Shonna Stringer can pinpoint the moment the chains of her gambling addiction began to fall off. It started with kindness and grace.

Stringer understood addiction. God had brought her through an addiction to painkillers a few years earlier, but now she found herself chained to another master—gambling.

For more than a decade, starting with scratch-off lottery tickets, Stringer kept searching for higher stakes. By this time, she was losing $300-$400 a day.

“I went to the church where I grew up. I just needed to tell my story,” Stringer said.

After Stringer worked up all the courage she could muster, she shared her story with the pastor’s daughter, Gail.

“I figured, ‘If Gail can accept me, anyone can,’ Stringer said. “She told me, ‘Girl, Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And you’re not going to find it here,’” Stringer later recounted.

Over the next couple of years, God used that first act of grace to spark a transformation. Through the support of other Christians through the Celebrate Recovery ministry at her church, Stringer has found freedom—and has helped others find a similar level of freedom.

Unfortunately, Stringer’s story is rare—too rare. While gambling—particularly sports gambling—has surged in recent years, churches have largely remained on the sidelines.

2024 Lifeway Research study noted that while most Protestant pastors (59 percent) believe sports betting to be morally wrong, most (56 percent) do not believe they need to address it at their churches.

How gambling addiction works

Many people lump all addictions together as a single disorder. But Jody Bechtold says that’s not exactly how it works.

“Unlike substance addictions, where there’s a physical substance you’re putting into your body, gambling is a process addiction,” said Bechtold, the CEO of the Better Group and an internationally certified gambling counselor. “It’s all about the behavior.”

As a process addiction, a gambling disorder is like a sex or food addiction.

“With gambling, you don’t ingest anything. Instead, money acts as the drug, making it quite distinct,” Bechtold said. “It has the unique ability to alter the brain and stimulate the pleasure center, the dopaminergic center, without the need to introduce a chemical to activate that part of the brain.”

Because a gambling addiction comes with no immediate physical symptoms, it’s tough to spot. Often, Bechtold said, that can lead to greater shame in the people struggling with gambling. It also makes it tougher for churches to know who needs help. Many congregations may have people with out-of-control gambling problems, but there are no obvious signs.

But Bechtold notes several similarities between substance and process addictions. Perhaps most importantly, both start small and build over the life of the addiction. Gamblers might start with a $5 bet, but soon it’ll take $500 to activate the brain in the same manner. Just like with other addictions, eventually it can lead to criminal behavior.

A pastor’s perspective on gambling

Pastor Paul Andrews realized the impact of gambling on individuals within his church after witnessing a couple whose marriage was in danger because of the husband’s addiction to gambling.

“The wife, after becoming a Christian, started attending church, and eventually, her husband joined her,” said Andrews, a 45-year ministry veteran who started Faith Family Church outside of Baltimore in 2002. “However, she sought counseling because of serious marriage issues stemming from gambling. It began with harmless football pool bets at his workplace, evolving into significant debts. Their financial struggles, compounded by missed paychecks and accumulating bills, ultimately led to the breakdown of their marriage.”

Andrews says the experience opened his eyes to the wide-ranging problems gambling causes, particularly how difficult it can be for gamblers to recognize the problem on their own. The man never acknowledged his gambling problem, despite the negative impact it had on his marriage.

Pastorally, Andrews believes it’s important to help congregants understand that just because gambling has become legal in more cases in recent years doesn’t mean it’s morally right. Biblical stewardship is another important area to address, he adds.

“I believe gambling contradicts God’s mandate for us to use our talents in creative and productive ways that expand His gifts and glory,” Andrews said. “Unlike engaging in work that fulfills this mandate, gambling is not work.”

Andrews believes both expository preaching that exposes the consumerist mindset in the culture and regular accountability are important elements to helping congregants break free from a gambling addiction.

Why treating gambling addictions isn’t like other addictions

Andrews’ advice about accountability tracks with the recommendations from professional therapists who work with problem gamblers. Group support is among the most common therapies to overcome a gambling addiction.

“In cultural communities, being part of such a group is akin to being part of a family,” said Deborah Haskins, a mental health educator who has specialized in problem gambling. “Your community significantly influences your well-being and hope in life. The support, love and encouragement from those around you are crucial to your sense of belonging and resilience.”

Bechtold said it’s important for pastors and congregations to understand the unique dynamics of problem gamblers. While half of the treatment may be the same as other addictions, the differences are vastly different.

“The challenge with gambling is unique,” Bechtold said. “Individuals carry the potential for disordered behavior wherever they go, needing only themselves to engage in it. This is vastly different from substance addictions, where preventing access to the substance (like alcohol or drugs) can be a key intervention step. That’s why appropriate training is critical, whether it’s for clergy, laypersons, or clinicians like me.”

It’s crucial that pastors consider that gambling is a “hidden addiction,” Bechtold said, noting that you can’t conduct a urine test to see if a person has relapsed.

Haskins points to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as particularly successful for those dealing with a gambling disorder. A therapist using CBT targets what the person believes about gambling.

“The treatment model focuses on educating individuals about the nature of gambling, unhealthy gambling, and problem gambling, including gambling addictions,” Haskins said. “It involves teaching about the disease’s progression and the connection to co-occurring issues, such as grief and loss.”

Both Bechtold and Haskins also described the importance of taking a holistic approach to working with problem gamblers, including financial counseling.

The importance of training

Because of the unique challenges of helping people with problem gambling, Bechtold and Haskins both recommend pastors (and lay people) get training for working with people in their community who struggle with this issue.

“People tend to go to their faith leaders—people within their churches or congregations—before they will go to a state-funded program or community health center or something like that,” said Jeremy Wampler, a clinical supervisor for the state of Connecticut, who sits on the International Gambling Counselor Certification Board (IGCCB). “We want to build the capacity within the faith-based community, within the lay folks and the religious leadership, to be able to assist people who may be in need of help understanding the resources that are available, knowing how to access help, and knowing how to provide a basic level of counseling for persons affected by gambling or people with gambling problems themselves.”

In recent years, the IGCCB has streamlined the training materials for clergy to make them more accessible. The updated content focuses on helping clergy and lay people identify problem gambling in their contexts and make them aware of the available resources.

Wampler says the 12-hour training helps equip clergy and lay persons to act as “first responders” for people in their communities who need help for problem gambling.

For more information about the certification program, visit