Celebrate Recovery program helps participants "do business with the Lord"
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Getting a call from someone who worked a summer job for you 30 years ago might start as a pleasant surprise. Gerald made such a call. His slightly puzzled former boss was a friend who had hired him after his first year of college.
Things got even more curious when Gerald, now in his 50s, arranged to meet his former boss and handed him an envelope with a cheque in it. The money was restitution for things he had stolen on the job.
"I had no idea you even did that," was his friend’s response.
Admitting it after so long wasn’t an easy thing to do, says Gerald.
Nor were the other times he’s met with people from his past and asked them to forgive him. Yet Gerald was committed to working through Celebrate Recovery’s 12-step program, including step nine, Making Amends.
It was a daunting step, but important milestone, he says – and it was integral to helping him finding forgiveness and freedom.
Gerald, who is from Medicine Hat, Alta., initially sought out Celebrate Recovery for help with an addiction to pornography. But by working through the 12 steps in a small group, he says he learned deeper truths about himself, the hurts he’d caused and the ways he was hurting.
"Because of my addiction, I was keeping God at a distance, and anger issues went hand in hand with that, which had an adverse affect on my management style at work," he told Faith Today. "When I dealt with my double life at CR, I started to deal with my anger, and my life began to change."
The Christian support program, now in its 25th year, can be used to tackle a comprehensive list of "hurts, habits and hangups" that might surprise the uninitiated – everything from "rushing too much" or "being early too often" to "feeling overwhelmed too often," "feeling like a failure too often" or even "playing video games too much," according to a page on the organization’s Canadian website.
Every human being has experienced hurt or has hurt someone at some level," says Celebrate Recovery’s Canadian director Deb Jones. "These can become hangups and then, if not dealt with, can become habits."
The healing effect of Celebrate Recovery comes because it "reinforces that our identity is in Jesus Christ, not in what we struggle with," she adds.
Although the term "recovery" might suggest a 12-step ministry that provides small group and one-on-one support to those struggling with addictions, substance abuse and other life challenges, Celebrate Recovery also digs deeper into a plethora of other areas that can be obstacles to freedom in life.
Celebrate Recovery works because both the hard questions and the healing take place within trusting relationships built within small groups over time, say its participants.
Each small group works through a total of four books (26 lessons) that heavily emphasize Scripture and include questions designed to help participants find a safe way to deal with deep issues. But the groups become ‘closed’ after the first book (typically at the six-week point) when people have developed trust and formed friendships with one another.
"Your group is like your family," says Gerald.
The personal inventory, which asks participants to work through questions designed to illuminate aspects about themselves and pivotal life events that have shaped who they are – questions that deal with personal hurts, past mistakes and people who have been damaged because of one’s chaotic lifestyle – is one aspect of the program that seems to break through to many people in the group setting.
"Group dynamic works because you are admitting to another person that God has shown you an area of your life that you have to change," says Gerald. "The thing that works is that you are able to share that with someone else. Most people need to be in a relationship with somebody to make change work and stick."
Each Celebrate Recovery leader leads out of their own recovery, which provides a safe place for struggling people to turn, says Jones. "Because there’s so much shame from different addictions, having a leader who has walked through this and has gone through the same 12-step program frees them to experience healing in this area."
The program began at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., home of popular author and pastor Rick Warren. The church started the program (which was founded by pastor John Baker) to encourage healing and spiritual growth through eight biblically based recovery principles.
The eight principles include "realizing I’m not God," examining and confessing your faults to God, evaluating relationships and offering forgiveness, and reserving time for self-examination and spiritual growth.
Together they combat not only addictions, but also "compulsions and dysfunctions."
Celebrate Recovery groups in Canada are based in local churches and vary from under 20 to a hundred people at the weekly large groups and open share group sessions. Numbers might be smaller at male-only or female-only groups that meet once a week on different nights.
RICK WARREN’S SADDLEBACK CHURCH (LAKE FOREST, CALIF.) STARTED THE CELEBRATE RECOVERY PROGRAM, WHICH WAS FOUNDED BY PASTOR JOHN BAKER. HIS BOOK LIFE’S HEALING CHOICES PROVIDES THE FOUNDATION FOR THE MINISTRY
There’s no specific timeline for those attending. One Celebrate Recovery veteran says some people will attend open share sessions for a year before taking the next step of attending a 12-step group.
Those involved stress that Celebrate Recovery is not therapy.
