a CAMRA member, samples one of the first pints drawn at the Hull Beer Festival held at Holy Trinity Church in Hull, U.K. Via Reuters.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

Last week, the University of Michigan announced that it would begin selling alcohol at its football games.

For decades, alcohol sales had been largely limited at college football events, but in 2019 the Southeastern Conference began allowing its schools to sell alcohol at games. Now, more than 80 percent of the top football schools sell alcohol on game day.

In the U.S. church, opinions on alcohol seem more polarized than politics. On the one hand, many conservative and fundamentalist faith traditions treat all alcohol consumption as a sin, some going so far as to suggest that Jesus turned water into nonalcoholic wine. On the other, progressive and moderate faith traditions incorporate alcohol into church with events like beer-and-hymns, theology-on-tap, and “pub churches.”

Erin Jean Warde, an Episcopal priest and sobriety coach, as well as the author of Sober Spirituality, has seen the dangers of both extremes. As a believer in harm reduction and prison abolition, Warde doesn’t want to outlaw alcohol or treat substance users with contempt. Instead, she wants institutions — especially the church — to examine the ways they push people toward unhealthy relationships with alcohol.

In its place, Warde wants to promote mindfulness. A mindful approach allows people to examine the positive and negative effects of alcohol — or any other substance — in their lives and make informed decisions about use.

In an interview with Sojourners, Warde discussed sobriety, mindfulness, how racism and classism affect society’s views of alcohol among other substances, and the beauty of spiritual disciplines.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How did you come to write a book about faith, alcohol, and sobriety?

Erin Jean Warde: I had been approached by an editor. [At first], I did not pitch sobriety. I pitched something much safer and did not receive the feedback of, “Let’s move forward with this.” I wrestled with that and finally realized that the vulnerable thing is the book to write.

My spiritual director, she sent me an article about alcohol from The New York Times. She said, “Your book is in the zeitgeist.” Because we had talked about is the fact that [in] Elle magazine, The Washington Post, [and other news media], I could find content about how we needed to change our relationship with alcohol.

But I looked into publications from Christianity, churches, and I could never find that. So I knew that there was a space that could be inhabited with my book.

You talk in the book about how it was almost harder to avoid alcohol when you joined progressive church spaces, why do you think that is?

I was a fundamentalist Southern Baptist. I was taught, “Just don’t drink. It’s wrong. It’s evil. Do not drink, period.” Even in college I wasn’t drinking [until] I had my own deconstruction and, out of that, fell in love with the Episcopal Church.

I read the Book of Common Prayer. I’d never heard words about God, aside from the Bible, that I thought depicted God so clearly in the way that I felt God is. This alignment was just profound. I was an English major, creative writing minor, and I dove into reading the Bible as literature for school. So, I felt this really profound movement toward the Episcopal Church.

It just so happened [to coincide] with my 21st birthday. As I was turning 21, I was also entering into a faith community where people drank. I became the kind of priest that went to “Theology on Tap.” I was written up in an article in the Dallas Observer as the sort of priest who drinks. I always think of the Mean Girls quote, where [Amy Poehler’s character] says, “I’m a cool mom!” That was the vibe. “We love Jesus, but we drink a little!” At the time it was liberating to be able to have my faith and also not be held into fundamentalist principles.

In my coaching practice, people say the exact same thing, that alcohol was liberating for them in their deconstruction. The challenge was that in order for me to go to churches that believe [in the liberation of all people and justice], I had to come up against [unhealthy] drinking culture.

The first church I attended that wasn’t conservative was very proud of their “beers and hymns” night. And there does seem to be a jubilance and freedom in being in faith spaces that allow alcohol. Do you think there’s a way to have that without having the unhealthy alcohol culture?

Yes. The fundamentalist approach that says, “Don’t ever have alcohol, it’s wrong, it’s evil, don’t do it, period,” and the mentality that says, “We’re not like those other Christians, eat, drink, and be merry!” Neither of those approaches are theologically mindful.

I’m trying to call people into a mindful relationship with alcohol. As a person who believes really deeply in harm reduction, I’m not going to start from a place of assuming that we’re going to wake up tomorrow morning and alcohol is no longer going to exist in the world. And I’m also not going to demonize people who drink, because that is not compassionate.

I really hope for a middle way, which is acknowledging that the reasons we gather are actually to be in the presence of God and community. The reason I want to go to your [church] event is because of the hymn. It’s not the beverage you’re serving. It’s not the liquid you’re pouring. So, I work with congregations to cultivate an ability to, maybe, have alcohol at an event, but to also have really nice— to use Episcopal language, “equally attractive” — nonalcoholic beverages.

