Reflections on the IBCD Summer Institute 2017

The complexity of an addiction scares most of us. The interplay of body and soul presents unique challenges in counseling. Yet, the epidemic that is drug addiction in the U.S. warrants Biblical Counseling’s earnest wrestling with the subject. The IBCD Summer Institute aimed to tackle this important topic this year, and while the conference didn’t necessarily present me with new information I came away with both sober reminders and fresh encouragements.

The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship is a great organization. Dr. Jim Newheiser is doing excellent work in overseeing the organization, and the whole IBCD team is doing a wonderful job at crafting resources to equip Biblical counselors in the ministry. The Summer Institute was a wonderful conference to attend. I have often been frustrated by other counseling seminars and their lack of practical help, advanced discussions, and detailed application, but I was not disappointed by IBCD. Their workshops, with a few exceptions, did not assume attendees were amateurs or novices to the conversation. The instructors were able to by-pass the preliminaries and foundational work and dive into the complex issues. I was especially appreciative of Mark Shaw’s workshop on self-harm which gave an excellent overview of the nuances of the problem, and also offered practical insight into counseling. Chris Moles also gave a very enlightening seminar on counseling controlling husbands and offered some orientation for counselors at both the initial phase of counseling and at common points of resistance.

The major focus of this year’s Summer Institute was Addictions: Grace for the Journey. While it was unclear to me the precise point of the conference’s subtitle, the overall approach was to offer something of a nuanced and Biblical approach to addiction counseling. On the one hand the conference aimed to show the complexity of addiction. Dr. Charles Hodges, M.D., addressed the physiology of addiction and the ways in which that can complicate counseling. Ed Welch addressed the nature of shame which can keep people in bondage. Yet, at the same time the presenters were also unwilling to absolve addicted individuals of all responsibility. Their theology of addiction encapsulated a balanced view of responsibility and slavery. Mark Shaw discussed the nature of temptation as it applies to addiction and the role of individuals in giving way to temptation. All the presenters adhered to addiction as a worship disorder and interacted with the choices that individuals make in the process of becoming addicted and maintaining an addiction. There was, then, a clear picture of both compassion and sound doctrine at this conference.

Approaches to addiction counseling tend toward one of two extremes: (1) either addictions are diseases and people are purely victims; or (2) addictions are choices and people just need to stop. Each approach is simplistic in its own way. IBCD navigated these two ditches well as the conference speakers sought to give a clear theology of addiction and addiction counseling.

On the part of methodology the speakers did not offer a comprehensive plan for treatment or counseling, yet there were key workshops that offered insight on specific elements of the process. Keith Palmer’s workshop on “Basic Principles, Procedures, & Strategies” was good, but remained at the level of “basic.” His second workshop focused on crafting a repentance plan and was much more specific. Ed Welch lectured on retelling the addict’s story, and Mark Shaw gave practical help for relapse prevention. Shaw also taught a course on ways to help the loved-ones of addicted individuals. Much of his content comes directly from his books, but for those who haven’t read his work these will be very insightful lectures. I assume most of these lectures will be available later this year on the IBCD podcast and I commend them to counselors.

Overall the conference was sobering. The complexity of these situations reminded me that change is not easy, nor can counselors produce it apart from the work of the Holy Spirit and the repentant heart of the addict. While the conference majored on a sound theology of addiction, this alone will not produce change in lives. It is important to think rightly and biblically about addictions, but such thinking does not lead to automatic success in counseling. There are a number of significant variables at play in the lives of addicts that all must be addressed. That makes this work difficult and cumbersome. The reality of the drug epidemic, which was mentioned several times over the week, was also sobering. Estimates of up to 60,000 opioid-related deaths in the U.S. this year are enough to give me pause. Add to this number the thousands who will become addicted and remain addicted this year and it is truly overwhelming. There is a huge work that needs to be done and Biblical Counselors desperately need to educate themselves on how to be helpful. IBCD has started an important conversation, but it cannot end here.

On the other hand, however, the conference did offer real hope and encouragement to those involved in counseling. The gospel does offer real help to those who are broken and enslaved. There exists real means to navigating addiction. There are ways to help people identify triggers and temptations, and strategies that can help them fight temptation. And since there is an element of choice and worship and idolatry involved in addiction, at the very heart of it even, then Biblical Counselors are the most equipped to help. I was encouraged by the wisdom and conviction of the presenters, those who have participated in the actual counseling process. Mark Shaw, for example, leads a residential treatment center, and Ed Welch has been counseling addicted individuals for years. They testified in both their lectures and their practice that what they are discussing is helpful to those struggling. I was encouraged that thought the work is hard, and the laborers few, there is always the potential to be truly helpful. People can change! Addictions do not have the last word.

Overall the conference was good. While I didn’t discovery any new strategies, methods, or nuances to put into practice, I was encouraged by the conversation. I highly commend both the lectures from this conference and the overall work of IBCD, especially the Summer Institute.

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