Codependency and Church Ministry

This article by “Louise” who writes under the pen name “Questions from Ewe”. refers to its source Phillip St. Romain who delves into an area of church human interaction that can have a negative consequence to our spiritual development as children of God. What are your experiences within the church? What are your thoughts about codependency and religion? Love to hear from you. DrNick

Codependency and the church…

Codependency interweaves with abuse. It is a form of addiction revolving around approval, usually from another addict, rather than around a substance or behavior. Some codependents enable addicts. Some codependents have other addictions as well.

Freedom from Codependency by Philip St Romain
Philip St Romain’s book is available on kindle and a 2008 paperback edition through & A read only version is available online HERE.

Addictive and codependent behaviors conflict with and undermine gospel principles. Yet according to Philip St. Romain, church leadership has a much higher than average number of addicts and codependents in ministry [Freedom from Codependency, 1991 Liguori Publications]. Therefore it’s important to understand codependency and its impact in the church.

First, what is it? Codependency is a set of behaviors learned by people in abusive situations as a survival mechanism to deal with the instability and insanity of living with an addict. Because children in addictive households universalize their early family experiences as “normal”, they are particularly vulnerable for becoming codependents. They desperately seek the approval of their parents who cannot offer healthy love because their first love is to the addiction source. “Love” is offered or refused as a controlling mechanism. However the child does not know they are being manipulated or that this is unhealthy because this is their first and possibly only model of “love” in their formative years.

Children of addicts learn many codependent behaviors seeking parental approval and keeping familial peace. They think they are responsible for things beyond their control. As a result they learn to live in a constant “crisis mode” while caring for their addictive and/or codependent parents. They are dependent upon their parents despite inability to provide a healthy nurturing environment so they are very threatened by external criticisms of their parents.

Codependents learn to lie, compensate and cover for the person whose approval they seek rather than hold them accountable. Loyalty is the highest virtue.

Codependents are hypersensitive. They interpret many things as “rejection”. They are defensive about discussing issues. They try to deny or minimize problems rather than deal with them. They attack people who try to discuss them. They blame others for their failures or unhappiness.

They tend to develop alternate realities formed from delusional beliefs. They are selfless to the point of losing themselves. They often view themselves as victims or martyrs since these boost their self-esteem. They like to hear things like, “I don’t know how you deal with so-and-so; you must be a saint”.

Codependents operate with numerous covert rules. Expectations are communicated indirectly if at all yet penalties for violating the rules are strictly enforced and usually severe. Some of these rules include:

  • No discussing problems — say “nice” things
  • No discussing certain topics — there are many secrets
  • No expression of feelings — feelings should be “private”
  • Use indirect communication such as a go-between to deliver messages or gather information
  • Be “strong”, “correct”, “good” and “perfect” (with nebulous shifting definitions of what each of those mean)
  • Don’t embarrass me — and just about everything embarrasses me
  • Be giving and anything that doesn’t give in to me is “selfish”
  • Do as I say and not as I do
  • Don’t be playful — life is serious
  • Don’t rock the boat but just be obedient

Above all, the codependent wants to project an image of perfection and harmony to the outside world.

Now apply all the foregoing to church leadership…

What is the impact of prevalent codependency in church leadership? Let’s start with the last statement first. The human condition includes imperfection; this is expressed in church doctrine. The church is human; it is the people of God, also church doctrine. Yet, codependent church leaders want to project an image of church perfection. Doesn’t this violate the commandment about bearing false witness? The church falsely presents itself as perfect in places where it is imperfect. Institutional imperfections caused by human imperfections within the church cannot be fixed because codependent leaders refuse to acknowledge and address what is broken.

St. Romain also explains that the demands of priesthood share many parallels with codependent behaviors. Thus, the priesthood attracts codependents accounting for their high percentage in church leadership. Furthermore, he explains that emotionally healthy ordained and lay ministers struggle to avoid adopting codependent behaviors because they constantly interact with codependent colleagues and leaders. Many succumb and unconsciously begin adopting codependent behaviors. This trickles out to the laity and the same occurs there, especially as the laity value approval of clergy or confuse clergy approval with God’s approval. Thus, codependency has become characteristic of church leadership and culture.

