A successful businessman and Air Force veteran, Baker, who died unexpectedly this week at 72, once dreamed of going into ministry. After the military, he got a job in the corporate world but stayed involved in church working as a youth leader.
He was successful at both, but he was also, in his own description, a “functioning alcoholic.” He could keep up at work and at home, while also managing his steady alcohol intake — and his hangovers.
“My wife just couldn’t label me as an ‘alcoholic’ until she noticed my new breakfast drink – beer!” he said in 1996, while recounting his life’s story.
After separating, Baker and his wife eventually reconciled, and the two found their way to Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, where Baker became part of an Alcoholics Anonymous group and was baptized by the Southern Baptist megachurch’s pastor, Rick Warren. Coming to Saddleback reset the course of Baker’s life, Warren told Religion News Service in a video interview this week.
“When he came to know the Lord, his family was falling apart,” Warren said. “It saved his family and saved his life.”
Over the next three decades, Warren watched his friend grow from a new church member to a volunteer to a staffer, ending as an elder at one of the largest congregations in the United States.
Baker’s ministry at the church was focused primarily on Celebrate Recovery, the Christian 12-step group that he and his wife, Cheryl, co-founded in the early 1990s. The program is now used at thousands of churches in the United States and around the world, helping people deal with their “hurts, hang-ups, and habits” as the program puts it.
The recovery program is also used at prisons and jails across the United States, where it is known as “ Celebrate Recovery Inside.”
Warren said that his longtime friend never stopped growing in faith and worked tirelessly for the benefit of other people. “He literally impacted millions of people through Celebrate Recovery,” said Warren.
The ministry grew out of a letter Baker wrote to Warren informing him of Baker’s experience in Alcoholics Anonymous. While that program, founded by Christians, has spiritual aspects, it is not explicitly religious. Baker proposed starting a group that combined the insights of AA with Christian teaching.