It helped that Jeff invited me to go to church with him, way before I was in the mood to have that conversation. He'd been attending for about six months at the time, and as we were exploring spiritual principles together, we were kinda thinking we might end up dating sometime, too, maybe. I was supportive of his experimentation, and interested in hearing about what he was getting out of church, but when he asked me if I wanted to check it out, my response was a firm "I'll think about it."
I had no intention of thinking about it. Jeff never asked me again. And whaddaya know, I was so impressed that he didn't bug me about it, I actually did give it some thought. In fact, as I was working through Steps Two and Three with my sponsor, I found myself thinking about church a lot, tracing the downward spiral of my life all the way back to the moment I turned away from God at the age of 11.
Several months later, after we'd tentatively decided we were dating after all, I found out Jeff had stopped going to church for a few weeks. Life was getting him down, and he was withdrawing, the way we in recovery know all too well. Equal parts concerned and curious, I felt inspired to brighten Jeff's day, by taking him up on that offer to "try church." It worked; he was disproportionately excited to come pick me up on Sunday morning. (Years later, I found out my coming around to the idea of church right then was the answer to Jeff's prayers about whether he should continue a relationship with me or not.)
For my part, at this point, I'd done some deep work on the first eight of the Twelve Steps, and I knew if I was going to make an honest start on the rest of them, it was time to go face God in His own house. I'd believed in Jesus when I was a kid; I knew where to find Him. So, despite a laundry list of hurts and hang-ups prejudicing my past experiences with "church people," I took the leap of faith. I was ready to hear, prepared to keep an open mind, and willing to take whatever I could get from a Sunday sermon.
About six months later, it was precisely because I'd found so much value in recovery meetings that I felt moved to join a small group in the church. I asked Jeff to come with me, thinking it would be good for us to start meeting people and getting connected. Almost immediately, from our earliest small group experiences, I was recognizing more of those familiar Twelve Step principles. Some of the vocabulary was different, but I could hear, inside the foreign Christian terminology, concepts like personal inventory, character defects, and making amends. While our small group of "church people" was discussing confession, spiritual accountability, and reconciliation, I was wondering, "How on earth does anyone learn how to do this stuff, if they haven't been through a program of spiritual recovery?"
As Jeff and I got to know our pastors and began sharing our stories about what God had done in our lives, I found out that wasn't a dumb question at all. In fact, our pastors seemed to think we had some valuable insights and experiences to share with others in the church.
Alcoholics who have derided religious people will be helped by such contacts. Being possessed of a spiritual experience, the alcoholic will find he has much in common with these people, though he may differ with them on many matters. If he does not argue about religion, he will make new friends and is sure to find new avenues of usefulness and pleasure. He and his family can be a bright spot in such congregations. He may bring new hope and new courage to many a priest, minister, or rabbi, who gives his all to minister to our troubled world." ~ Alcoholics Anonymous, Ch. 9: The Family Afterward
In ministry—specifically, in evangelism and discipleship—we are, fundamentally, in the business of helping people see our universal need of Jesus. But it's hard to understand why we need Jesus until we understand that we are sinners who need to be saved. And it's nearly impossible to admit we're sinners as long as we're convinced it's everybody else who needs to change, not us.
Therein lies a rallying point: we all have issues. We all carry wounds and weaknesses. We've all struggled and suffered. Biblically, no matter what else we have going for us in this lifetime, sin is the common denominator. And that means there's one other thing we have in common: there's hope for us all.
Over the last few years, building directly from the equipping I first received in Twelve Step recovery, God led me very specifically and very deliberately to the formation of a mental health ministry in our church. Here, in particular, that unique conviction God had put on my heart early in faith was soon proved out in real life. When we introduced a Thursday night care group "for people who've experienced struggles with depression, anxiety, alcohol/addiction, or trauma," we saw something eye-opening. Tellingly, fully half of the participants who came to this group "for those who've struggled" turned out to be those who've experienced someone else's struggles.
We met parents, siblings, spouses, friends—supporters of people who've experienced struggles with depression, anxiety, alcohol/addiction, and trauma. These folks came to the care group at our church in hopes of learning from people who struggle about how to talk to their loved ones who struggle. And, within the first couple of group sessions, the epiphany was confirmed: family members and caregivers are just as in need of support as those they are supporting.
