- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) - Tige Culbertson, a medium-built pastor with a hint of gray creeping into his stubble, is speaking to the hushed congregation at Messiah Lutheran Church in Midland.

“What happens when we - when I - live in the past is I get chained to the past,” Culbertson says.

With the sleeves of his blue button-up shirt rolled up, he launches into the evening’s lesson, on one of the most famous phrases from Psalms: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

For a group of recovering addicts, it’s a simple message.

“You are good,” said Culbertson, “not because of who you are or how you act, but you are good because you are a child of God.”

Restoration Fellowship, a Saturday evening worship group for people struggling with addiction, was founded in October 2011, after Culbertson’s own long journey in and out of church, according to The Saginaw News ( http://bit.ly/1dal8Yj ).

Operating in Messiah Lutheran Church in Midland, it works to make a safe place for its members, one where everyone, including the pastor, can openly share the past.

In the beginning, though, organizers were holding their breath.

“We really had no idea what to expect,” said Culbertson of the first service. “We planned for around 100, and we were hoping for more than 30.”

More than 70 people showed up, and the church-within-a-church has grown to host an average of roughly 120 people, with hot meals every Saturday before worship - part of what Culbertson described as a chance to build fellowship. Worshipers come from across the region.

“It’s a church plan that’s focused entirely on recovery ministry,” said Culbertson, noting the group’s calendar bases some of its lessons on the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous.

“People who are recovering from addiction, from abuse, from past pains, that’s what we focus on…Many of us in recovery find that we’re only as sick as the secrets we keep,” Culbertson said. “And when we start sharing those secrets, we experience the recovering and healing from them.”

When it comes to sharing, Culbertson leads by example.

Six years ago, while working as a pastor in San Antonio, the church discovered pornography on his office computer, leading to his dismissal and the loss of his call in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

His wife, Sara Culbertson, remembers the time leading up to the discovery painfully.

“I knew about Tige’s addiction for 10 years,” she said. “I’d just keep catching him. But who do you tell in a pastor’s family?”

She remembers the public revelation as a time of relief.

“Everybody was devastated, and I was happy just to get some help,” she said.

Her husband, Tige, pronounced like “Tiger” without the “r,” began attending a recovery group. The Culbertsons joined another church together, as congregants. They stayed in Texas for a year longer, Sara Culbertson describing what felt like a “cloud hanging over us.”

Before leaving for Michigan in early 2009, Tige Culbertson worked as Realtor. When the Culbertsons settled in the mitten, he worked as a loan officer. The couple lives in Hemlock.

After meeting with church leaders, Culbertson received his call once again from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in late 2009. Interviewing for pastor positions didn’t go smoothly, though.

“We’d interview well, and we’d get to the point where I’d talk about what God had carried me through, and there were crickets on the other end,” he said.

In spring 2010, Culbertson told a leader in the Lutheran Church an idea for a new kind of church with a recovery focus and heard positive feedback. He worked to get funding from a number of Lutheran districts throughout Michigan, as well as from Messiah Lutheran Church, and “just about anybody and everyone Sara and I have met in our entire lives,” he said. At the first service, they had enough cash to operate for three months.

“Each month, God continued to cover the costs. We’re still underwritten by Messiah, but we’re looking for alternate means of income,” Tige Culbertson said.

In all, it’s been a way for him to bridge gaps with his congregants and share his story with them - an integral, disarming part of the church’s message.

“What I share I don’t share based on theory; I share based on experiences God has carried me through,” he said. “I’m the broken person who stands up front and says, ‘I know what it feels like to be the broken person who is full of shame and without hope.’”

For the Restoration Fellowship flock, that attitude can make all the difference.

“A lot of people go to church and put on their church face, you know what I mean?” asked Dave Hotopp, a Midland resident working to get his master’s degree in professional counseling from Central Michigan University.

A former pastor, he says he doesn’t struggle with addiction and attends because of the atmosphere.

“This place is so real. It’s very solid biblical teaching,” he said, “and at the same time it’s very loving and supportive.”

Bay City resident Jim Lynch said he does struggle, and the group is part of his weekly routine, alongside an AA meeting in Bay City afterward. When he spoke to The Saginaw News, Lynch said he was 10 years sober.

“Every week now, it’s like I have a goal. If I’m tempted…I’ve got accountability in my life, whereas before I was just out there,” he said.

Holli Carter said that dynamic is what makes many residents at the 1016 House in Midland attend Culbertson’s services. A 20-bed residential facility for those struggling with addiction, 1016 has played a role in the Midland community for more than 30 years, Carter, residential program manager at the group running the home, said Restoration Fellowship makes a big impact on its residents.

“Over the last year, I think I could count on one hand, maybe a couple of fingers, the clients who didn’t want to attend,” she said. “It’s so well received because it’s not threatening. It’s been a very cool partnership.”

Clients who want to attend the service are driven there every Saturday, Carter said.

“There’s a moral judgment placed on people who struggle with chemical addiction,” she said. “The church can often be viewed by people as a place of condemnation.

“We all as human beings are searching for an answer and what’s going to fill the hole. This program gives (clients) a chance when they never before may have had the chance to take things apart and look at themselves, and I think that creates a longing.”

Tige Culbertson first visited the 1016 house to attend the group’s “spiritual rap,” where clergy members come to the facility and residents ask questions. When Restoration Fellowship launched, he made an offer to bring residents to Messiah Lutheran.

“He’s been very open about his own journey and recovery,” Carter said. “Because he does that, because he is so open about that, that often provides an avenue and an open door for our clients that otherwise wouldn’t be there. When a person’s willing to show their flaws, another person is more willing to show their own.”

As for Culbertson, he describes his church as a success that comes with its own challenges.

“Every day is an exercise in the extremes,” he said. “We go from extreme lows, as people relapse or fall back into old behaviors or walk away, and then we celebrate extreme highs,” like a Nov. 21 service that saw 12 baptisms.

“It’s the individual stories of life stage and making inroads into recovery that they never dreamed was possible before, and integrating peoples’ recovery with Jesus.”

At the service, Culbertson continued speaking into the dark, his voice rising and falling with the passion behind his message.

“When you have a tremendous debt,” he said, “you’re so much more grateful for what God has done with you.”

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Information from: The Saginaw News, http://www.mlive.com/saginaw