Holston churches take up fight against opioid addiction

Holston churches take up fight against opioid addiction

Photo above: A participant in Celebrate Recovery-North shares her testimony at Fountain City United Methodist Church. Photo at top of page: The Rev. Matt Hall leads the recovery ministry at First Maryville United Methodist Church.

The survey left an impression on Bishop Dindy Taylor.

As members of the Holston Strategy Team pored over results of an August 2017 questionnaire, Taylor and the other team members noticed that one social problem was mentioned more than anything else.

The alarm over opioid addiction was frequently expressed in survey responses from United Methodists in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia: 

“Not just in our area, but all over Holston, the opioid epidemic is impacting us all, including our children,” said one respondent from Abingdon, Virginia.

“Almost every family has been impacted by the opioid crisis in some way. Many children are being raised by grandparents,” said one church member from Kingsport, Tennessee.

“Drugs and alcohol addiction plague Rossville, as it does many of the communities in Holston,” said a respondent from North Georgia. 

The 1,100 people who took the survey provided information that initially helped the Strategy Team and Cabinet reorganize Holston Conference from 12 districts to nine. But conference leaders were newly aware that the opioid crisis was tearing away at the communities where Holston churches exist.

“This came back as an unmet need in every district of the annual conference,” said the Rev. Mike Sluder, director of connectional ministries.

This spring, Holston leaders finally had the opportunity to respond. As the annual conference planning committee began to organize the upcoming June 9-12 meeting in Lake Junaluska, Bishop Taylor spoke up for the church members who had lifted up the crisis almost two years ago.

“She was the one who suggested that we focus on opioid addiction through our missions offering, and very quickly, everyone said, ‘Yes,’” said the Rev. Tim Jones, director of communications.

The 2019 Holston Annual Conference missions offering will be used for grants to help churches and missional hubs begin new (or strengthen existing) ministries that address the opioid crisis, said Sluder. Local churches are asked to take a special offering on a Sunday in May, and then take their offerings to the June 11 evening session at Annual Conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C.

The Holston Annual Conference offering traditionally garners more than $100,000 for a designated mission. In 2018, church members gave $110,191 for South Sudanese children and pastors living as refugees in Uganda. In 2017, church members gave $105,588 for Ishe Anesu Project in Zimbabwe.

After the offering is collected, churches will have the opportunity to apply for grants in a process similar to that in 2015-2016, when Holston Conference designated its annual missions offering for "local children in poverty."



Once Holston Conference was committed to addressing the problem, Jones collected statistics showing the urgency of the opioid crisis in Holston Conference communities. Provided by a 2018 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the numbers were revealed in a call-to-action video released earlier this month:

  • More than 140 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
  • In our Holston Conference area, more people died from opioid overdoses than perished in traffic accidents, homicides, or suicides in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
  • Opioid overdose deaths totaled 1,186 in 2016, up 14.7 percent.
  • Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia are in the top 10 states impacted by opioid overdose deaths.
  • Tennessee is ranked first in the nation in opioid sales.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We know it affects every family, and everyone knows someone who is dealing with opioid addiction,” said Jones. “We want to equip the churches to be in ministry with the families and everyone dealing with that.”

Several churches and pastors in Holston Conference have offered ministries addressing addiction and helping its victims for many years. In 2002, Cokesbury United Methodist Church began a Celebrate Recovery worship and small-groups ministry in Knoxville, Tennessee, eventually creating their own branded ministry and sharing it with other churches, homeless shelters, and incarceration centers in five states.

Other recovery worship ministries are thriving at Fountain City United Methodist Church in Knoxville; Powell United Methodist Church in Powell, Tennessee; First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee; First United Methodist Church in Newport, Tennessee; Crossroads United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee; and First United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia.

The leaders who work in those ministries point out that there are many other ways to help people affected by addiction, however.

“People hear ‘recovery ministry’ and they think they need a band, a meal and sharing groups,” said the Rev. Brooke Hartman, recovery and discipleship pastor at Powell UMC. “But everyone doesn’t have to be a Cokesbury or a Powell.”



In Smyth County, Virginia, John Graham serves as both circuit court clerk and pastor at Mountain View United Methodist Church in Chilhowie, Virginia. Earlier this year, he organized 50 area churches into a network to address the opioid crisis.

His group compiled a list of ways that churches could support the Smyth County recovery court, such as “sponsor a monthly basket drawing to reward sobriety” or “help a participant with getting an identification card ($21) or birth certificate ($14).”

Other suggestions include calling and checking on individuals, baby-sitting while a parent is in group sessions, providing transportation to meetings, teaching employee skills, serving as a mentor, fundraising, providing opportunities for community service hours, providing toiletries, or sponsoring “video visitation” for inmates and their families.

“They need everything,” said the Rev. Graham, referring to individuals in recovery or incarceration. “They have sacrificed everything to chase a drug. In most cases, they’ve alienated their family and lost employment. So they need everything.”

Graham also suggested hosting “sober living” groups. “When your life gets to the point where you are focused on drugs ... you need fun, social activities that have nothing to do with drugs,” he said. Churches could provide opportunities for recovery groups to get together to watch sports, join a dance or yoga class, or participate in a “game night.”

As an example, First United Methodist Church in Marion, Virginia, currently hosts a “Sober Friends” group on Thursday nights.

The Rev. Brooke Atchley, Church and Community Worker at Elk Garden School Community Ministry in Rosedale, Virginia, said congregations can help support existing recovery ministries by providing meals or transportation.

“They could also support family members that are raising children of others,” she said. “They could help with child care or provide food.”

Another idea is to work with the sheriff’s office or hospital to host a prescription drug drop-off or “take back” day, to get unused medications out of harm’s way, Atchley said.

“Studies have shown that the first exposure to opioid painkillers usually come from a family member's or one's own unused prescriptions,” she said. “The theory is that if they are not readily available, someone may not begin misusing them.”

Hartman reiterated that transportation is one of the barriers for anyone seeking sobriety or help during addiction.

“These are some of the huge obstacles that the communities are dealing with,” Hartman said. “Recovery is messy and it’s hard, but our families are dying in our churches. We have to go out to our communities and find out what they need.”

The Rev. John Gargis has led the recovery ministry at Fountain City United Methodist Church since its launch in 2014. Congregations that want to help people struggling with addiction, but who are not able to add a recovery worship service, can work to become “recovery friendly,” he said.

“Addicts can ‘smell’ a recovery-friendly environment. They have experienced the opposite. To get there, a church needs to talk about it from the pulpit, allow people to share their testimony. This will turn ‘those people’ into ‘our people,’” Gargis said.

“We all can help ‘find the one,’” he said.



To give to the 2019 Holston Annual Conference missions offering for opioid addiction, write a check to your local United Methodist church with “2019 offering: opioid addiction” on the memo line.

Information about the grant process and a list of ways that churches can participate in the fight against opioid addiction is forthcoming.

Contact Annette Spence at annettespence@holston.org.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.