Churches focus on Christian recovery programs


By Andrew J. Schleicher
United Methodist News Service

Is something hurting you? Is something holding you back from living your life fully? Do you have a habit that is addictive or otherwise causes problems for your life and those around you? Does your church and community need greater awareness of the struggles of addiction for those dealing with it?

United Methodist congregations are joining programs that address these hurts, habits and hang-ups. In turn, they are building more welcoming congregations and individuals who are leaders in those congregations and greater communities.

At First United Methodist Church of Tulsa, Okla., Gary Pond was trying to get his life straight. Struggling with alcoholism, Pond says, “I came to the church about seven years ago and was pretty much a broken man.” He attended recovery programs, but “there really needed to be something else beyond secular recovery.”

As the idea was turning over in his head, Pond shared the thought about wanting a Christian recovery program with his counselor. That counselor had just received a mailing about Celebrate Recovery, founded by John Baker at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California. Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Life and gave the invocation at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Hungering for healing
Celebrate Recovery and another Christian recovery program, Faith Partners, are ministries taking hold in many United Methodist congregations.

Faith Partners, founded 20 years ago by a United Methodist nurse in Austin, Texas, is now part of the Rush Center of the Johnson Institute. It is endorsed by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society with support from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Trish Merrill began looking into addictions as a nurse concerned about psychiatric drugs. She then started learning about alcoholism. Merrill noticed that people were looking for something.

“We have experiences in life that lead to a need for and hunger for healing in a spiritual way," Merrill says.

Turning to God
“My name is John, and I am a believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with alcoholism.” That is how Baker and all participants in Celebrate Recovery introduce themselves. It takes away the emphasis on what one does and emphasizes one’s relationship with God.

“God is more interested in who I am, rather than what I do,” Baker says in a Celebrate Recovery introductory video for leaders. “He’s interested in my character and in my values.”

Jerry Andrews, who has been off drugs and alcohol for five years, is now ministry leader for the Celebrate Recovery program at First United Methodist Church in Smyrna, Tenn. When the church’s program launched earlier this year, there were 25 to 40 people in attendance on a Thursday night.

“The whole program starts with ‘I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ,’ ” Andrews says. “It is our intent to move people to Christ if they’re not already there.”

Changing the culture
The initial work Merrill did with a team of people 20 years ago became Faith Partners in the mid-1990s. That team approach continues today. Faith Partners trains lay people in congregations to use the knowledge and skills they already have. Thus, each congregation may carry the ministry forward in a unique way.

Recovery is only one part of the ministry. Grace and Faith United Methodist churches in Davenport, Iowa, demonstrate the educational part of the ministry. Their Faith Partners team carries out puppet shows to educate children and others about peer pressure and the dangers of prescription and street drugs.

It also changes the culture of the congregation.

“I have seen a few people who have really come together and a few people who have overcome," says Mike Salter, director of the Faith Partners ministry for Grace and Faith churches.

Faith Partners also supports advocacy. Cynthia Abrams of the Board of Church and Society calls it one of the unique aspects of the ministry. “In the past there has been a separation between recovery work and advocacy," she explains.

She sees a trend in the connection. Through advocacy, she says, “we’re creating an environment where wellness flourishes and addiction does not."

The United Methodist Church is involved in a campaign to eliminate alcohol advertising from all sports.

Opening doors
Pond and the Tulsa congregation also are reaching out more. They will begin picking up women from a local correctional facility to participate in the program. The local Salvation Army has contacted them to see how it could be a part of this ministry.

Susan Andrews, who helped her husband, Jerry start the Celebrate Recovery program in Smyrna, believes recovery ministries fit well into United Methodism. “I think it goes along with ‘Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors,’ ” she says.

Indeed these ministries are opening doors both for those in need of healing and for those already part of local congregations.“I’m a true believer in AA. It does work,” Jerry Andrews says, but he found that he needed something more.

The Andrews found Celebrate Recovery online as they searched for Christian recovery programs. With the blessing of their pastor, the Rev. John Michael Jones, they recruited seven people to attend a conference at Saddleback Church and then engaged in six months of preparation time before launching the ministry in Smyrna.

Becoming disciples
In developing the Christian aspect of the Celebrate Recovery program, Rick Warren connected Alcoholics Anonymous’12 steps with eight principles based on the Beatitudes. Jerry Andrews summarizes the first four steps in this way: “I can’t; he can; I think I’ll let God.”

The last of the principles is “Yield myself to God to be used to bring this Good News to others, both by my example and by my words.” In this way, the program encourages its participants to be disciples. Congregations are building leaders through Celebrate Recovery.

The various people in these ministries testify to the transformation the programs have on people’s lives. However, they also say that it cannot be done without support from the senior pastor and with much prayer.

“I’ve seen a couple people transform before my eyes,” Jerry Andrews says.. A state-by-state directory will point you to the nearest program to your location.