An interview with Rev. Jo Campe
Jo Campe is the pastor of Central Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul, MN. He presented a workshop at the STEPS 2003 conference on his experience of developing recovery worship services at Central Park, and in this interview he expands on that topic.
STEPS: If I remember your story correctly, you were a bright, young, upwardly mobile pastor-on-the-fast-track kind of guy. Is that right?
Jo: That’s right. My third church was, arguably at least, the largest church in the United Methodist Church in our area. I was the senior pastor, and we had a staff of about 30 people. I was on the fast track to somewhere, I guess. But I was an active alcoholic at the time, so the only fast track I was really on was the road to try to kill myself as fast as possible. It is certainly true that as my professional career went upward and onward, my disease continued to progress.
STEPS: I suppose the average American still tends to think of an alcoholic as a drunk on skid row, not as a successful pastor of a big church or a respectable member of the community. But things are not always as they appear.
Jo: That’s absolutely right. It is still amazing to me that advancement in my professional life paralleled almost exactly the advancement of my alcoholism. The more successful my life became, the more my addiction progressed. It was kind of a one-to-one ratio somehow. When I was in treatment one of the things I was most worried about was who was going to do my radio and television show, as though that was really what mattered–not what was going to happen to my life. It shows you the extent of the mental distortions and misplaced emphasis that can come with addictions.
STEPS: Do you think that kind of misplaced priority is characteristic of alcoholics in general? Or is it more about the way in which pastors become addicts? The need to look good is a particularly strong and seductive thing for many pastors.
Jo: I think it just shows the extent of our disease. It is the issue of externals versus internal realities. We often follow the lie that externals can fulfill our internal spiritual needs. We all know that externals are not the answer. But part of the disease of addiction is to keep trying to make the externals do what they can never really do for us. It’s one of those things that Paul talks about: “Why is it that I do the things I wish not to do?” When I tell my story at different Twelve Step groups I often share that I would wake up in the morning and pray, “Please don’t let me drink today” and then that night when I would fall into a drunken stupor I would say to myself, “How could I have let Christ down so badly today?” It was a cycle that seemed to confirm what a rotten bum I was.
STEPS: Was that your typical pattern–drinking yourself to sleep at night and then getting up the next day to perform?
Jo: Typically, yes. I never missed any days at work. In fact, being productive was an important element of my prideful nature. I would typically get up early and get ready for work and work all day, including meetings until 7:30 or 8 at night. Then I’d go home to a large, empty parsonage and drink myself to sleep. And I would repeat the pattern the next day. Day after day.
STEPS: So what was it like to get help?
Jo: Well, I think that I knew my life was out of control. I could not stop. I began to have many blackouts–periods when I could not remember what I had done while intoxicated. I remember one morning seeing a loaded shotgun in the garage and realizing that in my blackout time I must have been very near suicide. Eventually, I knew either I had to call out for help or I was going to end my life. It’s part of the insanity of the disease, I suppose, that both of these options seemed equally unacceptable me. I was afraid of taking my life, but I was equally afraid of calling out for help. When I did call out for help I knew who to call. I had a good friend who was in the program of A.A. and it just took one phone call. That phone call started the whole process.
STEPS: It is pretty remarkable that getting help seems, at the time, just as scary as suicide.
Jo: It’s all about ego, I think. It was the issue of pride that made it most difficult for me to get help. We have to admit defeat. And that is an enormous blow to the ego. We have to surrender. Part of surrender is surrendering our pretend selves to who we really are. Once we do that, pride becomes a huge issue.
STEPS: It’s hard to maintain the facade of respectable, successful pastor and get help at the same time. Was your congregation or your denominational staff helpful to you when you decided to get help?
Jo: Basically, no. I hate to say it, but I don’t really see most of our churches providing help for pastors who are struggling with an addiction. When I came out of treatment, the church I was in and the denomination I was in didn’t provide me with much help. The help I received came almost exclusively from the Twelve Step community. The church I was serving did a miserable job of supporting me. People who were trained to be the caregivers in the community, including the pastoral staff, just didn’t know how to be helpful. Fortunately, the A.A. community stepped in, they enfolded me, they were at my home almost every night, they took me to meetings and they made sure I was comfortable and safe.
STEPS: It is a sad commentary about the state of the Christian community that we lack the skills to be genuinely helpful to people coming out of treatment.
