by Dale S. Ryan
Support groups are becoming a common part of the life of local churches as congregations learn of their importance in the recovery process. Many congregational leaders recognize, however, that the process of starting and maintaining support groups may not be easy. Support groups are not some kind of magical programmatic fix for the ills of modern life. On the contrary, with the opportunities and benefits of support group programs come distinctive risks and potential problems.
This article will summarize some of the promises that come with a commitment to the shared community of a support group as well as some of the potential problems which are part of support group programs. This focus on potential problems is not due to a lack of enthusiasm about support groups. My hope is that understanding some of the problems which other congregations have faced will help you to move more rapidly to developing an effective support group structure for your congregation.
Recovery takes time. And it is emotionally painful. Because of this it is important to remind ourselves regularly of the promises that come with a commitment to the journey of recovery. Recovery is like cleaning out a closet. The mess always seems to get worse in the process of getting better. Things will almost certainly feel worse before they feel better. But, there is a reward for persistence and faithful struggle. We can face the truth. We can learn to build healthy relationships. And, having broken out of our own denial, we may be able to be of assistance to others who are also struggling.
We can replace denial with honesty.
As a very young child I learned to sing “every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before”. This relentlessly cheerful song was my first introduction to what the Christian life was supposed to be like. Because I was a child, I sincerely believed that it was true even though it did not correspond to the realities of my life. When things were not ‘sweeter’, I assumed that there must be something wrong with me. Most commonly I assumed that there was something wrong with my faith. If only I had more faith, or if only I trusted God more or if only I prayed more, then I was sure that I would experience every day as ‘sweeter’. And, so, I found myself gradually slipping into the kind of compulsive, grace-less religious life that often accompanies pretense. It is now clear to me that this version of Christianity is not biblically accurate. It is, rather, a thin veneer of Christian language and sentimentality coated on top of a deeply entrenched denial system. That every day with Jesus will be ‘sweeter than the day before’ is a thoroughly unbiblical and sub-Christian expectation. God has not promised us a life of constant euphoria. Not even Jesus could live on this planet and experience life as sweeter every day. He had days of weariness. He had God-forsaken days. We can expect the same.
The presence of support group ministries in a congregation challenges in a very practical way the image of Christian faith as a quick fix for life’s problems. As support groups become an increasingly public reality in a congregation, it will become more difficult to sustain the pretense of being ‘together’, unbroken people. Denial on many levels will be challenged by the honesty which support groups encourage. This is the first promise of support group ministry – we can begin to replace denial with honesty.
We can learn functional family patterns
A second promise of support group ministry is that we will learn to develop more functional relationships. One way of understanding dysfunctional families is to see them as families committed to three central rules: “Don’t talk”, “Don’t feel” and “Don’t trust”. These are very unhealthy rules. One of the central promises at the heart of support group ministry is that is possible to unlearn these rules. It is possible to become a person who talks, who feels and who trusts.
Because dysfunctional rules are learned in social settings(usually the family, but often reinforced at school, at work or at church), they must be unlearned in social settings. Without a supportive community, learning to talk and trust and feel is very difficult. Support groups provide a safe environment in which to try out new behaviors based on functional rules. Confidentiality allows us to speak when all of our training and instincts urge silence. The testimony of other people gives us the courage to continue the struggle and we experience gradual progress in developing healthier relationships.
We can learn to testify to God’s grace
A third promise that comes with recovery ministry (and with support group ministries in particular) is that we will find meaningful ways to testify to the love of Christ. One of the spiritual disciplines that is central to support groups is the spiritual discipline of ‘testimony’. Unfortunately, like many of the disciplines essential to the Christian life, the discipline of testimony has been so badly abused that it may need to be reinvented in order to be useful. I once attended a workshop that was designed to teach me how to ‘give a good testimony’. The basic idea was to wind up with a simple story about my life that sounded like this: ‘things used to be very bad, then I found Jesus and now things are great’. It is now clear to me that this attempt to construct a ‘good testimony’ is not merely misguided. It is, rather, a highly structured form of denial about who we really are. One of the promises of support group ministry is that we can become people with honest testimonies instead of people with ‘good’ testimonies. If we can learn how to talk about our lives in ways that other people, Christian and non-Christian, will recognize as honest and real, then we will have opportunities to testify to God’s love and grace.
