Kevin Kuehmichel, pastor of Chippewa Valley Church in Altoona, Wisconsin, United States, grew up with an alcoholic father and brother. By the time he was in high school, he was drinking up to four nights a week.
“I thought I was immune to it,” he says. “I was ‘handling’ my drinking.”
In the Navy, his drinking increased. Although he modified his habits after leaving the military and entering the workforce, staying sober all week meant he began drinking excessively on the weekends. When he married Patricia, a Seventh-day Adventist, she tried tirelessly to help him see the destructive nature of his alcoholism.
“It took 11 years of marriage for God to wear me down enough to convince me to get sober,” Kuehmichel says. “Six months later, I was baptized into the Adventist Church.”
But, as he points out, just because you stop an activity doesn’t mean you’ve stopped your thought process.
“You can still be an addict, even if you’re not using,” Kuehmichel says.
It took him a while to recognize this. But it finally hit him when he was coordinating a church plant in Cleveland, Ohio, whose primary ministry was helping houseless, low-income, and addicted individuals. They were involved with the local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program, and it was this connection that began to open Kuehmichel’s eyes.
“I bought the AA book and started reading it so I could get a better understanding of the people we were trying to serve,” he says. “As I read, I started to realize I had my own unresolved issues which needed to be addressed.”
Kuehmichel began working his way through the 12 steps outlined by the AA program, but still felt something was missing. He realized what it was when he transferred to pastor a church in California and was introduced to Celebrate Recovery (CR), a Christ-centered, 12-step program designed to help participants overcome any “hurts, habits or hang-ups” in their lives. CR aids in recognizing where pain comes from, acknowledging it, and then working toward forgiveness to recover from it.
Hurts, Habits, and Hang-ups
A couple in Kuehmichel’s church had been through the CR training and together they began a program at their church.
The weekly program starts with prayer and worship songs specifically chosen to speak to the concepts of being broken and healed. There is typically a reading of the 12 program steps or the eight foundational principles of CR, which are based on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. As a group, attendees recite the Serenity Prayer, spend some time socializing, and then split into breakout groups—men in one room, women in another—to discuss the day’s lesson.
“It took us a year of prayer and planning, but we started to see people come in,” Kuehmichel says. “And although I had intended to be there to support as the pastor, once it was rolling, I started to attend.”
As he worked through the CR steps, Kuehmichel realized that even though he hadn’t had a drink since 1990, he still had unhealthy thought processes and wounds that needed to be addressed. And as he saw the program’s value in his own life, he knew there were bound to be others who could benefit from it too. He vowed to share it with anyone he could.
When Kuehmichel returned to Wisconsin to pastor, he again got his church interested in starting a CR program for the community. One attendee was church member and elder, Michelle Larson.
Larson was raised by alcoholic parents whose habits brought a lot of dysfunction and chaos into their home. She herself used both drugs and alcohol for many years, along with other unhealthy behaviors, and struggled with depression and anxiety.
“I feel like I’ve been in recovery most of my life in some form,” she says. Although she quit using drugs and drinking several years prior to coming to church, “that doesn’t mean everything went away,” she admits. “I just found more socially acceptable, yet still harmful, ways of coping.”
As a professional working in both mental health and substance abuse, Larson points out that addictions typically come from emotional dysregulation and a lack of coping skills.
“We often tell people to ‘let go and let God,’ implying that He’ll just heal you,” she says. “A lot of us don’t know how to do that. You have to take responsibility for yourself and work with God to get to a place of peace. CR provided that healing space for me.”
Everyone Has a Past — Even Adventists
The CR program at Chippewa Valley Church slowly grew, with 80 percent of attendees coming from outside of the church. While he was glad to be ministering to the community, Kuehmichel was struck by how few church members took advantage of the program.
“As Adventists, we tend to assume programs like this are only for addicts, but that’s not true,” he says. “CR is for anyone with hurts, destructive habits, and hang-ups, and even Adventists have those.”
Marcia Harycki, a Chippewa Valley Church board member, was skeptical about CR, but she and her husband came to see what it was all about. Six months later, they were still faithfully attending, having discovered the program’s benefits. Harycki wrote her testimony and shared it with the board, describing why she went, and how it was helping her and her husband heal from pain they had experienced in years gone by.
“Everyone has a past, and we have all been broken or wounded in some way, large or small,” Harycki says in her testimony. “People are all human, and humans all have issues. Fear, worry, codependence, pride, substance abuse, anger, workaholism, impatience, arrogance, food addictions. The list of hang-ups is endless. We’re all on a journey of being healed into the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
A Discipleship Program
Kuehmichel says he wishes more church members would give CR a chance and eliminate the stigma of 12-step groups being only for people with a certain type of problem. He also points out that Celebrate Recovery is a disciple-making program. Once someone has completed the CR program, they’re encouraged to attend again as a mentor. They seek out new attendees and attend with them, guiding and encouraging as best they can.
It may be human nature to want to fix other people, but the work begins, Kuehmichel says, with fixing ourselves. And Adventists are not immune to the hurts and ills of living in a sinful world.
“Celebrate Recovery is not designed to kick you while you’re down; it’s meant to pick you back up again,” he says. “As I see it, helping broken people is the core of Christ’s ministry, whether those people are outside of the church or within it. It’s difficult work, but we’re not giving up.”