Cokesbury searches for new recovery leader after Smith resigns

Cokesbury searches for new recovery leader after Smith resigns

Gil Smith is living in a tent in upper Maine with his wife Cassie and a stove. He doesn't have phone service in the Acadia National Park, so he drives into Bar Harbor each day to make calls, send e-mails, check Facebook, and blog.

Eventually, the Smiths will make their way down to Florida. They will lease a place to live because their house is still on the market in Knoxville. On Oct. 1, Gil Smith will report for duty at First United Methodist Church of St. Petersburg, where his title will be the same as it was at Cokesbury UMC.

"I will be the first full-time director of recovery ministries," Smith writes in an e-mail, "with the same grand responsibility that was granted me at Cokesbury: Beginning a recovery ministry."

With an average attendance of 400, Celebrate Recovery at Cokesbury has a larger following than 47 of the Knoxville District's 54 churches. The people who come to worship and discuss their addictions and other hurts don't just live in West Knoxville. They drive from outlying areas of Knox Country as well as Blount, Anderson, and Campbell Counties.

Celebrate Recovery -- a Bibically based program for people suffering from addictions or emotional distress -- transforms Cokesbury on Thursday nights. Smokers in the group are aplenty. They don't fill up the parking lot with late-model cars. The refreshment table is quickly depleted. But participants seem to feel welcome at Cokesbury and find fellowship in their small groups as well as in the speakers. For six and a half years, that speaker was Gil Smith.

"He brought me back to a God and a church that I could understand," one worshipper testified on Smith's final Thursday night in May. "He never preached at me. He preached with a vulnerability and a humanity that made me realize he struggled with everything I struggled with."

People with history in Holston Conference remember Smith as the pastor of 25 years who surrendered his ministerial credentials in 2000. His struggle with prescription drugs and alcohol abuse are well-documented in newspaper, magazine, and online articles. His indignities and re-emergence as a lay ministry success are part of his testimony. (See this 2005 article on Pastors.com.)

"Knowing I had been a disgrace to the ministry, but hungering to do whatever God wanted me to do, I never dreamed I would be involved in a ministry like this where you see miracles with your very eyes," Smith said by e-mail.

Now, Smith is bound for a new church, which he says compares to Church Street UMC in size, with a hunger to reach its hurting community. (Visit First Petersburg UMC's site.)

"I didn't want to leave the home I have come to cherish," Smith writes. "But I'm telling you that God can place a fierce calling upon your soul."

On Smith's final night at Celebrate Recovery, the Rev. Steve Sallee told worshippers he was surprised by Smith's decision to relocate to Florida. The senior pastor said the same to The Call.

"It's never a great time to lose a staff member that started a ministry," Sallee said. "But we were reaching the same number of people we had been reaching for a year and a half. This is a wonderful opportunity for someone to take ministry to a new level -- to bring a fresh set of ideas and a fresh set of eyes. We're convinced that the need for this ministry is under-served."

The national search for a new director is ongoing, Sallee said, with an ideal starting date of early fall.

"But we're going to wait until we know we're hiring the right person," he said. "It's a small niche, the kind of person we're looking for. Either they have to be in recovery, or they've had to deal with someone in recovery. This person needs to be a good communicator. They have to become the face of this ministry. That narrows down the search a lot ... We're praying God will send the right person."

This summer, a variety of guest speakers are rotating on the CR stage, along with Cokesbury's own staff. On June 11, Maxine Raines of Lost Sheep Ministry shared her personal homeless experience and the ministry she founded 10 years ago. On July 2, clinical psychologist Dan Sartor spoke of how God addresses guilt and shame.

On July 23, Holston's own Rev. Buzz Trexler of Green Meadow UMC will give his testimony. On July 30, recovering heroin addict and former inmate Doug Hallock of Arizona will preach and sing.

"We've pledged to the Celebrate Recovery folks on Thursday nights that they'll have our full attention and involvement," said Sallee. "This ministry is not going to wane because they are without a director."

Up in Maine, Smith says he is enjoying the interim between his former job and his new job. He's spending time with the wife he met at Celebrate Recovery, while living on love offerings and profits from an estate sale in Knoxville.

"I've never left anywhere as well as I left Cokesbury, and a community has never let me go as well as Cokesbury and the CR community," he writes. "I had it made."