Jo: I think it is that sadness that, at least in part, motivated me to get involved in my current ministry. This ministry has allowed people in brokenness to gather together and to admit their brokenness. And to be helpful to each other.
STEPS: Tell us about that. How did you wind up at Central Park? How long after you got out of treatment did you accept a call to that church?
Jo: I came out of treatment in September, and by Christmas time I realized that I did not want to continue in my current position. It just wasn’t a community that was going to be able to help me take the next steps in my recovery. So I went to our bishop and said I wanted to be reappointed somewhere else; in our denomination we are appointed by the bishop to specific churches. The bishop said he wanted me to stay where I was. I said I’d rather be out of the ministry than to stay there. I served in another church for three years, but during that time I was actively looking for a different kind of ministry. I had spent my whole career in suburban, fast-growing churches where brokenness was a problem rather than the shared foundation for ministry. I wanted something different.
Eventually I was attracted to a small church in downtown St. Paul, right next to the state capitol. It was a very small congregation in an old church–only about 11 people. Most of the space in the building had been rented out to the hospital across the street for use as offices. But that space rental meant that they had a little income that they could use to hire a pastor. What they were looking for was someone who would provide services on Sunday morning and would be available to do funerals as they died off. So I went to the bishop, not really knowing what kind of ministry it would be, but it would be a change and it would give me some time to explore options. Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking that much about recovery ministry at the time; I just needed time to reflect and listen carefully to God about ministry.
STEPS: This is a very different kind of church from those you gravitated to before you began recovery.
Jo [laughing]: Yeah, the building is terrible. It’s poorly designed. It has no sense of architecture to it. At my first service there were 11 people. The average age of the congregation was 68. There is no neighborhood around the church. The nearest homes are a government housing project about three quarters of a mile away. No sense of neighborhood at all. It’s a terrible location for a church. Actually, it used to be a very large church, but it has been forced to move three times as the urban structure of downtown St. Paul has changed. And every time the church changed location most of the congregation moved out to the suburbs. So it did not look at all like it had the makings of a rapidly growing, successful, look-good church of the kind in which I had previously served.
Three friends from A.A. came down for the first worship service, and that was the beginning. I didn’t know what I was going to do, to tell you the truth. I spent the first six months just settling in and listening. I was going though a divorce at the time, primarily because of the disease of alcoholism. I started searching out different recovery groups in the downtown area. I was amazed when several people from different A.A. groups started coming on Sunday morning to worship with us. One day one of these people said, “Why don’t we plan a recovery worship service?” And I said, “Well, that would be great, but I don’t have a clue about what a recovery worship service is.” He suggested, “Well, let’s get a few of us together over breakfast and see what we can come up with.” So three or four of us met and put together some ideas.
We planned something for a Sunday at 9 a.m. and we were thinking maybe a dozen people would show up. We had set up in one of our smallest rooms and sort of envisioned it as a small prayer meeting. The first Sunday we had 45 people show up. So we moved to the sanctuary. And we thought, Well, we’ll do this once a month and see if people come back. The second month we had over 100 people. After a couple of months, we decided to do it every week. We averaged about 100 people each week for the first year. The second year we were averaging over 150 people. We are into the fourth year now and we average 250 people and have two recovery services.
What we actually do has evolved over time as the Spirit has led. Different things have happened. We try to stay pretty loose and flexible in organization and structure. And we have been very fortunate to have a number of people volunteer for leadership roles.
STEPS: What interests me about what’s happened at Central Park is that you started with a worship service, not with a Twelve Step group or an educational program. There must have been a lot of people with a longing for worship who just did not feel comfortable in other churches. There are many churches to choose from in St. Paul, right?
Jo: That’s right. The response to the worship service was remarkable. There are many Twelve Step groups around downtown St. Paul, and now we have many in our facility, of course. But that was not our focus at the beginning. We started with the worship service. And we were thinking small. It was kind of fun to see that God had something bigger planned.
STEPS: You must have learned a lot about the kind of worship service that works for people in recovery. What have you learned?
Jo: I think we have learned a number of things. There are certain things that people say over and over again about what they find to be helpful. We have an active congregation of almost 500 people now. Each Sunday there are about 250 who attend. And we hear pretty much the same things over and over again. First of all, the openness is critical. We start off our worship service with a greeting, and about half the time I start off with a story. It might be a joke or it might be just some kind of story that communicates warmth and welcome. It can have a really down-home feel to it sometimes. People say, “When we come in we notice that people are smiling. There is a sense of being at home and of welcome.”