Here’s a simple seemingly innocuous example of ecclesial codependency: Father is habitually late for Mass but people look the other way because he doesn’t take criticism well. Yet Father chastises others for shortcomings in their liturgical ministries. This sends many unhealthy messages: “Do as I say and not as I do”, “You are not good or perfect enough”, “Don’t embarrass me”, “Don’t say things about me that aren’t nice but I can say things about you that aren’t nice”, etc… If parishioners escalate to the bishop, a codependent bishop defends the priest because admitting the priest has human flaws shatters an illusion of perfection.

As we look at more serious issues such as pedophile priests, we start to understand why the bishops fail to address these situations properly. It’s more important to lie and cover-up for the abusive priest than to deal with truth. This is an “unpleasant thing” so don’t talk about it, hence the Vatican’s directives for handling pedophile issues with a code of secrecy. Above all, the bishop wants to project an image of perfection and harmony. As people force bishops to be accountable for handling pedophiles, they become angry because their alternate reality is threatened. They begrudgingly comply but as minimally as possible. They invest more effort in creating an illusion of fixing the problem than in actually fixing the problem.

Chuchman cartoon
Cartoon by John Chuchman from his book “Is God Laughing or Crying”

Both situations are manifestations of the same issue: power abuse stemming from codependency in church leadership impacting the general church population. In both cases, those trying to foster healthy operating environments and healthy relationships are seen as threats. Codependents attack those fostering healthy emotional and interpersonal practices instead of the abusers. They push promoters of healthy interactions to the margins or try to bully them out of the group, protecting the abuser instead of the abused.

Examining the impact of codependent leaders on the micro and macro church is probably ample fodder for a doctoral dissertation rather than a short commentary. But, I will leave you with a few questions. What codependent practices have we consciously or unconsciously adopted as survival mechanisms in the church? Is it more important to prophetically speak God’s truth or retain approval from church leaders? Do I confuse God’s approval with church leaders’ approval? Do I compromise my values to enable codependent clergy or lay ministers? What might I do differently to better live gospel truths and love, rejecting codependency in the church?


4 Responses to Codependency and Church Ministry

  1. john e mcgovern says:

    I ran to my bookshelf to try and retrieve Mike Crosby’s work dealing with this same subject to see how it relates on a time line to the St. Romaine’s work but, alas, I probably loaned it to someone many years ago and did not have it returned. Crosby and St Romaine are like two echoes in the same closet. My copy of the Crosby work was well used! and shared! Codependence is especially troublesome in religious communities where, despite the theological notion that contemporary religious communities are supposed to be “countercultural” they still exhibit massive manifestations of perpetuating a type of childishness among members via cleverly masqued forms of obedience. It is distressing to see very well educated men and women caught up in this mess thus further retarding the church’s ability to renew itself. The matter is especially critical in these times when we see religious being held hostage both by their communities and the larger institutional church. The almost singular contradistinct example is the positive (thus far) outcomes from the Elizabeth Johnson CSJ “investigation.” Johnson and her community – including the CSJ’s, the professional theological community and the Fordham Jesuit theological community (not always historically regarded as avantguard or especially provocative – i.e. one of its leading figures having been Avery Douglas) thus far have withstood all the pressure being brought to bear by the body of bishops (men) – many of whom have probably not even read her works. We need to pray daily for the deliverance of religous communities from the yoke of codependence as perhaps one of the last hopes for the church to be renewed.

  2. This is not a subject I have spent any time or effort on, as I have other interests; however, I was struck when I read: ” … confuse clergy approval with God’s approval.” In the first place– I would suggest that this is what the whole of “Christendom” is involved in Sunday after Sunday. In various degrees, church-goers derive satisfaction of certain “needs” by dressing up and showing up at their “church of choice” from time to time, if not regularly.

    It may be an interesting comparison to mention the larger populace confusing family, friends and peers approval with God’s approval.
    My response to the five questions asked at the end of the article are as follows:
    1. I have left the church completely.
    2.It’s more impoortant to speak the truth.
    3 . I welcome the agreement of “leasders ” with my belief when they do agree e.g. the gospel of grace.
    4. Not applicable since I do not attend.
    5.What do differently? Answer: Possibly curb my anger, and certain fleshly desires.

  3. Louise says:

    That article isn’t by St. Romain. It’s by me who writes under the pen name “Questions from a Ewe”. It’s one of my blog articles.

    I referred to the book by St. Romain.

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