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Ex-pastor will help St. Petersburg church launch Celebrate Recovery

Gil Smith has struggled with pills and alcohol. Now he’s director of recovery ministries at First United Methodist Church.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Gil Smith has struggled with pills and alcohol. Now he’s director of recovery ministries at First United Methodist Church.

The ups and downs of Gil Smith's life are literally on display for all to see. The clerical robes hanging in his office testify to his years as a United Methodist minister. The Waffle House shirt hanging nearby is a reminder of his fall but, most important, he says, of his redemption.

Smith, 57, once headed a large Knoxville, Tenn., church with Sunday attendance of about 700. The church might have been thriving, but he was not. At one point, he was popping more than 400 pills a month. His drinking was out of control, and at his lowest he was sleeping just two hours a night and living in his garage.

These days he has no problem telling his story of "a minister who crashed and burned.''

Beginning this week, he'll share it in St. Petersburg, when he launches Celebrate Recovery, a biblically based 12-step program at First United Methodist Church in the city's downtown.

He thinks others like himself will be receptive, drawn to "one beggar telling another beggar where to find some good bread.''

The downtown church — where Gov. Charlie Crist got married — is offering the program because it wants to reach out beyond its walls, said the Rev. David Miller. The new ministry is an expression of the congregation's faith, he said.

"The church is designed to be the hands and voice of Christ in the world. We needed to be more in touch and more involved in our immediate community,'' Miller said.

It was a call that led the congregation to Smith, who has come from leading a successful Celebrate Recovery program at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville.

For Smith, though, it had been a long climb back.

He was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. His father was a Methodist minister.

"It was the perfect little family. It was as normal as it could have been,'' he recalled.

When the family moved to a new town, he joined the wrong crowd.

"The first people I connected to drank and smoked,'' he said.

That began what Smith now calls a 33-year odyssey of on-again off-again substance abuse and addiction.

"I got arrested three times while I was in high school,'' he said.

His father took him to Florida for a vacation after the first arrest. The second time, he asked, "Why do you keep sticking daggers in my back?"

Smith's recollection of college was one long party. It took him five years and three months to get his undergraduate degree. There wasn't a substance he didn't try.

One night he walked into a sanctuary and begged God for help. The answer seemed to be ministry. He even became addicted to that, said Smith, who got a master's and a doctorate from Emory University.

"I wanted to be a super minister,'' said Smith, who preached for 25 years. "I was a good enough fraud and a good enough con to play it out that long. When I found the narcotic pain pills, I thought I was in heaven.''

At one point he was forging prescriptions.

In 1982, though, he went into treatment for the first time. He wasn't completely honest with his congregation, simply saying that he had "a problem with some pills.''

When he returned, they gave him a standing ovation.

By the time he took over a large Knoxville church, he was into his second marriage and was sinking even lower into addiction.

"I got on to alcohol and opiates and speed. I got to the point where I was living in my garage. I was sleeping only two hours a night. I wasn't showing up for work,'' he said.

Friends and colleagues confronted him the evening of Dec. 5, 2000.

"They had all recognized the symptoms. They were waiting at my house, but I wasn't ready to change,'' he said.

He escaped to a hotel and remained until he ran out of money and had nowhere else to go. He surrendered his ministerial credentials and entered a treatment program in Atlanta. It was while there that he got a job at Waffle House. He was 48 years old.

"I always look at my Waffle House shirt, because that was my salvation. … I cleaned the toilets and washed dishes,'' he said.

After five months, he went back to Knoxville on a Greyhound bus and lived in the Salvation Army. A former colleague invited him to live in a Sunday school room at his church. He got a job selling cars.

While attending that church — Cokesbury United Methodist — the congregation sent him to a Celebrate Recovery conference at Saddleback Church, the mega congregation headed by well-known preacher Rick Warren. In April 2003, he started his own recovery program at the Knoxville church.

It was a surprising success.

"We were averaging 400 people with 17 small groups,'' he said.

The program, which dealt with everything from addiction to codependency to anger management to eating disorders, even employed a full-time therapist.

"This ministry, it just kept growing. It was a major community ministry. That's why St. Petersburg came to check us out,'' he said.

Justus Essman, a member of First United Methodist, was one of those who visited. He said Smith is the right person to spearhead the church's new recovery ministry.

"He understands the struggle,'' Essman said. "He understands the level of compassion that is needed.''

Smith and his wife, Cassie, accepted the call to come to St. Petersburg. "This church is stepping out in faith,'' Smith said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com and (727) 892-2283.

If you go

Celebrate Recovery

opening night

6 p.m. Thursday food and fellowship,

7 p.m. worship celebration, First United Methodist Church, 212 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. Go to crstpete.com or call (727) 894-4661.

Ex-pastor will help St. Petersburg church launch Celebrate Recovery 01/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 7:19pm]

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