We try to reinforce this sense of warmth by our custom of standing up early in the service to do hugs. We do a lot of hugs at the beginning of worship. Often we have a hard time getting people to settle down again to continue the service. There’s a lot of touching. For people who have gone through what our people have gone through, touching is a big deal. Most of us have spent a lot of time alone. We have been the untouchables in our worlds. To be touched correctly is an important thing for us.
Also, every one of our worship services has a story of hope. Somebody tells their story. When we first started doing this we had two pages of rules about what you could and couldn’t do when you shared your story. Nobody paid much attention to the rules, of course, but we did try to control things. We gave that up about three years ago. What we do now is just pass a clipboard around and there are two months of slots where people can sign up to share their story. It always fills up.
STEPS: I served in a church once where we allowed people to share their story only once a year. I think it was the Thanksgiving Day service. And those of us on staff were absolutely terrified about what would happen. What if so-and-so gets up and goes on and on? We did everything we could to control every last detail of that “open” sharing time. To work your way through those control issues and find a way to really trust God seems like a hugely wonderful thing to me.
Jo: It is a powerful part of the service. We have had the most amazing stories. We have been trying to think about a way to record these without violating the traditions of anonymity. I think people, especially people early in recovery who might be in treatment centers, would get a lot out of these stories. Some of them–I don’t care where you are or where you have been–they are stories of people who have gone lower than you can imagine. But you can look at them now and see how the love and grace of God have changed things. One guy told the story about “coming to” when the garbage truck compactor was just about to compact him with the rest of the trash. He came leaping out of that compactor down on top of the garbage collector. We’ve had hundreds of stories of ordinary people who have experienced the power of God in very practical ways.
STEPS: Those stories must have a huge effect on the experience of worship. They are so personal, so real.
Jo: Also, it’s someone sitting right next to you who gets up to tell their story, not some paid professional or some guest speaker with a great story of successful recovery. What we value is telling the truth, not having a polished presentation. It helps that our people are accustomed to telling their stories. They do it in meetings every week. So that’s one of the unique things about the way we do worship. We had a guy who spoke the Sunday before last whose longest period of sobriety since 1991 has been nine months. He’s been in and out of the program since 1991. That’s 15 years of struggle. But he stood up and said, “I’ve got nine months.” And he got a standing ovation. People who have been there understand that it’s about progress, not perfection.
Another thing we do is serve the Eucharist every Sunday. That’s unusual in the United Methodist context. The reason we do it is, in part, because so many of our people are former Catholics. I don’t know how we started it or why we started it. But we did it right from the beginning when we were only doing services once a month. When we went to weekly recovery services it just seemed like the thing to do. So about half of our people cross themselves when they receive communion. We have people crying up at the communion rail on a regular basis. We have other people who are holding each other while they are crying. It’s a time of reconciliation that is just phenomenal.
STEPS: There seems to be something very important to people in recovery about the Eucharist. Maybe it’s about God feeding his people with spiritual food, the nourishment images.
Jo: There’s also a sense of connection there. Of community. For people who have been disconnected, isolated, that’s really important. There is a unique experience of God-with-us in communion services that is very powerful for people who have experienced God-apart.
STEPS: Any other lessons learned?
Jo: Two other things. First, we are very eclectic in our theology. This has been hard for us. It has been especially hard for me personally. I had to struggle with a wide range of theological instincts within the worship service. I am what you would probably call a mainline theological person. I was trained in the neo-orthodox tradition, and that’s where I feel most comfortable. But I have had to expand my horizons and stay open both to positions more conservative than my own and positions more liberal than my own. When people share their stories or when they share songs, those stories and songs can be shaped in very conservative terms or very liberal terms. It’s sort of “come and share what you have.” We often say, “Take what works and leave the rest.” And that’s been hard for me. I’ve had to work on it. It is certainly different from the situation in other congregations in which I have served. The need to let go of control, the need to make room for a wide range of perspectives–that is a really important part of helping people feel like this is a safe place to be who you are.
Another thing we’ve learned is to make sure we are not an A.A. church. We are very conscious of not being an A.A. church. We are also very conscious of not being a typical church. We work very hard to try to be in the middle somewhere. If we err, we try to always work back toward the middle. We work on this both theologically and liturgically. We may have something in the call to worship liturgically that would remind you that it comes from the Big Book, but it would never say “A.A.”