It is important to recognize that our culture is full of abuse and addiction. For evangelism and community outreach to have any hope of being responsive to the needs of our communities, they must take these needs seriously. A church that plans on growing by welcoming into the congregation healthy, happy families with two parents and 2.3 children will soon be frustrated. A disciplined look at the communities we have been called to serve will show clearly the need for recovery ministry. So, if we take seriously our own need for recovery, if we will face our own brokenness, then we may be prepared to share our journey with others. The third promise of support group ministry is that having faced our own pain we will be prepared to respond appropriately to others who share in the same struggles. We will become people who are able to speak of the good news of Jesus in ways that are intelligible to real people with real problems.
Pitfalls: External Concerns
The development of support group ministries in the local church comes with predictable dangers. Local churches understand ‘bible study groups’ or ‘small groups’ but are often quite uncertain about ‘support groups’. People who are not familiar with recovery or who are not a part of a support group may have concerns about this kind of ministry. I call these ‘external’ concerns. They are ‘external’ to the actual functioning of the group. If you want to form a support group in your congregation, it is very important to anticipate and respond to the reasonable concerns people might have about the group. I will focus here on three kinds of concerns: a) the relationship of the support group to the overall functioning of the congregation, b) the relationship of the support group to the pastoral staff and finally, c) the perception that a support group may present unique liability concerns for a congregation.
Integration with Congregational Life
One of the most important considerations in establishing a support group ministry has to do with the relationship between the support groups and the congregation as a whole. If you plan to establish a free-standing ministry [which may only require permission for use of a room at the church] then you may not need to be overly concerned about congregational relations. My personal conviction is that support groups do not work nearly as well in this kind of isolation. I encourage you to envision your support group ministry as an integral part of the life of your congregation. If you do so, however, then it is critically important that you pay attention to the ways in which the support groups will influence the overall dynamics of the congregation. A lot could be said about integration of support groups into the life of a congregation but I will limit myself to two pieces of advice.
First, pay attention to congregational politics. Some pastors and congregations, of course, don’t like to think of themselves as political institutions. But all congregations have interest groups, age groups, particularly influential people and people whose support is critical to the success of any endeavor in the congregation. It would be a mistake to think that because ‘recovery’ seems so full of gospel to you that it will seem that way to everyone. There will be some resistance to the development of support groups in your congregation. But, you have a choice when resistance arises. If you allow it to hook your own anger and personal issues in such a way that you cannot sustain a dialogue, then the ministry will be at risk. If you can see the pain from which the resistance arises, then you may be able to help the congregational leadership through the process of understanding the benefits of a support group ministry. You must be prepared for questions like: “Why would we want more alcoholics to come to our church?”. Or “Why would we want a reputation in the community as the church for chronically needy people? It will scare away the strong families we need to give us stability.” It may be perfectly obvious to you that these questions are deeply rooted in denial, but you must find a way to respond to them that is both understanding and helpful.
If you are establishing the first support group in your congregation, start your political ‘home work’ well in advance. Talk personally to the key influencers in your congregation. Sharing honestly about your own journey may be an important part of building credibility for the next step. For some audiences it may be helpful to emphasize the role of a support group as an ‘outreach’ to the community even though you know very well that you need resources like this for people already in the congregation. At other times it may be critical to emphasize the obvious: we need this because the “chronically needy” are us. Pray for wisdom on how best to present the goals and objectives of the support group program to different audiences.