The world of nonalcoholic beverages is vast these days. When I was in seminary, there was a bar across the street from the seminary. Sometimes people would give up alcohol for Lent, they would show up to the bar and [the only nonalcoholic beer was] O’Doul’s. And now we have craft nonalcoholic beers. There are so many delicious seltzers and kombuchas.

What does it mean to honor [the fact] that in every community in the world, there is going to be [someone who has] a challenge with substances? Statistically, if you’re shepherding a community, there’s someone that’s probably struggling with substances. So, let’s start from that understanding and make sure that we have hospitality, which is a deeply biblical principle, and have [nonalcoholic options] available.

[We could also] consider cutting our alcohol budgets in half. I don’t know that the quantities we think are necessary at some of our church functions are necessary. What if we imagined a world where, for every participant we thought would attend, we assumed they’d have one or two drinks, as opposed to making sure we have tons and tons of libations for those who attend?

Those are some practical ways for us to not demonize alcohol or force everyone to be a teetotaler, but to also honor the experience of people who don’t drink. We want [them] to feel welcome, and we’re also going to offer alcohol in a way that assumes moderation.

What have you learned about alcohol and mindfulness through recovery coaching?

On a very personal level, in December 2022, my sister died. I had [already] been coaching for years, and I do so much work — whether it’s coaching, retreat leading, or speaking — [around] care for yourself and mind, body, and soul.

In the context of recovery coaching, some of what we’re talking about is definitely alcohol, but we’re also talking about the broader reality of coping. What does it mean to cope well? What does it mean to not shame yourself in the process? When my sister died, I was about four-and-a-half years sober. And I just realized that I needed all of that again for myself. So, I just signed up with a health coach, because I know that I need my own support.

If I’m going to offer my work and integrity, I also want to be working on my relationship with coping and my relationship with wellness and mind, body, and soul. In the face of grief, it was very hard to do that. I consistently met with my spiritual director throughout all of this — because I’m not going to offer spiritual direction and not meet with my spiritual director. So, now I know I’m a coach who needs a coach and that is good and healthy.

In the book you used Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “long obedience in the same direction” to define the discipline of quitting unhealthy drinking. How have you tried to explain the concept of discipline to folks who have experiences with fundamentalist, authoritarian faith where discipline is meant as a denial of self?

I actually have a person who works with me who has asked about this a bunch because [“discipline”] is this really loaded term. If I do something wrong, you might say you’re going to “discipline” me. So, it can legitimately feel like a punishment. Yet I’m a person who loves spiritual disciplines.

I often think of it as a practice. To use an athletic [comparison], practice is a striving toward; it is a consistent movement toward what we hope for.

On the one hand, it’s very important as a coach to be very tender to the people I work with, because this is vulnerable work. You don’t sign up with a recovery coach without being willing to go into some places in your life that most people don’t talk about. So, I want to be really tender with the people who are in front of me.

And [on the other hand], we are goal setting. We are moving toward actual, concrete goals that this person wants to achieve in their life. When it comes to the question of discipline, I like to really focus on motivation. Shaming someone into changing their relationship with alcohol is not going to get you there.

How do you define a mindful relationship with alcohol? How would someone know if they have a mindful relationship with alcohol?

There are a variety of things that come to mind. I really encourage people to look at their patterns. I know that it’s a very common reality that a person clocks out of work and [immediately] the alcohol is out. It’s a way to mark the end of the workday and a movement into relaxation time.

If that has become a habit, the challenge is that we now have a cue associated with it. Your body is cued by the end of the workday to start to ask for alcohol. That is often not a mindful relationship with alcohol.

In comparison, it’s actually great to not have a super mindful relationship with brushing your teeth. I brush my teeth in the morning. I brush my teeth in the evening. I don’t need to think about that. That’s just habit, and that’s good. It’s good that this helpful thing in my life is very habitual. But when it comes to something that can have negative side effects, we want to make sure we really have mindfulness around it.

We don’t want our relationship with substances to become locked into such an ingrained cue in us. When I work with clients, [I ask], “What is a different ritual that could mark the end of your day? What if at 5 o’clock you slam your laptop shut and go for a little walk? Or maybe curl up with a cup of herbal tea and reflect on the day?”

