The Rev. Ed Treat recalls attending a speech about the opioid crisis, and feeling jolted to help. Exactly what to do was the question.
Fast forward a year, and a national Addiction & Faith conference unfolds in the Twin Cities. The conference this weekend is designed to help church leaders understand addictions of all kinds and how to make their church a place where folks struggling with addiction feel welcome and understood.
"Those who struggle with addiction ... will often look to the church for help and find very little," said Treat, of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloomington.
"Congregations are woefully underequipped to deal with this problem," he said, "even though we are an ideal place to make a difference."
Treat apparently is not alone in his observation. The pastor thought that about 100 religious leaders would sign up for the conference, held Friday through Sunday. Instead, he had to cut off registration at 200 participants for space reasons. Likewise, Treat thought this would be a Minnesota event, but people from across the country signed on.
One reason could be the severity of the problem. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people under age 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC found that older Americans are more likely to become addicted to pain medicine, while younger folks are overdosing on black market opioids.
Churches have long housed Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other substance abuse groups. But they're typically run by the sponsoring organizations. So church leaders such as the Rev. Joanna Mitchell will be attending the conference with pen and paper in hand.
Mitchell says she doesn't see a lot of addiction problems at her Edina church. But she's aware that "almost everyone has a family story of someone who has struggled with it."
"I think addiction is a reality out there, whether it be alcohol, drugs or gambling," said Mitchell, of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. "I want to know more about it so I can listen and attend to needs."
Simply "naming the problem" is a big start to calling attention to it, she said.
"If we can talk about it on Sunday morning from the pulpit, it becomes part of our conversation in the community," Mitchell said.
Both Treat and Mitchell host an "Addiction Sunday" at their churches, during which a guest speaker shares information about the issue. But much more could be done — steps big and small. Mitchell, for example, said she's also asked her parish nurse to pay attention to the painkillers of the people she visits.
The conference, being held at DoubleTree in Bloomington, is sponsored by the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy. It brings together authors, speakers and theologians such as Anne Wilson Schaef, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Omar Manejwala. Said Treat: "We've got a lot to learn."