A second piece of advice about congregational relations is to find ways to introduce ‘support’ and ‘recovery’ into other ministries of the congregation. If what you experience in a support group is not reinforced by the preaching, teaching and behavior of the congregation, it can limit the benefits that the support group can bring into the life of the congregation. My experience has been that congregations which see a support group as a specialized ministry to a small group of people with special needs rarely receive the blessing which could be theirs. By contrast, congregations which understand that needing ‘support’ and ‘recovery’ are fundamental facts of life for all of us tend to create worship environments and educational programs which reinforce the support group process. Workshops on recovery-related themes can be included in congregational education programs. Presentations in Sunday School classes could be arranged. Testimonies from the support group can be included in worship services. There are many ways in which the climate of the congregation can be shaped to be more conducive to recovery ministry.
Just as it is important to pay attention to the relationship between a support group program and the congregation as a whole, it is essential to pay attention to the role of the pastor. Increasingly pastors are recognizing the value of support groups and are eager to encourage their development. But this is by no means universally true. I have heard pastors express a wide range of concerns about support groups:
“I understand ‘discipleship’, ‘Bible study’, the ‘will of God’,’repentance’ and ‘faith’. I don’t understand ‘healing of memories’, ‘inner child’, ‘higher power’ and ‘recovery.’ It sounds like a bunch of New Age ideas to me.”
“All of the other ministries of this congregation are led by people who have earned the trust of the congregation by demonstrating their giftedness and competence. You want me to encourage a ministry that sort-of-does and sort-of-doesn’t have a leader – and the leaders you talk about are all people who we know are very needy.”
“This is a great idea and if we had any alcoholics in our congregation I would love to have a program like this.”
After you deal with your own anger, you will probably be able to find very helpful responses to these kinds of concerns. I only have space for some very general comments about pastoral relations. First and foremost, take the time to get to know your pastor and his/her concerns. Listen. Don’t assume that hesitation is the same as rejection. Listen again. Keep the dialogue going. Share with your pastor and lay leaders what has been most important in your own recovery journey. Give your pastor a gift membership in the National Association for Christian Recovery so that he will be exposed to some of the best in Christian thinking about recovery. Share books and tapes that have been important to you. Till the soil in your congregation to prepare it for more recovery oriented ministry. If resistance is high to a support group, perhaps a book study or a Bible study with a focus on recovery issues could be a first step – the Life Recovery Guide series of Bible studies was designed with this use in mind (see the Bible study section of the library).
Most pastors have been trained to think that the most important part of the life of a congregation is what happens during the Sunday morning worship services. It can be a difficult adjustment to realize that for some people the most important part of the life of the congregation is a meeting on Tuesday night which the pastor doesn’t even attend. So, it is critically important to share ownership of the ministry with the pastor by keeping him/her up-to-date about what you are doing. Give him/her regular reports, share stories as appropriate. There is a great temptation to be satisfied with acquiring permission to use a room at church. I encourage you not to settle for this. Engage the hearts and minds of the pastor and the whole congregation.
It is not uncommon for pastors and congregational leaders to express concerns about the possibility of increased liability that could come with support group ministries. Liability is a legitimate concern. Our society seems to have an insatiable appetite for legal services. In any case, fears about legal liability, even if not well founded, are still fears and deserve to be respected and responded to appropriately.
The key to limiting perceived risks is to have a clear understanding of what support groups are and what they are not. Society has a legitimate right to regulate and licence people who provide professional services (psychologists, counselors etc.). And anyone who performs these professional services can legitimately be held accountable in a court of law if they are performing regulated functions but do not conform to the standards of care which the state demands. The key to minimizing perceived risks of litigation is to make it clear that what you do in your support group does not resemble the things which licensed professionals do in the practice of their regulated work.
Fortunately this is not difficult in the case of support group ministry. Support groups have ‘members’ or ‘attenders’, not ‘clients’. Support groups are not for ‘therapy’ or ‘counseling’ but for ‘support’ and ‘encouragement’. Support groups are not places where people receive ‘treatment’ or ‘consultations’ or even ‘advice’. And, there is no fee for ‘services’ of any kind. This may seem obvious, but somewhere in the written materials which you distribute to each group member you should make this very clear. Some support groups ask participants to sign a written disclaimer that indicates their understanding of what the group is and is not. Take the time to let pastors and other congregational leaders know that you are sensitive to these issues.
