September 27, 2010
It is an exciting time for Rev. John Kilzer, an Associate Pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He is beginning a recovery ministry there with support from Church Health Center and Methodist Healthcare. I sat down to talk with him about his own story and his plans for this ministry.
John Shorb: How did you become interested in recovery ministry?
John Kilzer: My father was an alcoholic, my oldest brother, and for the great part of my life I was, as well. You could have used the term “functional alcoholic” for me, especially through my years playing basketball at Memphis State and my career in the recording business. When I started touring, I had my own tour group going all around the world. For someone in recovery, that was just throwing fuel on the fire. It was not that I was oblivious to the fact that I had a problem; it just didn’t seem to be interfering with my life.
But several things happened – a series of God working through circumstances – and I started to see that that something was remiss in my life. I kept ending up in jail. Thankfully, I did not hurt anybody else or myself, but the last three times I had encounters with the police I had to go in front of a circuit judge in Memphis. And the first time he was a bit collegial, and said “we will just work this out.” Then I was there again a couple of weeks later, and the judge showed a little bit more consternation. Then the third time I saw him within four weeks, he realized this was a serious problem, and essentially saved my life by making me stay in jail for several days. One of my fellow inmates witnessed to me, and I had a profound conversion experience there in the jail – an amazing thing of God breaking into my life. That completely changed the trajectory of my life. I got into recovery, and I started working the program, got a sponsor and actually doing the hard blood, sweat, and tears work that you do when you’re in recovery.
That’s a powerful experience.
Yes, and that eventually led me into seminary, getting my Master of Divinity. Now I am here in Memphis as a United Methodist pastor. With my passion for recovery and being in recovery myself, it just made sense for me to start a recovery ministry. Sometimes God anoints weaknesses and turns them into strengths.
Describe your approach to recovery ministry.
I try to be someone that can see a person heart-to-heart and spirit-to-spirit. I approach recovery ministry in the sense that everybody is recovering from something. While we are specifically addressing recovery from alcoholism and substance abuse, in a wider sense, it is addressing our brokenness. We are all broken somewhere, we’re all wounded, and in a sense we’re all in recovery. Ideally, this recovery ministry will be set up to where a community is created where people can come and, sort of, weave a tapestry. Tapestries might not be a bad metaphor. When you look at the back of a tapestry, it is gnarly with all the different colors of the threads, and it is sort of unaesthetic. But when you turn it over and you see how God takes that and weaves our brokenness into different strings in the thread, you have a beautiful picture. That’s what we’re striving for.
Also, I look at recovery as recovering the image of God that we all have in us. There might be a smudge or rust or verdigris on that image of God that we all have. Polishing that image of God, or polishing our hearts to regain that image, can literally be the work of recovery.
If someone’s sitting in the pew and they know that there’s a problem with somebody but they don’t know what to do, what would you tell them?
First, I would try to solicit a relationship with that person in the pew by creating a dialogue. Recovery is relational. To begin, I always tell everybody my story. It is simple, but not easy. I tell them what I used to be like, what happened, and what I'm like now. And my story has a lot of warts, and I think when people hear my story, they think, “well, you know, if God saw fit to help him then maybe God will see fit to help me.” It is a God thing. Carl Jung, who is sort of the spiritual grandfather of AA, said that – to boil it all down – the only way a person can recover is to have a spiritual experience. And that is what the steps are designed to do – to prompt a spiritual experience. It is a physical recovery, a spiritual recovery, and it is recovery in every sense of the word.
What is the ministry going to look like on the ground there in terms of what it’ll be on a day to day level?
I am going to have to immerse myself in the recovery community here because it is vast. Then I will create some groups both within the specific recovery community and also within St. John’s Church. For the first part of it, I will be literally rolling up my sleeves, taking a leap of faith, and jumping out into the community. Then after that we will have 12-step meetings at St. John’s and open meetings for anyone who comes and just basically talk. We will also set up worship experiences at the church where both those groups come together along with the community and actually experience God through worship. These people have the most isolated sense of loneliness that you can imagine, so we want to come together with a community of people that are saying they love them – we want to lift and carry you to the waters where Christ can heal you. In that sense, we’re sort of sheep dogs trying to lead you to the Good Shepherd.
Is there a place you go for spiritual sustenance for yourself in this work?
The thing is you either can burn out or burn in. You have got to have a program to where you are able to burn in and nurture the flame or else you will catch on fire. I have mentors and sponsors who are in defense of me and these programs, but I also have spiritual mentors and programs that I am accountable to. This is actually in addition to a pretty fairly strict devotion schedule and time that I take myself. I know that if I do not involve myself in spiritual disciplines, hold myself accountable and stay plugged into the spirit, this would overwhelm me. There is a whole circle of prayer involved in all of this. I have serenity knowing that there are a plethora of resources with the intentionality of actually reaching out for the least and the lost.
Why should the church be involved in this work?
St. Augustine said the church is a hospital for sinners, so I mean the church should be at the forefront. That is what the church is supposed to do, so I would say, if not the church, then who?
John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.