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Dealing with Gambling - an addition to the Close to Home series of pamphlets from Mennonite Publishing Network


April 6, 2010
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Billboards. Radio and television. The kiosk in your local grocery store or shopping mall. Want to help your local hospital raise money? Buy a lottery ticket. Your daughter’s basketball team needs money for new jerseys? Join the game pool. Bored? Check out live entertainment at the casino – and while you’re there drop some money into a video lottery terminal (VLT) or try your hand at Blackjack. If you want to be discreet, check out

Wagering on a hoped for outcome – or gambling – has a broad range of appeal, from dreams of ending financial struggles to the spark of an adrenalin rush or a temporary escape from everyday challenges. Christians are not exempt.

Barry Andres, Executive Director with Addiction and Mental Health for Alberta and a consultant for the development of Mennonite Publishing Network’s Close to Home pamphlet, Dealing with Gambling Addiction, says that there are no statistics available for the number of Christians who gamble. He suspects that as with other social issues, they would be similar to national statistics.

It’s hard to tell. Compulsive gambling has been called “the hidden disease” nobody wants to talk about.

Changes to Canada’s Criminal Code in 1985 expanded the scope of provincially-managed gambling and since then, gaming has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry that permeates all segments of society. According to Statistics Canada, gambling – not including wagering on horse-races, charity-driven lotteries and other local fundraisers – drew in about $13 billion in 2008 after paying off prizewinners. Over half of that income was pure profit.1 The highest prevalence of gambling appears to be in areas where there are large concentrations of VLTs and permanent casinos.2 In Alberta and some other regions of Canada, VLTs are everywhere, even in family restaurants, tempting those who would not otherwise consider games of risk.

As with other disorders and addictions, faith and an active community can be strong protective factors.  “Faith could be a barrier to experimenting, but the guilt and shame associated with it may make it more difficult to seek treatment,” Andres speculates. “Christians don’t get a pass.”

Doug* can attest to that. Raised with a deep faith and commitment to God, Doug had a strong work ethic and solid reputation that eventually led to a position of trust and seniority with his employer. He never considered gambling – until he went to Las Vegas on a business trip and threw a few dollars into a slot machine. He pulled the handle and instantly won big.

The sudden wave of euphoria he experienced was compounded by flashing lights, ringing bells and the crowds who gathered around to congratulate him. Doug was hooked. “It was the biggest rush you could ever imagine.”

For ten years, Doug gambled often and on the sly. “Almost every time I did something that I knew was wrong – smooth somebody for money or spend long periods of time away from my family gambling, I would think back to the principles that I believed in way back when. I knew God was watching and there would be consequences, but the addiction took over,” he says.

While Doug gambled for the adrenaline rush he experienced, Sandra* hit the slot machines to escape low self-esteem. “It allowed me to relax and not think about things,” she says. Her addiction developed over a period of years. “By the time I was 22 or 23 I was playing more consistently. I went over my spending limit and began to gamble more often – once a week, twice a week, mostly VLTs.”

Sandra lied about how much she was spending and how often she was gambling. “When I was gambling I would ask God to help me cover up the money I’d lost so I wouldn’t have to lie about it. I couldn’t see how anybody could love me, even my children, my husband and friends,” she says. “I completely lost touch with faith in anything.”

The more Sandra gambled the more deeply she became mired in guilt and helplessness. It was only when her husband discovered the truth and directed her toward counselling that she began to break free. Through Gamblers Anonymous and the 12 step program, Sandra’s faith in God was eventually renewed and she learned to cope with her addiction.

Pollster Harris-Decima reports that 81% of 25 million Canadians over the age of 18 played a lottery game in 2008. In the same year, 47% of them participated in other gambling activities such as casinos, sports betting, and bingo.3 This does not include those who gamble on-line, something for which the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) says there are no statistics.4

Andres says problem gamblers generate about one-third of Canada’s gambling income and estimates that they comprise 3% to 5% of those who gamble.

According to those estimates, chances are that in a congregation of 100 adults, most will have purchased a lottery ticket. At least two of them may have experienced problems with gambling.  If 47% of Canada’s 25 million adults actively engage in venue gambling, Canada could have more than 325,000 gambling addicts – slightly fewer than the population of London, Ont. But the impact of gaming is not limited to addicted or problem gamblers; the total number of people affected expands dramatically when family members, friends and workplace peers are factored into the equation.

Byron Rempel Burkholder, editor for Mennonite Publishing Network and the Close to Home series, notes that gambling was discerned by the series steering committee to be one of 20 personal problems Christians may try to hide. Others include pornography, bullying, child abuse, addictions, debt, depression, and eating disorders.

Because addiction is often viewed as a sign of weakness, guilt and shame compel problem gamblers to keep their addiction a secret. “It’s easy to hide,” Doug admits. It’s difficult to recognize compulsive gamblers because unlike alcohol or drug addicts, they have few if any outwardly visible signs.

“I knew I shouldn’t be doing it but I couldn’t stop doing it,” Sandra says. “I couldn’t confide in anyone. It was a very secretive thing.”

At Gamblers Anonymous, Sandra met a number of people who told her they pulled away from church while they were gambling because they felt so guilty and unworthy. “I’ve heard them say they feel abandoned by God because they’re struggling so hard.”

She suggests that the most important thing churches can do is to recognize the fact that members are not immune to gambling and to talk about it without being judgemental.

Sandra has come to terms with the fact that gambling is here to stay. Her husband still buys lottery tickets and other members of her family gamble. “I have to learn to live around it,” she says.

