Self Revelation In Addiction Counseling

How much of my own personal struggles should I share with counselees?

  I’ve been asked how the concept of “professional distance” relates to sharing with clients how God has worked in our own lives.     Some therapists are trained to avoid “inserting their own personalities” into the counseling process by not sharing anything about themselves with counselees.   It is possible, though, to strike a balance between over-involvement and being so objective that those we work with never see our “human” side.

A.         The benefits of “self-revelation” in the counseling process There are many good reasons to share our own spiritual journeys with those we seek to help, especially if we ourselves have overcome an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

  • Knowing we’ve done many of the same things can help cleints to trust us more. Knowing we’ve struggled with some of the same issues, helps them feel that we are able to understand what they are experiencing in the early days of sobriety.   Hearing our stories can convey hope that helps them believe that they, too, can overcome the obstacles they face and find truly satisfying, sober lives.
  • Knowing that we struggle currently with a number of issues, too, can also be helpful.   Many newly sober people feel so “terminally unique” that somehow their problems are so bad they can’t change.   This results in a very discouraging type of shame.   So, there’s a lot to be gained when they understand that they are not alone in their struggles and that others (ourselves included) have some of the same feelings and have made the same mistakes, and still end up doing many things we regret.

Thoughtful self-revelation is an important tool for the Christian counselor.   The Bible encourages us to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3 NIV)   When we work with wounded people, there’s much to be gained by letting them see us as “fellow travelers” who are walking the road to recovery with them.

B.      A few words of caution The rescue mission long-term residential program creates a somewhat unique counseling environment with some special pitfalls.   Not only do people actually live in the facilities where the staff members work, they also remain in the programs for a longer period of time — sometimes a year or more.   This can allow us to get to know clients better and to develop more significant relationships with them.   On the “plus” side, this is allows us to work with them on a deeper level and can potentially create an environment for some powerful discipling and mentoring.   On the other hand, this environment has some unique dangers where a proper understanding of “professional distance” – maintaining proper personal boundaries – is absolutely essential.   Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • It is important to always remember who is “staff” and who is “client” and to keep those roles very separate.   And, at the same time, it’s important to remember which of these roles belongs to you.   This can be especially tricky for people who have joined the staff after completing the program themselves.   Over-identification with the wrong group can cause some real problems; including forgetting who actually “runs the place.”
  • In the arena of emotional involvement, the “wall” between staff members and clients must be very definite.   One rule that must be in place and enforced rigorously is the prohibition of staff members developing relationships with clients outside of the working environment.   This is especially important in regard to those situations where there is an opportunity for romantic involvement.   These types of situations always result in problems that run the gamut from favoritism all the way to sexual compromise.
  • In light of this, it is absolutely critical that staff members have regular weekly meetings where they can discuss the residents and their needs – and share their own needs and gain support from one another.   If workers are not doing this, it’s easy to feel alienated from one another.   Some staff members may actually end up leaning inappropriately on the residents for emotional support and companionship while at work.   There must be an atmosphere where workers feel the freedom to discuss their own issues with that relate to the residents with whom they work with one another.
  • While every resident should have one staff members as their primary counselor/mentor, our work with them ought always to be a team approach.   It should be clearly understood by all clients that what is shared with their primary counselor may also be shared with the counseling team members.   We benefit from counseling insights provided by other team members.   This also prevents clients from forming an exclusive relationship with a staff member who is “the only one I can talk to”
  • It is important to avoid sharing too much about your current on-going personal struggles with clients.   This could result in them losing respect for you.   In light of this, members who are in recovery themselves should never participate in a support group in which their clients are in attendance.


Working with hurting people can be a very rewarding endeavor.   We grow in our own faith as we see God work in their lives.   But, anyone who works in this field must have their own support network firmly in place in order to avoid these pitfalls

Recovery Programs for Smaller Rescue Missions

When homeless addicts are unable to find lasting sobriety, they are doomed to a life on the streets. Thankfully, AGRM’s member rescue missions have responded by developing long-term recovery programs for indigent men and women with drug and alcohol problems. Sophisticated programs can be found at some larger rescue missions. Many have professional staff members who are social workers, case managers and certified addiction counselors.

