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CoDependency in the Christian Workplace

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by Rev. Jim MacDonald M. R. S.

In my work, I have frequently noted the high incidence of co-dependency among professionals - especially Christian professionals. Pastors, Missionaries, Administrators, and others who are often classified full-time Christian workers. This observation has also been true of far too many who work in my field - counselors, therapists, and other workers in the field of addictions.

I noted that many of the professionals were first-born children from painful families themselves. I began to listen as they told their stories of "trying to help" the families they came from - their families of origin.

Many of their early years were spent trying to understand themselves and their family systems, and then trying to be of help to others. The process of learning to help others was, in many ways, an attempt at self-help, a subtle and approved way of easing the pain and confusion within.

Many of these professionals were willing to work through the first difficult stage of anger and denial and became better equipped to minister to people by taking steps to resolve the co-dependency issues - via counseling, group therapy, or some other form of recovery.

These people - these helpers, now recovered from co-dependency - have become the educators and trainers and leaders in spreading the word about the very serious and prevalent illness of co-dependency in the Church and church family.

There have been other professionals however, too many others, who have been unwilling to look at their own co-dependency. And their own fear and denial has led them to minimize the very concept of co-dependency in Christians. Worse: The Christian co-dependent has often blocked efforts to provide help for co-dependents within the Church.


* Lack of knowledge about the dynamics of co-dependency - and a disparaging unwillingness to learn

* Fear & resistance to the truth in the co-dependent produce a resultant eagerness to accept excuses, minimizing problems, blaming others and rationalizations.

* A need for approval in the co-dependent and a personal uneasiness in confronting someone who acts fragile, hostile, upset or powerless. An unwillingness to say no.

* Wanting to be a professional "Hero" and "help" the client, parishioner or other person seeking help, rather than be a realist and feed back to those persons their own dysfunctional behavior. The CoDependent professional wants to be a "good guy/gal" - a role learned in the family of origin. They want to be a helper rather than truly confronting the situation and facilitating change. A "good guy/gal" is always there to provide support.

* Denial of the professional's own need for understanding and support, thereby falling into the myth of the "super Christian", invulnerable to the stresses that affect ordinary humans.

* Over-extended and under cared for. A "workaholic". Martyrdom, burning out in the line of duty and in the name of Christ.

Many members of the clergy, who are themselves co-dependent, fail to recognize addiction and co-dependency as primary illnesses that require specialized care. In reality, the professional co-dependent can be found in every helping profession, in every organization that deals with people. This shouldn't be surprising, for we know that addicts are scattered throughout society, and co-dependency follows addiction as night follows day.


When we have come from painful family systems or relationships, and we have not had an opportunity to recover, we often carry these problems and issues into the workplace. Institutional co-dependency exhibits the following characteristics, among others:

1. There is tolerance, and even promotion, of excessive co-dependency in staff members. Excessive work (workaholism) is seen as a positive trait. Loyalty to the organization or to those in need may take precedence over self care and care for one's other friends and family.

2. There is resistance to new information about the illness of co-dependency. There is a strong denial of the importance of education on the subject. Resistance may take the form of caustic remarks, sarcasm, ridicule and other forms of disparagement.

3. The need for treatment for co-dependency is downplayed. (All you need is more of Jesus) - the thought that the professionals themselves might benefit from working through co-dependency issues is really disparaged.

4. There is much use of excuses to delay or deny programming or staff training to deal with co-dependency problems. Lack of money. Lack of time. Lack of staff. These excuses all sound logical and rational. They are all a form of denial. "Delay is a deadly and effective ally of denial.

Co-dependency is a recognized, treatable, progressive condition. That's the bottom line. Initially, co-dependency is the normal response to an abnormal situation. However, it is progressive, chronic, and characterized by denial, compulsive behavior, and emotional repression. Quite obviously, co-dependency in the work place, especially the Christian workplace, creates situations where healthy relationships among co-workers cannot take place. The good news is that change is possible. It takes new information, a shift in attitude and an openness and willingness to change. I believe that God would have us change!!

I feel that we must, as Christian professionals, examine what baggage we bring from our lives into our vocations, into our workplace. We would never dream of letting a chemically dependent counselor work with clients. We would scream bloody murder if a staff member came in reeking of booze.

We must take an equally responsible stand with regard to the co-dependent employee.


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