Betting on faith: How church membership helps gambling addicts
North Dakota is composed of almost 80,000 square miles of primarily prairie, well-suited for wheat fields, cattle grazing and rural living.
But the blessing of wide-open spaces becomes a curse for area residents suffering from gambling addiction.
"A lot of communities in our state don't have great access to treatment," said Dawn Cronin, a nationally certified gambling counselor based in Fargo, North Dakota. "It's closer for people to drive to a casino."
However, sociological research has shown and some therapists, including Cronin, agree that support for problem gamblers may be as close as the church down the street. Problem gamblers can find strength to overcome a gambling habit in the fellowship of local congregations, as long as worshipping communities can put aside harmful stereotypes in favor of openness and understanding.
"If one can surround oneself with other people who have other ideals and with positive reinforcement and social support for life changes, then that transition is likely to be more effective," said Christopher Ellison, a distinguished professor of social science at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
In 2011, Ellison co-authored "Religion and Gambling Among U.S. Adults: Exploring the Role of Traditions, Beliefs, Practices and Networks" (subscription required). Although not focused on gambling addicts, the study addressed how church attendance and the presence of fellow churchgoers in one's friend group influences gambling behavior.
The study's findings indicated that "social relationships within congregations, which involve face-to-face interaction, may have substantial influence on individual behaviors such as gambling." In other words, frequency of gambling decreases as friendships with fellow churchgoers increase.
Ellison explained he expected that result, given his field of study. "As sociologists, one of the things we talk about is the importance of social networks, the importance of the kinds of people with whom one associates," he said.
Addiction counselors draw similar conclusions. Bob Vickrey, the rehabilitation manager at the Salvation Army's Las Vegas Adult Rehabilitation Center, said that part of the process that the ARC's beneficiaries must go through is to build a network of support.
"When we're requiring people to go to five meetings (such as Gamblers Anonymous) a week, what we're doing is sending that individual out and forcing them to engage with a sober, presumably healthy population that they will take with them when they leave," he said.
Beneficiaries are also required to attend two chapel services hosted by ARC each week, as well as four outside church services during their time with the program.
Encouraged to seek out friends who will support their lifestyle changes, recovering gambling addicts may naturally look to local congregations. Twelve-step programs like Gamblers Anonymous build upon belief in a higher power. Participants are asked in step three to turn their will and life over to this power, and, for many people, this acknowledgment of God or a God-like power triggers a renewed desire to attend church.
In search of fellowship
But counselors note that the men and women in treatment programs can be reluctant to rejoin a faith community they feel has alienated them in the past because of their gambling problems.
Dawn Cronin often helps people find their way back into worshipping communities, working with them to address their initial anxiety.
"I do see some hesitation," she said. "I don't know what exactly it is — this fearfulness."
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