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A Church That Needed a Miracle

November 1, 2006
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Endless attempts to revive a moribund Central Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, produced one flop after another. Who would have guessed that the church's true calling resided in the recovery history of its pastor and a group of earnest parishioners?

When the Rev. Jo Campe asked to be appointed to the urban ministry eight years ago, he received a somewhat puzzled reaction from his bishop. Those concerns appeared to be well founded early on, as Campe's original intent to minister to the local business community was not being realized. But the church services gradually were attracting a different group: many of the attendees of the same 12-Step meetings Campe was frequenting, having been four years sober when arriving in St. Paul.

One individual suggested that the church conduct a recovery-oriented worship service, and the idea took off. What started as a once-monthly service soon began to be scheduled once every Sunday, then for more than one Sunday service, and then on Saturday as well. Today, the St. Paul church has made the full transition, now known to all in the community as the Recovery Church.

“This isn't and wasn't my dream,” says Campe, 61. “God had something else in mind that I didn't.”

Community's openness

A recent census indicated that about 1,500 people visit the church every week for worship services, AA/NA meetings, aftercare groups conducted by Hazelden, and similar recovery-oriented sessions. “We maintain that we are not an AA group and we are not a regular church. We walk the tightrope between,” Campe says.

While some churches have tried to adapt the 12 Steps into a Christian framework, the Recovery Church stays true to the Steps as written and doesn't demand certain beliefs of its members. “One of our guidelines is ‘Get out of God's way,'” Campe says. “Everything is about recovery.”

He added that the church has attracted a hugely diverse population, but with a common thread of little formal church background after early childhood. “They do not have a preconceived notion of what a church should be. But they're pretty clear about what a church shouldn't be, and that's negative and judgmental,” says Campe.

A typical service at the church may begin with a joke to lighten the mood. It also will include a story of hope related by a person in recovery, and a full reading of the Serenity Prayer. The relaxed atmosphere also allows Campe to participate in activities that would have been unheard of for him when he was senior pastor of a United Methodist Church in Rochester, Minnesota, where he oversaw a staff of 30. At a recent Recovery Month event in St. Paul, Campe's sole responsibility was to be the voluntary target at a pie throwing station.

Campe, who had used substances since his teenage years, was an active alcohol and drug addict when he presided over the Rochester ministry. When his problem escalated to the point where he had become suicidal, he entered a 12-Step based treatment program in Rochester. He decided after leaving treatment that a large, bureaucratic church was no fit for him. During a divorce about four years ago, he acquired a new sponsor whose commitment to the 12 Steps reenergized him. “I had a new appreciation ground into me,” he says.

Unlike his experience in a more bureaucratic church organization, Campe's operation now subsists on a staff of two: himself and an administrative assistant. “Now what my time is spent on is doing,” he says.

What the future holds

Campe's congregation at the Recovery Church has always shaped the church's direction, and that will likely continue. Regular attendees include about 75 chemical dependency counselors, as well as a small percentage of individuals who are not in recovery but enjoy the church's genuine feel.

Campe says the congregation has done a great deal of exploring about other types of ministry in which the church could become involved. There has been talk of embracing sober housing, or possibly forging a formal relationship with a treatment facility. But so far, the Recovery Church has remained focused to worship, fellowship, and support.

“It always comes down to asking ‘What do we do well?'” Campe says. “We end up talking about worship as a community of faith.”