We all have something to work through. Those who are dealing with acute struggles need help, and those who care about someone who is dealing with acute struggles need help, too. Any person who has cared for someone going through a crisis has almost certainly gone through their own unique experiences of depression, anxiety, alcohol/addiction, or trauma. And guess what? What is good for the mental health of one is good for the mental health of the other, too.
In fact, learning healthy strategies of self-care, personal accountability, and community connection can, in many cases, help prevent crises to begin with. We can get ahead of recovery when we build roads to resiliency. When we actively promote mental health before it's an emergency, we avoid a lot of emergencies. And, since no one can ever predict a first mental health episode, that means prevention starts with each of us. There's no "us" and "them"—it's all "us," and we all have areas in need of preventative care and spiritual healing.
Interestingly enough, for my part, those are all areas of my own personal life that have been practically, radically addressed through a program of spiritual recovery. And, across those key areas challenging our community, we can quickly see that everything is connected to everything. We're all in this community thing together.
Early last year, I was contacted by the Eastern South Dakota representative for Celebrate Recovery. She said she was interested in talking with me about starting CR in Brookings. Now, Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered Twelve Step ministry which began at Saddleback Church in California over 25 years ago and has since expanded to 30,000+ churches around the world. Ironically, the Journey Toward Hope resources we used to form a mental health ministry at our church also come from Saddleback. But despite a vague familiarity with the concept and some basic name recognition, I never really gave Celebrate Recovery much thought—until this past year.
The Eastern SD rep and I played phone/email tag for a few months until the fall, when all of a sudden, God stopped me in my tracks. For no particular reason, it seemed, I felt deeply compelled with the conviction: There's never going to be a "good time" for this. We need to make the time. We need to start the conversation... now.
I don't know why it had to be right then, but the week before Thanksgiving, on a Thursday afternoon, I drove to Sioux Falls to meet with the rep and see what would happen. By the time I arrived, I got out of my vehicle already realizing we were going to do this, and God had already told me so. It wasn't til I got back to the office and started digging through the online resources that I discovered CR's Mental Health Initiative--okay, Lord, I see what You did there.
In the months since then, I've had dozens of intentional conversations with people God has put on my heart to invite specifically into this ministry. Right now, with those who've so far expressed interest in being a part of starting Celebrate Recovery in Brookings, we have an entire leadership team on board, plus a seed group of accountability partners, ready and willing to go through training and be equipped to receive our first participants from the community when we begin general meeting nights later this year.
Here we come, full circle. Using the Twelve Steps, aligned with Eight Recovery Principles, and Five Small Group Guidelines, Celebrate Recovery focuses on finding freedom from "hurts, hang-ups, and habits." And I can pretty much guarantee we've all got something we can drop into one of those buckets. This isn't just an "addiction program" for "those people"—this is a Christ-centered ministry that everyone can benefit from on some level. This is the common ground where we can come together and find healing in community with one another.
Everything is connected to everything. Here's where we can invite our entire community to stand with us under Jesus Christ, and admit that every single one of us has some part of our unique self that is in need of recovery.
Mental health workers encourage individuals to explore healthy ways of connecting with their spirituality. Advocates and support groups exhort the importance of faith communities in creating safe environments for healing. Recovery circles constantly reinforce the message of giving back and being of service to others. Organizations galore cite the research about meaningful mentoring relationships and peer-to-peer support. We have all been hurt in community, and we can all find healing in community.
As an active member of the Brookings recovery community, and as a pastor of local outreach, I see a thriving network of groups and a thrilling opportunity to come together as one—to connect the dots between "them" and "us" and to celebrate the connections between all of us. I see a bridge into community from any entry point available—be it a Twelve Step group, a drug court connection, a jail ministry program, a Teen Challenge graduation, a counseling referral, a church partnership, a support organization, a mentoring recommendation, a personal curiosity... I see a chance for us to all bring our "hurts, hang-ups, and habits" and find a place where we can all fall apart safely, by the grace of God.
Our Thursday evening care group is preparing to make the transition. Our leadership team is coming together to start training. Our dates are on the calendar to begin Celebrate Recovery general meeting nights in Brookings in the fall. Our hearts are open in prayer, and we're eagerly anticipating the day when we come together as a worshipping body to celebrate what Christ can do in His Spirit of recovery.
From the day I stepped foot in this church with Jeff for the first time, God has shown us the bigger picture—the broader applications. Everything is connected to everything. We're all in this community thing together. Here we go... taking the next step, one step at a time.