KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The parking lot is hopping on Thursday nights at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
Church vans, full of people, arrive from other parts of town. Smokers form in circles, laughing and finishing their cigarettes before it’s time to go inside.
Some people wave and chat with friends on their way toward the glass doors at 9919 Kingston Pike. Others keep their heads down and walk alone, perhaps acknowledging the greeters on their way in.
Recovery at Cokesbury has been happening here on Thursday nights for 11 years, if you count the years it was known as “Celebrate Recovery.” Worship attendance, with 400 to 500 people, ranks in the top five largest of 53 total United Methodist congregations in Knoxville. Many of the worshippers had no prior church home.
Since fall 2012, this recovery ministry has expanded beyond its home base, establishing a franchise-like network of worship-and-small-group programs from Lebanon, Va., to Ringgold, Ga.
“We’re getting feelers from all over the country from churches interested in what this ministry can mean,” says Gary Wilson, director of the network. “The bottom line is that from the get-go, we’re just introducing people to Jesus.”
Forty-eight percent of participants in the Recovery at Cokesbury Network struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, says the Rev. Mark Beebe, director of Recovery at Cokesbury. The others are overcoming divorce, unemployment, grief, pornography, gambling “and a wide spectrum of pain and life challenges."
The difference between church-as-usual and church-with-recovery is that typical church members see themselves as “good people getting better,” says the Rev. Larry Carroll, an incoming member of the Cokesbury staff.
The recovery congregations see themselves as “broken people being resurrected.”
“There is a vulnerability in this worship that doesn’t exist in other places,” Carroll said. “These people don’t have any pretense about how broken they are. They’re coming to find recovery and freedom.”
Cokesbury’s recovery ministry was launched in April 2003 after a staff member saw an opportunity to put a fallen pastor to work. Gil Smith was living in a Sunday school room at Cokesbury, recovering from substance abuse after surrendering his ministerial credentials, when the Rev. Rebekah Fetzer suggested sending him for “Celebrate Recovery” training at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
Within the first year, Cokesbury’s Celebrate Recovery had 200 worshippers who came for a meal followed by Smith’s preaching, a praise band, and support-group meetings every Thursday night.
“This church is a safe place for them to come,” Smith said in December 2003. “It’s a confidential place, a place of prayer and hope.”
Smith left in May 2009 to start a recovery program at First United Methodist Church of St. Petersburg, Fla. The Rev. Steve Sallee, then senior pastor at Cokesbury, spent weeks trying to recruit Beebe, a 54-year-old Lutheran pastor from Hilton Head, S.C., to take Smith's place.
Beebe had a marketing sales background as well as success in starting a new church with a recovery program. He also had a wife who suffered from alcoholism. When she died at age 54 in July 2009, Beebe decided to come to Knoxville to work with the United Methodists.
The leaders at Cokesbury “were not like any other United Methodists I had ever known,” says Beebe. “They talked like evangelists. I started to think that if I could come and help just one family, it would be worth it.”
Celebrate Recovery attendance continued to swell under Beebe’s leadership, drawing vanloads of participants from churches of other denominations and from Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM).
In April 2010, Cokesbury’s recovery ministry reproduced itself for the first time. Beebe and his team began preaching and sending praise band members to lead worship at KARM’s homeless shelter on Friday nights.
In 2012, the Cokesbury team went north to Virginia when the Rev. Wil Cantrell, pastor of Lebanon Memorial United Methodist Church, contacted them about a need for a recovery ministry in his town.
“Recovery at Lebanon” was launched at Cantrell’s church in partnership with Lebanon Community Fellowship in October 2012. Today, Recovery at Lebanon has 120 in average worship attendance.
BIRTH OF A NETWORK
In fall 2012, the Cokesbury team made a decision to depart from the Celebrate Recovery network. Over the years, Cokesbury had expanded the original curriculum, adding lessons, groups and topics such as anger management and honing an evangelistic approach, Beebe said. The time was right to create an independent ministry.
Recovery at Cokesbury Network was birthed and a new brand was created. Beebe and team began developing a process to start additional satellite ministries.
“Recovery at Maryville” was launched at First United Methodist Church of Maryville, Tenn., in July 2013. “Recovery at Ringgold,” led by nine congregations of different denominations in north Georgia, started in October 2013. The worship services are pre-recorded or live-streamed at these locations as well at prisons in three Tennessee Counties
“This is the phantom connectional church that we talk about, that I never see any place else,” Beebe says, “but I think this is what it would look like.”
Two new ministries are scheduled to kick off soon, after months of preparation. On May 15, “Recovery at Bristol” will launch as an effort of three United Methodist congregations in Bristol, Va.: State Street, Reynolds Memorial, and Three Springs.
On July 8, Powell United Methodist Church will launch “Recovery at Powell” near Knoxville, Tenn. Two additional locations are in progress in Kingsport, Tenn., and Hillsville, Va., Wilson said.
“The exciting part is that by the end of this year, 1,500 to 2,000 folks will be in worship, hearing the gospel, live on Thursday nights,” Wilson said. The leadership team has also had conversations and meetings with other interested groups in Kentucky, Nevada, California, Florida, and even Manila.
With two full-time staff persons, the network operates with the help of about 500 to 600 volunteers across the network. (Carroll, senior pastor at First Maryville UMC, will come onboard as part-time staff in July.)
“We’re learning that our emphasis here is on content development and leadership development,” Beebe says. “We have an expedited way of knowing how to launch these, and also, a better comprehension of after-care, after the launch.”
The Cokesbury team is creating a video library to train the 40 to 50 volunteers needed to begin a new location, including recovery survivors to lead classes, Beebe says. Leaders and volunteers from established ministries are sent to help develop new ministries. On May 8, the new Bristol team was commissioned by the Lebanon team.
The cost to begin a new recovery ministry is $20,000 to $25,000, the bulk of which is for marketing. “We’re not in this to make money,” Beebe said. “We only ask for help in streaming and operating costs.”
PATHWAY TO PEACE
The recovery network is growing at the same time its parent church, Cokesbury United Methodist, is experiencing growth.
“The composition of Cokesbury is changing in front of us, almost like it was coming under our feet,” Beebe says. “There was no easing into it.”
It doesn’t hurt that recovery theology spills over into the Sunday-morning sermons of pastors at Cokesbury and other churches connected to the network, Beebe says. Every Tuesday morning, Beebe meets with a “discernment group” including key leaders and recovery heroes to discuss sermon content. Topics such as suicide, depression, and anger are thoroughly vetted and measured against scripture and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Backing the content with clinical expertise is Vicky McDaniel, clinical director, who also provides group and individual counseling.
“It’s such an honor to represent the pain of the people I work with in an anonymous way, and it gets communicated from the pulpit,” McDaniel said.
“We’re not here to increase your membership,” Wilson says, although pastors such as Cantrell and Carroll say that working in recovery ministry has improved their preaching and made their congregations healthier.
“Everybody is in need of recovery from something,” said Carroll, “so the message is relevant to everybody.”
At the end of every recovery worship, participants join in saying the “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr, asking God to help them accept “hardship as a pathway to peace.”
Addressing the pain in people’s lives is a pathway for sharing the gospel, Beebe says:
“This ministry is a flat-out non-stop engine of people wanting to see Jesus.”
Recovery at Cokesbury photos on Facebook
"DeFur leads Cokesbury into growth surge, one year after losing senior pastor" (The Call, 5/1/14)
"Outcasts: Susannah's House helps moms recovering from drug abuse and their children" (The Call, 7/16/14)