Pitfalls: Internal Concerns
A second set of concerns faced by support groups relates to the internal functioning of the group. Because support groups come with such a wide diversity of goals and group processes, it is difficult to make generalizations about these dangers. Groups which are ‘open’ (participants may join the group at any time) will face different struggles than groups which are ‘closed’ (participants all join at the same time). Groups that have a limited duration will face different struggles than groups which continue indefinitely. Before examining some of the concerns that are relatively common in support groups, however, I want to emphasize that if you are considering starting a support group, you don’t have to get it all right the first time. Contrary to what you may have learned as a child, it’s okay to make mistakes. Perfectionism is just as dysfunctional when it comes to support group leadership as it is in other areas of life. Plan on making mistakes. Plan on learning from them.
Nothing is more helpful in avoiding the dangers to which support groups are susceptible than to have clarity about group assumptions. For example, clarity about the people for whom the group is intended is extremely important. Narrowly focussed groups(e.g. groups for adult women who were sexually abused by an alcoholic father) are not better or worse than groups with a broad focus(e.g. groups for adults from dysfunctional families), but the two groups ought probably to adopt very different kinds of group processes. Clarifying assumptions about the target population of a support group is the first step towards designing an appropriate process for the group. In addition to different assumptions about the target population for a group, there are also three very general sets of assumptions about the process of recovery, each of which tends to result in a different kind of support groups process.
1) Recovery in the Present Tense.
People struggling with addictions must necessarily focus on support group strategies that emphasize the present. The 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is the classic model for a present-oriented recovery journey. Living ‘a day at a time’ is the goal. The shame and blame of the past and the fears of the future only feed the addictive cycle. Consequently, the 12-steps focus largely on present reality and the behaviors of today. You cannot be sober for tomorrow, and yesterdays sobriety can’t keep you sober today. It is true that the 12-steps include some limited focus on past events (e.g. making a moral inventory) but the purpose of this discipline is really to lead to making amends in the present. Lengthy discussions of past trauma (e.g ‘drunk-a-logs’) will not be helpful. Leaders will do best to model a focus on what is going on in my life today and how the steps offer practical strategies for dealing with present reality. Introducing a focus on the past or the future too early in the process of recovery from addiction will only contribute to relapse. People often need several years of sobriety before they are prepared to work on these other issues.
2) Recovery in the Past Tense.
In contrast to people struggling with addictions, people who have been abused gravitate to recovery journeys which are much more oriented to the past. Many survivors of sexual abuse or adult children of alcoholics, for example, begin their recovery by participating in a 12-step group but find that ‘God as I have come to understand him’ is a short tempered, vindictive, punitive God. Finding more biblically accurate images of God and experiencing healing of the wounds which have led to these distortions will be needed before it will be possible to fully appreciate any ‘higher power’. This necessarily involves a disciplined focus on past events. Support groups oriented towards past-tense recovery tend either not to use the 12-steps as a central feature of their group process or to use the 12-steps in a very different way than they are used in traditional AA 12-step groups. Unfortunately there are some in the AA community who see this as an abuse of the steps. I have, for example, heard people speak derisively of past-tense oriented recovery as ‘twelve steps with teddy bears’. This kind of dogmatism about the process of recovery is not likely to be well received by people who have already experienced abusive relationships. Support groups which are oriented towards recovery from past trauma will be much more attentive to the psychological aspects of recovery than will present-tense oriented recovery groups and will also be more likely to see themselves as a companion resource to professional counseling.
3) Recovery in the Future Tense.
