12 steps to personal and spiritual freedom

Ferrell Irvine
Ferrell Irvine

For 20 years, Ferrell Irvine has taught an Alcoholics Anonymous-based workshop that she developed for The Salvation Army.

By Ingrid Baratt – 

For therapist Ferrell Irvine, the 12-step program is a “spiritual growth journey” for everyone.

Based on the original Alcoholics Anonymous steps, she developed a course specific to The Salvation Army and has been running it in the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory for almost 20 years.

“People make changes in the seven-day workshop that will usually take two years in regular therapy,” Irvine said. “I would say that 99 percent of the time we see miracles happen.”

A bioenergetic psychoanalyst from Chicago, she moved to New Zealand in 1991 and set up a bio-energetic practice in Wellington and Christchurch. She met Major Harold Hill, then corps officer at The Salvation Army Wellington City Corps, who asked if she could work with people through the Army. Ferrell turned the challenge back on him and his staff, after observing that they were “workaholics” and could also use the 12 steps.

Instead of baulking, Hill and eight colleagues met with Irvine for two years, working through the steps.

“There were many insights and moments,” Hill said. “But for me one of the big things was realizing that you can be a Salvation Army officer who works too much, or an officer who cops out, but really you’re both reacting to the same thing. They are just two different management systems to deal with fear or anger.”

Gems from the 12 steps

By Ferrell Irvine and Harold Hill – 

• We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.

• The only “past” in which God wants us to live is in what Jesus did.

• We know we’ve stopped resenting someone when we can say 10 good things about them.

• Don’t confuse “who you are” with “what you do.” God is not going to make you into somebody else.


Irvine said The 12-step model specific to The Salvation Army is for anyone who wants greater personal and spiritual freedom for themselves or those they minister to. Today, every cadet training to become a Salvation officer in New Zealand and in Melbourne, Australia, goes through the course. Public sessions are available to all Salvationists, but are kept intimate with only 12 participants each.

It’s during this time that participants work through an inventory of past hurts. “This is the primary transformation for people,” Irvine said. “It moves people from, ‘I’m angry and hurt by what they did,’ to ‘I’m angry and hurt that my needs weren’t met, and I can take those needs back to God.’ Then we see what God does with those needs.”

Nowhere is this process more important than for cadets. “I emphasize the importance of self-examination,” she said. “It’s about getting the baggage out of the way so they can go on to help others to their own healing.”

Irvine knows firsthand the power of these steps, having come to a personal relationship with Christ as she worked through the steps to overcome alcoholism. Now hundreds of Salvationists have worked through the steps under her guidance, and Irvine recounts stories of transformation—from families reconciled to finding self-esteem in God’s image.

The course has helped people overcome habits from biting their nails to smoking. For one woman, it was the catalyst that led her to check herself into a Salvation Army addictions program. She has since found both sobriety and a personal relationship with God.

But for most people, it helps develop a closer relationship with God, a stronger sense of his love for them, and, Irvine adds, a better ability to be more Christ-like.

She has also taken the course into the local women’s prison, and in 15 years of doing the course there, only two participants have returned to prison after their release.

One inmate came to her sobbing, talking about her abuse for the first time and asking Irvine: “Why me?”

“I said to her, ‘I have another question: What if you have a belief that you’re valuable?’” Irvine recounted. “She sat back and got it. Her whole body just glowed.”

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