Then at 7, when you eat, you have a glass of wine with dinner. That’s still a more mindful relationship with alcohol. [First], you’re very positively ritualizing the end of the workday, and then you’re opting to have a glass of wine with your meal. As opposed to, “I’m just going to crack open alcohol around 5, and I’m going to drink for as long as I want to before I go to bed.”

As silly as it sounds, the other thing I encourage [people to do] is to consider it a choice. Meaning, when I am going to a restaurant and there’s tons of beverages, I could have a lemonade, or a kombucha, or a beer, or a wine. As opposed to, “Every time I go out to eat, I’m ordering alcohol.”

That’s interesting for me, as a coffee drinker, to consider whether I have a mindful relationship with coffee. It often surprises a lot of people, given how much I enjoy coffee, that I don’t drink it first thing when I wake up. I want to be awake to enjoy it. I don’t want to drink coffee for the caffeine. I have a limit of two cups a day, and I try very hard to stick to that. If I find myself having three cups a few times a week, then the next week I might only drink one cup for a few days.

To piggyback off that, you said you actually have an awareness of your quantity. I typically start my clients by logging how much they are drinking per day.

There’s a lot of ways to lose track of how much we’re drinking. I have had people come back after a week of logging and say, “I didn’t know it was that much.”

The difference between one drink and four is a vast in how our body can metabolize that, how we’re going to feel in the morning, and how it’s going to affect us.

In the book you talk a lot about harm reduction, and how essentially alcohol is a drug that has been given legal carve outs, because it was the drug choice of white, middle- and upper-class men. So, I know your solution wouldn’t be prohibition, but it wasn’t clear to me what solutions you think we need on a societal level. Beyond individual mindfulness, what do we need to change at a corporate, legal, or societal level?

Honestly, I think that was another book. But I do agree that it needs to be addressed. A lot of what I’ve tried to do is speak to churches and faith communities. And there is a lot directed at that communal approach there.

[I had a client] who asked me [how to change her work culture]. I said, “What if you just talk to them about better options at your events?” And she really changed her workplace culture. It used to be a heavy happy hour at a bar that didn’t serve anything nonalcoholic. And she gently asked to go to a different bar that had great mocktails.

As far as the greater question of what to do about it … We need to look at all of the reasons why people are criminalized for their relationship with substances.

[I want to invite people to] expand their compassion for people who struggle with [illegal] substances toward people who struggle with other substances, because a lot of our culture has normalized alcohol use.

I know there could be a whole other book on the topic, but if you could snap your fingers, would anything be different as far as laws or regulations around alcohol? Do we need ad campaigns like we have against smoking?

People have tried to [get] large caution warnings normalized on alcohol. I think this specifically happened in Canada, that they really pushed for that, and “big alcohol” was able to lobby to get it turned down. “Big alcohol” actively works against campaigns that would teach us more about the reality of alcohol.

Do I wish that there were warnings on alcohol the way that we put all of these really intense warnings on cigarettes? Absolutely. Many people have said this, and I agree, alcohol is having a “cigarette moment” in the sense that it is being brought into the greater consciousness that alcohol is a carcinogen, just like smoking.

So, I have hopes that we can acknowledge the harm of alcohol and the grandiose nature of its scope. We often typify struggling with a substance as a personal problem, but before COVID-19, 3.3 million people were dying every year due to alcohol. And 3.3 million people don’t die because of a “personal problem.” That’s important for us to notice. [The World Health Organization reported in 2012 that 3.3 million people had died from alcohol abuse; a more recent fact sheet from WHO reports that, worldwide, 3 million people die each year from harmful use of alcohol.]

My movement forward is always based on this level of awareness and compassion for the reality that sits in front of us. Anytime you move toward law-related [solutions], it becomes perceived as prohibition, and I don’t necessarily want to end up in that camp. I don’t know if that’s actually helpful for the problem. If we could reduce the rates of how much people are drinking, without forcing anyone to be sober, we would start to see less of the [alcohol-related] health challenges hit people.

I’ve gotten negative feedback for even believing we could have a mindful relationship with alcohol — which I receive. But my hope was to write a book that could help people cut back, because I think that might mean that the greatest number of people receive some level of healing. Walking into a crowded room and saying everyone needs to get sober does not feel like an effective approach to me. [An effective approach would be to tell people]: “I get that your life is hard, and I get that we have challenges in our coping. Here are some ways forward that we can reduce some of our maladaptive coping mechanisms, add in some positive, joyful coping mechanisms, and reduce some of the harm of alcohol.”