Most support group strategies encourage present-oriented or past-oriented recovery journeys. Future-oriented recovery journeys are also possible, however, and some attention to these strategies might be helpful. Relapse prevention programs are a classic example of a future-oriented recovery journey. The goal is to imagine a predictable event in the future and to build the skills now that I will need to respond appropriately to that predictable future event. When support groups for survivors of sexual abuse focus on the issue of revictimization, for example, they are helping group participants acquire the skills to respond to possible future trauma. My own conviction is that many support groups would be well served by including some elements of future orientation to the group process.
The main reason for discussing the diversity of support group processes, is to emphasize that when you start a support group you must make choices about what kind of group process you want to create. No one kind of group will meet the needs of all people. It is a lot easier to face this at the very beginning than to find out later that you have promised too much to too many different kinds of people. I encourage you to take the time to think through what kind of group process you want to have and who the target population will be for your group. Recognize the strengths and limits which these choices imply and make them as explicit as possible both to potential group participants and to others who are concerned about the group (e.g. your pastor, referral sources).
More developed support group programs respond to some of this diversity, of course, by developing a variety of groups for special purposes. It is increasingly common, for example, to find churches developing Newcomers Groups where participants receive education about recovery and orientation to the longer term groups which are available. Support group programs for survivors of sexual abuse also often begin their groups with an educational presentation and then break into smaller groups that focus on the material contained in the presentation. This clearly distinguishes the support group process from a ‘therapy group’ in which educational goals are much less pronounced.
A second key to avoiding the internal pitfalls to which support groups are susceptible is to pay attention to leadership development. Leadership is a complicated and tricky business. For people in recovery this is especially true. We are, unfortunately, most familiar with very dysfunctional leadership styles, the most common being either the chaotic leadership provided by leaders-who-don’t-lead or the rigid leadership of leaders-who-control. Neither chaos nor control are helpful in recovery. In groups with leaders-who-don’t-lead you find a wide variety of dysfunctions. Some simple examples that come to mind are: a) the meeting room is locked because no one was responsible for checking with the church secretary, b) people are angry when one person seems to dominate the meeting, c) group rules are ignored because no one knows how to implement them in healthy ways. You can, no doubt, think of other examples of the chaos that comes when leaders don’t lead. In some support groups the group assumptions do not allow for explicit identification of leaders. In these cases a ‘leader’ is assumed to be someone who has come to the group to ‘lead’ rather than to work on his or her own issues. The assumption is that a ‘leader’ has come to ‘fix’ the non-leaders. Codependency in leadership is, of course, an important concern, but groups will have leaders. Even groups that insist that no such people exist will have people who perform the functions which leaders perform. In my view, it is preferable to acknowledge the people who perform leadership functions and to hold them accountable to lead in appropriate ways, then to pretend that no such people are present.
The danger at the other extreme, of course, is to have leaders that inappropriately control group process. Examples of the consequences of this are also not hard to find. I know of support groups where overcontrolling leaders have resulted in a) groups with a high level of insight but very little motivation to change(other than to please the group leader), b) groups in which members are re-victimized by abusive behaviors related to the group leader’s desire for control and c) groups which have deteriorated into times when the leader gives advice to each group member about their problems.
Some of the elements of a defence against dysfunctional leadership patterns might include: a) Pay attention to your personal boundaries and limits, to your level of anger or frustration, and to your level of motivation to lead the group. There is important information here. b) Acknowledge that, because of your own dysfunctions, you are susceptible to assuming inappropriate responsibility for others. Focus on this issue in your own personal recovery work. c) Find some way to be a part of an accountability/evaluation structure that extends beyond group participants(e.g.. ask someone you trust to regularly ask you questions about how the group is going or arrange for a more formal evaluation of the group’s functioning by your pastor, leaders of other groups, or a counselor), d) Make sure that the group you lead is not the only support system available for your personal recovery and e) Find ways to share leadership tasks.