Providing recovery services at the smaller rescue mission can be more challenging. In some ministries, a single chaplain is the only staff member who works with long-term residents. However, it is possible to bring recovery principles to those who need it. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Educate YourselfTake advantage of opportunities in your community to learn more about addiction and recovery. Learn about what is being offered at local colleges. Training events are also sponsored by groups like the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence and the National Association for Alcohol and Drug Addiction Counselors. City Vision University  offers courses through it’s online Addiction Studies degree program. Throughout the year, AGRM-sponsored training events are offered at several different locations. Information these and other training events appear monthly in the member newsletter, HAPPENINGS. Every mission, large or small, needs to set aside funds each year for such staff training.
  1. Use Community Resources — Most communities have a local NCADD office. Along with training activities, they usually provide free literature on addiction and maintain lending libraries with books and videos that can be used in rescue mission recovery programs. Both NAADAC and local colleges may also be used to find counselors-in-training to work with addicts at the mission.
  1. Use Christian Support Groups —The first requirement for anyone with an alcohol or drug problem who stays long-term at a mission should be frequent attendance at addiction-specific support groups. My first choice is always a group that is Christ-centered. Alcoholics Victorious is the AGRM- sponsored support group network. There are other Christian groups such as Alcoholics for Christ, Overcomers Outreach, and Celebrate Recovery, etc. Locate these and other Christian support groups meeting around the world at the Christians in Recovery web site. Where such groups do not exist, one option is to begin one. Ask stable believers with a few years of successful recovery in a non-Christian group, like Alcoholics Anonymous, to help get your group started.
  1. Using Other Support Groups AA, Ala-non, NA and other support groups can also be valuable resources. Some may even help by bringing a meeting to the mission. Some Christian workers have had bad experiences and assume that these groups are anti-Christian. This depends mostly on who is in leadership. It is best to have staff members visit meetings to get acquainted with local leaders before requiring residents to attend meetings or inviting them to conduct one at the mission.
  1. Resources for Recovery Classes A large assortment of materials related to addiction recovery is available through AGRM’s Resource Center. It can be found online at The Life Recovery Bible is a great reference tool for developing recovery-oriented Bible studies, chapel services, and devotionals. For structured classes, Power to Choose is a very useful workbook that is written in very simple language by Mike O’Neal, who was himself formerly homeless.
  1. Maintain a “Zero Tolerance” Policy — To maintain an environment that promotes positive change, the rescue mission must be a “drug free zone.” Therefore, all residents must know that, if they use alcohol or drugs, they will be dismissed immediately from the long-term program. This should be for at least one month, with the possibility for an evaluation for re-admission after that time period. They can be put back on the streets, demoted to the shelter, or referred to another program. Whatever option is used, residents need to know that the addiction is taken seriously.
  1. Reach Out for Help If you have additional thoughts or questions, please use the contact form.


Michael Liimatta is the author of two book and tape sets published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions; A Guide to Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs and First Things First.


When Helping is Really Hurting

How can our attempts to help a hurting person actually hurt them?

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Galatians and how it relates to those of us who are reaching out to addicts and other troubled people. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”   (Gal. 6:1 NIV)

This passage and the verses that follow have some important principles to keep in mind as we seek to be people helpers and not “enablers”.

A. “Fixing?” vs. “Empowering” — When we work with troubled people, from the very beginning of our efforts we should be “working ourselves out of a job” with them. Paul says, “Each person must bear his own load.”   In other words, we must be discerning so that we focus on our own part and not do their part for them.   Real helpers impart “tools” that assist those we help to make good decisions about their lives.   Taking up those tools and learning to live sober and godly by applying them to “real life” situations is totally their part.   People recover from addiction when they learn to take responsibility (with God’s help) for their own actions and lives. We cannot do this for them.

B.  The Principle of “Sowing & Reaping” —People persist in destructive behaviors as long as they feel the benefits outweigh the costs.   For most of us, pain is a powerful motivation to change unhealthy and unwise behaviors.   Abuse of alcohol or drugs always leads to painful consequences.   One thing we know, drugs and alcohol dull the uncomfortable emotions that signal the need to change.   This contributes to the denial of alcoholics and drug addicts. They have real difficulty in connecting their actions and decisions with the negative consequences they experience.   Instead, they intellectualize and rationalize behavior and shift blame to other people and circumstances.   That’s why Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians is a message they need too — “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal.6:7)

For addicts and alcoholics, sometimes experiencing consequences and understanding where they came from is the key to their salvation! When it comes to these sorts of consequences, I have a mental picture of God sending along a gigantic spiritual fist designed to knock them over. It’s one way He can make them stop and take a real look at their lives.   The problem is that I see people stepping in front of that fist and taking the blow themselves.   In other words, they experience the pain and grief intended for the addict.   Meanwhile, the person it was intended for experiences nothing and keeps on going down their destructive path.   Sometimes, our main job may be to get the other people in the addict’s life to stop bailing him or her out so that real change might have a chance to occur.

C.  “Give heed to yourself” —For urban mission workers, there are a few temptations embodied in Paul’s words.   On one hand there is the temptation to be sucked into taking up the responsibility that belongs to the client.   It is all too easy to over identify with him or her resulting in a failure to be objective and to confront what needs to be confronted, when it needs to be confronted.   We can easily become angry and frustrated when people we try to help keep rejecting our advice.   We too often take this personally and become hurt and offended; closing our hearts to the people God has called us to help.

Restoring gently, I think, implies approaching all counseling and confrontation in a prayerful manner.   It’s important to see beyond that individual and his or her behavior.   We need to remember that we have another adversary who is at work to keep those we seek to help bound and confused.   Here is where the notion of being “spiritual” comes in; we need to recognize that rescue mission counseling is actually spiritual warfare.

We need to be continually asking God to help us to be aware of our own attitudes and to give us the special wisdom needed to really meet the need in the other person’s life.