STEPS: Tell me more about that. What does it mean to be in the middle?
Jo: We have people from all kinds of recovery programs–NA, SA and so on. And we have people who are not in any Twelve Step fellowship. For example, we have two pastors and a former priest who are not in any recovery group and who attend our church on a regular basis. What they tell me is that this is the most authentic church they have found. They happen to all be retired, but they have made a home with us. Because of the issue of the traditions of A.A. we make it real clear that we are not a part of A.A.; we are not an A.A. group or an A.A. activity.
STEPS: Do you find that people who are not in A.A. or are not in another Twelve Step fellowship still feel comfortable in the services?
Jo: Yes, but I think it’s harder. We had some people here at first who were not in any program of recovery, and they wanted us to change and not be as recovery-oriented as we are. One of our people turned to them and said, “You know, I drive by 25 normal churches to get here. Those are okay churches. But those churches haven’t saved my life.” What he was saying was, “This place is real important for me.” If you want a regular church, go to a regular church. We don’t need to be a regular church. There a lot of good ones out there. But they are not doing what we are doing.
STEPS: Not long ago I was talking to a pastor who was exploring the possibility of getting a recovery ministry started in his church, but he was really anxious about having too many hurting people in the congregation. He was worried about being unbalanced somehow. I remember him asking, “You need to have some healthy people there, don’t you?” What’s your guts about that?
Jo [laughing]: Well, he should work in a healthy church with lots of healthy people if he can find one. But I’d pick real over healthy any day. Other than constantly fight with them, Jesus didn’t do much with the “healthy” people in his world. They were called Pharisees back then. I don’t think there can be any more real people than those who are open and honest about their brokenness. Every time I stand up and introduce myself to my congregation and I say, “Hi, my name is Jo and I’m an alcoholic,” I can’t get more real than that. Every time I talk about my brokenness, I can’t get more real than that. Every time I talk about my struggles with depression or my struggles in my sermons, how can you get more real than that? For me, that’s what we do when we are in recovery. We talk about our struggles. I’m working on a talk for this coming Sunday about Jesus healing the man with a demon. We all know that we still have chains around our feet, chains that we drag around with us. Even though we may have been through whatever we have been through, we still carry some of those chains and we still need to be healed. We have not been totally healed. We still need to be healed. We need Jesus still. We are still broken and we still need God to speak to us.
STEPS: Although you started with a recovery worship service, a lot of recovery groups eventually started meeting at the church. Right?
Jo: Yes. We have 20 or so groups meeting now. We also have something called Recovery Life Network, which is a process of looking at a holistic approach to recovery. We have workshops on that on a regular basis. I also do some teaching at different recovery centers or treatment centers. We have three treatment centers that we work with regularly. We are working diligently on creation of a local sober high school. This fall we will be opening a sober high school for kids who have relapsed out of other sober high schools. And we are setting up a mentor program for our people to work with these kids. It should be a challenge, and we are excited about it. Also, we have a meals program for local homeless people. And lots of other things.
STEPS: It’s a long way from the successful, young, pastor-on-the-fast-track guy you were a few years ago.
Jo: You know what I really think has happened? Once I got out of the way, God could do what needed to be done. I really believe that; I say that all the time. Pastors ask me all the time, “What can I do?” And my response is almost always, “Just get out of the way.” What did treatment teach me? Get out of the way. Get your ego out of the way. My ego is what kept me drunk. My pride kept me drunk. I thought I was this bigwig and I had all my stuff together and I had all these things. But I knew I didn’t, which is why I drank. Inside I knew I was a phony. So I had to do something to cover that up. But eventually the disease of it caught me and I could not get out.
STEPS: So how do you go about doing the ministry without feeding the ego?
Jo: Well, it’s not an easy matter. It’s a danger in any kind of ministry. It is what got me sick in the first place. One of the things that is helpful to me is that every Friday morning I go out to a treatment center north of town that treats people who have chronic relapses. I lead a small class for these guys, a dozen chronic relapsers who come right off the streets. I go up there and I “lead” this class. Basically what happens is that these guys minister to me. I realize how close I am to them. They are no different from me. The people who run this center have asked me to lead another group that is much bigger, and I have said no several times. The reason is that I need the reminder that I am no different. I am the same. I need to keep “me” out of the way. As soon as I starting thinking I am special, different, I am in trouble.
Jo Campe is interested in connecting with others who are developing Twelve Step-oriented recovery churches. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.