A third area which accounts for many of the problems to which support groups are susceptible has to do with group process. I will comment briefly on three elements of group process:
1. Group Formation and Termination.
Many of the problems experienced by support groups come from a failure to pay attention to the special transitional problems which take place during group formation and group termination. I am convinced that the way in which a group is formed and, even more importantly, the way in which a group terminates can be as important as the process a group uses during its functioning. Questions about group formation which deserve consideration include a) How will potential group participants be screened to see if the resources of the group are appropriate at this stage of the person’s recovery? b) If no screening is planned, how will the group respond to participants who are unlikely to be helped by what the group has to offer? and c) How will appropriate expectations of the group be shaped prior to the first meeting of the group? Termination issues arise not just when a group as a whole decides to stop meeting, but also when individual group participants decide to stop attending for whatever reason(e.g. relapse, geographical move, lack of interest). Even groups which think of attendance as critical for recovery for the rest of a person’s life (e.g. AA groups) experience very high turnover of group participants. It is not uncommon for groups to have a 90-95% annual turnover of group participants with only a small ‘core’ of people who have been part of the group from the beginning. Many leaders experience this kind of turnover as a gradual filling of a reservoir of grief and abandonment. Recognizing this early in the process and responding appropriately can be extremely helpful in becoming a more effective leader. It is always helpful to publicly acknowledge the losses which transitions bring.
2) Group rules.
Many of the common problems encountered by support groups can be minimized by developing clear group rules and putting them into practice in healthy ways. My experience has been that leaders of support groups often express concerns that their implementation of group rules is an expression of an inappropriate need for control. This is a legitimate concern, but people who are aware of this danger are not probably at high risk for using their leadership role abusively. Rules(or ‘guidelines’) are an expression of the shared values and common commitments which group members freely adopt by joining the group. To develop and implement them, therefore, is a sign that you care about the safety and integrity of the group and its members. It’s important to remember that all groups have rules – some make them explicit, let people know about them in advance and implement them consistently. Other groups keep their rules covert and implement them haphazardly. The latter groups will face a series of predictable disagreements about what the group is ‘suppose’ to be like. Group ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ should answer questions like: Do you want to have ‘cross-talk’ during your sharing time (Crosstalk is ‘discussion’ – people making comments about what someone else has said)? Is it okay not to share? Do you plan to limit the amount of time any one person can speak? It would not be helpful, of course, to have a 20 page rule book, but a few simple guidelines will prevent a lot of confusion and prevent many conflicts. Other chapters in this book give examples of the variety of group rules used by support groups. My own conviction is that ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choices about group rules are rare. Rather, the key to a healthy group process is to have clarity about the rules and effective, helpful ways to put them into practice.
3) Group Growth.
An increase in the size of a support group is good news – it means that more people are facing the realities of their life and getting help for themselves. It is important to recognize, however, than some of the most significant dangers faced by support groups come as a result of growth. Support groups have no immunity from the laws of group dynamics. What works, for example, in a group of 8 does not work in the same way in a group of 25. Things that came relatively easily in a group of eight (e.g. intimacy, accountability) will have to be done differently when the group size increases. Adaptability is one of the things which groups need most. Things will change and healthy groups will be required to adapt. You can respond to the effects of growth in a variety of ways. For example, you can separate men’s groups from women’s groups, you can add a newcomers group, you can have a combined sessions to hear a presentation following by breaking up into smaller groups, you can have sub-groups which use different group processes(e.g. a ‘characteristics group’ and a ’12-step group’). The main point is that if you get too ideological about the best way to run a support group, it may be difficult to sustain the adaptability that will be demanded by growth.
Support groups are a powerful tool in the recovery process. The new behaviors and spiritual disciplines learned in a support group contribute in many ways to the transformation which God is working in our lives. If you are considering starting a group for the first time, I want to encourage you. Learn as much as you can ahead of time, but do it! Most of the learning will only come once the process has begun. It is possible to replace denial with honesty. It is possible to learn functional family patterns. And, it is possible to learn to testify in honest and functional ways to God’s love and grace. May God richly bless you for your commitment and courage in recovery. And may your roots sink deeply in the soil of God’s love.