an interview with Tom Sharp
The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in acceptance of recovery ministry in the local church. The most obvious sign of this change is that many congregations now have ‘recovery pastors’ as part of their staff team—something few of us imagined was possible a decade ago. Tom Sharp is the Recovery Pastor at Capo Beach Calvary Chapel in Capistrano Beach, California. He has been actively involved in the NACR for most of the last decade. We interviewed him to get his perspectives on how recovery has changed and been changed by the local church.
STEPS: What were you doing ten years ago?
Tom: I was training to be a therapist and just beginning to get started in my own recovery. I’ve been at Capo Beach nearly four years now and I’m the first recovery pastor that Calvary Chapels have ever hired. There are very few churches within the denomination that are open to recovery or to the twelve steps or to psychology or counseling. So, I’m very much a pioneer within the denomination.
STEPS: At the beginning of the last decade I had some preconceptions about the kinds of churches where recovery ministry was likely to be successful. Those preconceptions have all turned out to be wrong. It just doesn’t seem to be that predictable and you are a good example of that. Your ministry has thrived in an environment that I would have thought might have been particularly difficult in some ways. Was it difficult to get the ministry started?
Tom: There were theological conflicts—and to a certain degree there still are. Christian recovery is often misunderstood—that continues to occur today. There are still people who don’t quite understand why a good Christian would need additional tools in order to get unstuck and continue to grow in their spirituality and their relationships and personal life.
STEPS: Has most of the resistance been around theological issues? Or have there been other kinds of problems?
Tom: I think it’s primarily based on lack of understanding. Often what I hear is “those people in recovery are just whining.” Or there may be question about a person’s level of faith or their ability to trust in the Lord. Some people may be able to just accept Jesus and then everything will be okay after that. But I don’t believe that works for everybody. Most of us need additional resources and support.
STEPS: I think that just about everybody who reads STEPS will be familiar with these kinds of criticisms of recovery. They are pretty common.
Tom: They don’t seem to be limited to any geographic area or denominational affiliation. It seems pretty pervasive. It has been surprising where recovery has taken root—I think it depends primarily on the pastor and the church leadership. Individual pastors from churches that have traditionally been more fundamental or dogmatic have been embracing recovery. This is because they see the need for it in their own parishioners.
STEPS: It really comes down to practical matters. If a pastor sees the level of pain, if he gets past some denial about the congregation—even if he is still deep in denial about his own issues—that can create an openness for recovery ministry to develop.
Tom: Yes. I have also been excited to see what God is doing in churches of different sizes. Often the mega-churches will have a recovery pastor or a recovery department with a diversity of programming. But also many of the smaller churches may have a lay leader or someone who volunteers to lead a recovery meeting or program. It’s certainly not limited by church size. That is a very exciting thing.
STEPS: Yours is a relatively large congregation. What does the recovery ministry look like?
Tom: We meet weekly. We have a time of worship—about 20 minutes. The people who lead our worship are mostly part of our regular worship team for the weekend church services. I’m grateful for that because it lends an air of credibility to the recovery ministry. I really believe that the worship is a very important part of Christian recovery ministry. It gets our focus on Christ and helps us to enter into his presence where we can connect with our Higher Power, the one who provides us with hope. We start off with worship and then I teach on a weekly basis on a variety of topics—about the Steps, about abandonment issues, about anger, boundaries, character development, shame, any number of issues. And then, during the second hour of our program, people go into twelve step groups or other kinds of small groups to get some additional support, to process what they have heard in the teaching or to share what their week has been like. It’s interesting that, even with the resistance to recovery in our denomination, the recovery ministry in our church is often larger than the majority of the churches within our denomination. In some ways it’s like a small church of it’s own.
STEPS: In additional to the weekly meeting that has worship, teaching and group process you have other resources?
Tom: I try to lead or schedule a quarterly all-day workshop. These focus on parenting issues, sexuality, boundaries, shame, spiritual renewal—where ever there seems to be a need. We try to scratch where it itches. These workshops keep the recovery ministry visible in the congregation as a whole and also provide some hands-on resources for people. We also have retreats—usually with our small group leaders. My ability to resource the small group leaders has decreased as I have taken on more counseling responsibilities so this is particularly important. I’m very grateful that at the church I’ve been given full autonomy by the senior Pastor. He certainly believes in recovery and sees the need for it in peole’s lives. And so there have not been restrictions. I’ve been told “do what God has called you to do.” The church leadership has been very supportive and I’m grateful for that.
STEPS: Today I can think of probably several dozen examples of people like you who have developed very comprehensive recovery ministries in local churches. I think five years ago I might have been able to come up with only two or three names at the most. Is that about right?
