Robert Bruce Hall, the head of the Episcopal Church in Virginia, was just out of the hospital after a serious bout with bronchitis last January, when he was summoned to an urgent meeting.

When he arrived, the bishop found his wife Dotty, several of their grown children and more than a dozen of his closest associates.

In turn, they recounted times and places in recent months when Hall had had too much to drink. Then they handed him a plane ticket to Minneapolis and told him he was expected at a hospital for alcoholics there.

Eight months later, Hall recalled that he was relieved, even grateful. "I knew something had to happen and here was a way . . . I couldn't help myself and most importantly, I wasn't able to reach out and ask for help."

Hall's discovery that he was an alcoholic made headlines earlier this year when a letter he wrote local church leaders found its way into the media. Hall is the fourth bishop in the Episcopal church in recent years to acknowledge that he has sought treatment for alcoholism.

"There are special pressures, special conditions" that might lead clergy to turn to alcohol, said Bishop David Richards, who set up the confrontation that got Hall into treatment. "You're an exemplar; people project high standards on you as a priest, but the majority of clergy respond to these same pressures without reliance on alcohol."

Hall had been drinking for more than 30 years, but it was only in the last year or so that it became a problem.

"About a year ago, I started drinking at noontime. I discovered this place where they had the most wonderful martinis," he recalled.

"I began to realize . . . that this was bad, not only because it cut into my time and efficiency as far as the afternoon work was concerned, but when I got home, I would drink at night, too."

But while he realized that he was drinking too much, he said, "I didn't seem capable of doing anything about it. I just didn't seem capable of doing anything."

When Hall was hospitalized, his doctor ordered that a liver scan be done, knowing that Hall was a heavy drinker. It showed that the bishop had an enlarged liver -- a life-threatening symptom for a heavy drinker. But that didn't stop Hall from having a friend sneak him a fifth of vodka the night before he got out of the hospital.

"That illustrates the helplessness of a person who is caught in this disease," he said. "I know, everything that's in you right now says, 'How stupid!' It's not a matter of stupidity, it's not a matter of brains, it's not a matter of anything else. The disease has gotten you."

In order to be treated, the alcoholic must first admit that he has a problem. When you are a bishop, that acknowledgement involves more than a private conversation with your doctor.

Before he left for Minneapolis, Hall sent a letter to his priests and top lay officials that said his family and associates "have alerted me to the facts about my drinking, of which I was not aware. As a result of this conversation, I have decided to seek treatment for my illness."

The six weeks he spent in treatment at St. Mary's Rehabilitation Hospital in Minneapolis, Hall said, were one of the most important periods in his life. The program combines education -- more than 100 lectures and movies on physiology, psychology and alcohol and drug use -- with confrontation.

The crux of the program is the group therapy sessions, held twice a day with the same 12 persons. "There wasn't any place you could hide whatsoever," Hall said. "Everything you do is challenged; everything you say is challenged."

The most traumatic part of the treatment for Hall was family week, the second week of the program. His wife and all five of their children took part, one coming from California and another from Georgia. The family members are told to dig back in their memories and come up with examples of the patient's alcoholic behavior.

Then, the patient is put in a chair before the therapy group and the family lines up in front of him. Over several days, they tell him about his alcoholic behavior. The patient is not allowed to respond; he can only sit and take it in.

"That is really something," Hall said, his words growing choppy with the remembered pain. "But that creates something; perhaps they (the family) never have been honest before and now they really are."

For the Hall family, therapy paid double benefits because Hall's 19-year-old daughter is also an alcoholic.

Only a couple of months before he was hospitalized, Hall said, his daughter "got drunk and she hit her sister whom she dearly loves, cut her chin and took off in her car." When the young woman sobered up, she couldn't recall anything but was so horrrified, she stopped drinking, Hall said.

After her father's therapy sessions, he said, "She is an entirely different person now. She's free and she's entirely open about it. . . And that, of course, is worth everything that took place."

Hall is now back at work and has been able to turn his ordeal into a sign of hope for others.

"You know, when Joe Blow gets drunk, that's not news. When a bishop does, it is. People have gone into treatment because of what happened to me; people have come out of the closet in their drinking and asked for help."

Hall has not climbed on the teetotaler's bandwagon for anyone but himself: his priest friends got his stock when he cleaned out his liquor cabinet after he returned from the Midwest. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous when his schedule permits and has made one trip back to Minneapolis as part of the program's follow-up.

"I don't think I've been to a church since I've been back where at least one person hasn't come up and identified himself or herself as an alcoholic," he said. "It has helped to take me out of the sort of stereotyped role the ceremonial role of a bishop. It makes the bishop more human."

On his first visit to a church after he got out of treatment, he received a particularly touching letter from one woman. She wrote: "You know, I've been praying for a stranger (in the church's set prayer for the bishop) but now I'm praying for a friend."