Despite its dark side, the future of Canada’s gaming industry looks bright. Andres reports that the prevalence of gambling among young people is about twice what it is for older adults.  Although those figures are consistent with other risk factors at that stage of life, like drinking, smoking or driving without a seatbelt, younger gamblers have a greater risk of addiction. Andres isn’t certain about the degree. 

For many, it’s about entertainment. They seek the adrenaline rush and social interaction, but the gratification of winning can drive some to go further. Andres points out that kids who aren’t old enough to gamble may play video games instead, sometimes over the internet.  That can lead to internet gambling. “They’re connected, interacting with peers. There’s a thrill associated with it.”

Sandra has noticed the connection too. “You can sit there and not have to associate with anything outside the video game,” she says. “It’s so easy to switch between video games and gambling. Gambling gives you a very similar feeling.”

Her words offer a grave warning about an activity that has become commonplace.

Those who believe gambling is wrong can still be drawn into it for noble reasons. Mennonite Church British Columbia (MCBC) Executive Minister Garry Janzen was torn when his son’s hockey team chose hockey pools for fundraising. Wanting to support his son but strongly opposed to gambling, he bought into the fundraisers with a commitment to return any winnings to the team. He won once. The hockey pool organizer was flabbergasted when Janzen returned his jackpot.

“It was completely outside of his realm of thinking,” Janzen chuckles. He would rather work to earn a living than depend on chance. “I’m putting my faith in God to take care of me and my family.”

Many people may side with Janzen’s perspective, but the money generated by gambling fills more than individual pockets. Across Canada, provincial gambling revenues seep into crucial programs. Last year in Manitoba alone, over $230 million went to programs providing health care, education, community and social services, and economic development.5

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation website states that “gaming proceeds support Ontario's hospitals, amateur sport, recreational and cultural activities, communities, provincial priority programs such as health care and education, and local and provincial charities and non-profit organizations through the Ontario Trillium Foundation.”6

The tentacles of the gaming industry are far-reaching. Chances are, whether you play the odds or not, you’ve benefited from someone’s loss.

In a future story, we will explore the impact of gambling on people and ministry in Macau, an Asian city state on track to become the globe’s biggest gambling centre. It’s also a place where Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers have planted a church.

SIDEBAR: Mennonites and gambling revenue

Mennonite organizations tend to agree that gambling is wrong, but few policies are in place to respond to donations of gambling revenue. Perhaps this is because of a prevailing sense that such donations are rare or non-existent and could be dealt with on a case by case basis, if the need arises.

“Mennonite Church Canada has not yet, to my knowledge, dealt with a situation in which the question of accepting lottery winnings has needed an answer,” says Mennonite Church Canada General Secretary Robert J. Suderman. “If it would happen, we would process our response as we usually do; at the General Board level.”  That process would include biblical study, dialogue, prayer, and if necessary, broader consultation.

Area Churches in Eastern Canada, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia have no set guidelines on gambling either.  In an email exchange, Jim Shantz, Conference Pastor for Mennonite Church Alberta (MCA) writes that although he is not aware of any policy, he believes there is sensitivity toward the issue.  “It may be a timely issue for us to address as an Area Church as there seem to be casinos springing up like weeds all across the province. Particularly vulnerable have been our Native communities.”

Mennonite Church Manitoba (MCM) has a written fundraising policy that prohibits the executive director from accepting donations “from private or public sources that involve games of chance, offer substantial rewards or prizes or are part of events that would be deemed inappropriate by the membership of MCM.”

MCM has had the opportunity to consider its approach in the past, once through the potential donation of monies raised through a quilt raffle and another time in regard to a provincial grant of which about 2-3% was lottery generated.  In each circumstance, after careful discussion, Executive Director Edgar Rempel says the board determined that the monies were acceptable, but both opportunities fell through for unrelated reasons.

Rempel says that because lottery winners are highly publicized, MCM would probably be aware of a lottery-based donation. As a rule, “we as an organization don’t ask the person where they got the money.”

Rick Fast, Director of Communications for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada concurs.  He says that MCC does not ask donors what they do for a living, but they also do not accept grants or donations that they know are sourced by lottery funds.  

“During the Haiti earthquake we had an offer form an organization in Winnipeg that holds bingo events and we graciously declined the offer – and they were understanding,” Fast says.

Lois Nickel, Director of Mennonite Disaster Service Programs and Region Relations speculates that if MDS was aware of a gambling revenue-based donation, it would be examined at board level and probably turned down because a large number of MDS constituents would be opposed to it. But she raises the question of how one could tactfully ascertain the source of a financial gift without asking the donor.  “That would seem rude,” she says.

Asking that question is equivalent to “looking a gift horse in the mouth” and it makes most organizations uneasy. Louie Sawatsky, Interim Executive Secretary for Mennonite Church Canada Support Services offers his own personal perspective. “I think you have to ask where it came from if it’s a large donation, particularly if you don’t know the donor and you suspect it may include the proceeds of gambling.”

Whether or not organizations accept private donations based upon gambling revenue is one issue.  Acceptance of government funding is another. Gambling profits form a percentage of provincial coffers across the country, and those funds are used to support healthcare, education and other programs that may directly or indirectly affect Mennonite organizations.

1 Statistics Canada,“Gambling,” Perspectives on Labour and Income ( July 2009), pg. 26-27 March 11, 2010

2 Brian J Cox, PhD1, Nancy Yu, PhD2, Tracie O Afifi, MSc3, Robert Ladouceur, PhD, “A National Survey of Gambling Problems in Canada,” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry (Vol 50, No 4, March 2005), pg. 213

3 Harris/Decima, Gaming Market Insights, August 2008) March 11, 2010

5 Manitoba Lotteries 2009 Community Report, pg 3 March 29, 2010 

6 March 29. 2010

* Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of individuals and their families.