Tom: Absolutely. Traditionally the church as been ten to fifteen years behind the secular world as far as addressing what is going on and being aware of issues. Ten years ago recovery really hit it’s peak in the secular world. It hit its crest and then subsided a bit. That was when Christian recovery in churches really started to take off. The NACR was in some ways ahead of its time in that the church was not quite ready to embrace the ideas of Christian recovery. I see the church now as much more willing to embrace it, as much more open. Bottom line: I think it is the Holy Spirit working in people’s hearts. I see Christian recovery sometimes as pre-evangelism for some churches. It is a way to help people—who don’t yet know they have a need for Jesus—to get their lives straightened out and cleaned up so that they can see that they have a need for Jesus. There are certainly a lot of people who have attended AA to get sober and then found Christ through the twelve steps. I think that the church can strategically use recovery in an evangelical way. It is at least a secondary factor that might motivate churches to embrace Christian recovery.
STEPS: There is a kind of balance needed isn’t there? I do know of people who early on were excited about Christian recovery primarily because they saw it as an evangelistic tool. Most of them didn’t last very long. I think it is critical to have a sense that recovery ministry is important because we need it—not just because other people need it. The fundamental strategy is that if we take our own pain seriously it will lead us out into the world which is full of people who struggle with the same issues we face.
Tom: That’s exactly right. If the motivation is right then it is the ultimate in twelfth step work.
STEPS: What do you think will be the main challenges to be faced in the next few years.
Tom: I think the primary challenge is the need to convince the average person in the congregation that recovery is not just for those people. Those alcoholics and addicts. All of us have life dominating issues. I’m reminded of Keith Miller and his writing about how all of us are recovering from something—we are certainly all recovering from sin. So there is a need for all of us to surrender our lives to God, to live a day at a time. I find that just convincing people that we all have issues is one of the biggest challenges within the church. As Christians we tend to look for formulas, and we can get into a comfort zone. If a crisis abates a bit then we think we really don’t need to look at those issues anymore or to go to counseling anymore. We can get comfortable. Until the next crisis.
Secondly I find one of my challenges to be the continual effort to convince people that dealing with their pain is important. That takes a significant conversion. If you start a program and in your marketing you say “everyone who wants to deal with pain come on a certain night.” You won’t have that many people breaking down the doors to get it. Pain doesn’t sell very well. So it is a challenge just to get people to accept the idea that we do have pain as Christians and that there are ways to deal with it other than denial. God wants us to get healthier. Just helping people to accept that there is pain even though you are a Christian is often a difficult thing.
There is also a theological challenge that remains important. There are so many people who think that we can just ‘pray for it’ or ‘have faith.’ Or worse, that there is something wrong with you as a Christian if you still struggle in life. There are also people who believe that if you take two Scriptures and call me in the morning everything really should be okay. It’s so impractical for the majority of us but it is still a very common attitude.
STEPS: It sounds like denial is still very much alive and well.
Tom: I’m reminded of when Jesus sent out the disciples. He sent them out in pairs because we need to be connected—we can’t do this kind of work on our own. It’s interesting he also told them where not to go. He said don’t go to people who don’t want to hear the message. I think that’s good direction for us in recovery. Primarily our focus needs to be on working with people who know they have a need and are hungry—who want to grow and want to change rather than investing too much of our time and resources in trying to convert the rest of the church into accepting recovery.
STEPS: I’m quite amazed by the diversity of recovery ministries which have developed in the local church. Over the last decade a kind of resource has been created that does not really have an analogy on the secular side of things. Most secular programs would just have a meeting and that would be it. In churches like yours there are often 8, 10 or more different groups, a children’s program like Confident Kids, plus an educational component and a leadership training program. And retreats and intensives. It’s really a full-service program that you would not find anywhere else in the community. How did that happen?
Tom: I think part of this is due to the unpredicability of God. God does incredible things that are certainly more than what we could dream up or imagine would ever happen.
STEPS: So you see what has happened in the development of Christian recovery as a God thing.
Tom: I do. God blesses his people when we begin to deal with what’s true, what’s real—when we tell the truth and work toward healing and becoming more Christ-like. There hasn’t been some master plan for the development of recovery ministry. It has usually been some layperson in a congregation who has been the annoying voice of reason who has recognized their own brokenness and has pestered the pastor or church staff long enough to get an audience and begin to share the vision. It begins with people who need help and who find the courage, by the grace of God, to say so. And that’s probably why God has blessed Christian recovery so richly. It has been a response to his love and he has blessed it. It’s not been about setting up committees or plans, it’s a good example of the fact that when we surrender our lives to God, when we give away what we have received, then incredible things can happen.
STEPS: What one piece of advice would you give to a person who is where you were four years ago just getting starting to set up a recovery ministry in a local church?
Tom: Realize that you will not please everybody. You will come up with obstacles and vocal resistance. That’s okay. If God has called you to bring recovery to the church, then be obedient to him. There will be people who do not understand. That’s okay. Jesus had his skeptics as well and met with resistance. Be obedient. Listen to what God has called you to do.