"There’s no fixing," says Bruce Fournier, a retired pastor from Waterloo, Ont., who has been involved for more than a decade. "It’s the vertical connection that works. We want people to do business with the Lord Himself. It’s the single most effective ministry I’ve seen in 35 years."
Because so many Celebrate Recovery attendees eventually become leaders and mentors in the program, Warren has referred to Celebrate Recovery as a "leadership factory." For her part director Jones fits Warren’s description perfectly. Celebrate Recovery has been a part of her life since 2003 when she first attended a meeting in Brampton, Ont.
She says that, like her, many people have strengthened their marriages because of the healing that takes place within Celebrate Recovery.
There are currently 70 Celebrate Recovery groups registered in Canada, each of them connected with local churches across a range of denominations from Anglican to Baptist. Fifteen more are in the process of starting up.
There are also 19 groups, known as Celebrate Recovery Inside, that meet in federal and provincial prisons. Maria is a 55-year-old who attended Celebrate Recovery while serving a three-month prison sentence for fraud, which was the fallout from an alcohol addiction.
"Celebrate Recovery appealed to me because it isn’t a traditional, secular way of looking at recovery," she says. "It looked beyond just the addictions to a lot of other areas of life. There were a lot of underlying reasons why alcohol became a problem for me."
Maria says she actually attended Celebrate Recovery first before she went to prison, but it was when she was behind bars that the program had a lasting effect on her.
"When I got arrested, I looked to it for support, but there weren’t a lot of people who could relate to someone who had done what I did," she told Faith Today. "I felt comfortable being way, way more vulnerable [at Celebrate Recovery Inside]. We would say, ‘We’re all wearing green here, so we’re all the same.’ When you’re in jail, you’re all doing time together."
In some cases, inmates will attend prison programs just to get out of their cell for an hour or two to break up the monotony of the day. That wasn’t the case with Celebrate Recovery, says Maria. The women were coming back because they were experiencing healing.
"We were there surrendering. There was a lot of vulnerability, a lot of tears. It was very refreshing."
Before her arrest Maria was a social worker. She says she was terrified of walking into prison and was determined to make restitution for what she had done, but she needed help to sort that out.
"I needed to hear from God. Not out loud, but through experiencing forgiveness – true forgiveness. Celebrate Recovery gave me a light in a dark place. It was a rebirth, a need to find somewhere where God will use me and this terrible mistake. I got that purpose back."
Because of her offence Maria can’t return to social work. She works as a hairdresser now and also volunteers at a resource centre in a local hospital. Her goal is to eventually be a peer support person with Celebrate Recovery to share her experience with others and help them through the same kind of healing she has found.
The organization’s approach to healing acknowledges the complexities of overlapping and intersecting areas of life that contribute to addictions and hangups.
"I thought my problem was just my addiction. Then I realized there were a lot of other areas that I had to work on," says 39-year-old Tammy, a Celebrate Recovery success story who struggled with substance abuse for 25 years, and was in and out of various rehab programs 14 times.
"It’s the single most effective ministry I’ve seen in 35 years," says retired pastor Bruce Fournier.
"Codependency, anger, child-hood abuse, grief and loss … I worked through all of those areas at Celebrate Recovery. It was God that made the difference."
Celebrate Recovery also hosts groups specifically for pastors called Celebrate Pastors in Recovery (CPR), with leaders who are pastors and have been through Celebrate Recovery themselves.
After more than three decades of ministry, Fournier says being a pastor can make you feel like you are trying to please "500 bosses" on some days, and the resulting strain is difficult to face without the support of someone who has been there.
"Often pastors don’t have someone in their congregation to talk to. They are trying to respond to the expectations of maybe hundreds of people. And because they are conscientious, there are a lot of issues related to trying to do the impossible."
He says CPR also helps clergy work through a lot of issues rooted in denial because "I’m a pastor, I can’t have those problems."
Celebrate Recovery also has age-appropriate components for both youth and children. Jones refers to this approach as "precovery," putting the tools in place to help young people develop healthy approaches to life before recovery is necessary.
"We are giving [the kids] a safe place to help them understand what they’re feeling rather than have them just drifting along."
Regardless of their stage in life, a common theme among those involved in Celebrate Recovery is unexpected self-discovery, perhaps one of the clues to its longevity. And it’s what keeps them going back to support and be supported by others in the program, says Fournier.
"The level of bonding that occurs here is a thing of beauty."
Jeff Dewsbury of Langley, B.C., is a senior writer at Faith Today.