Recovery support groups are unique; they involve various legal, financial and emotional aspects that do not always apply to Bible studies or congregational care groups. Consequently, pastors, counselors and other church leaders interested in forming a recovery ministry within the church need to understand the function and objectives of these groups.
Church leaders must first learn the basic principles of recovery support groups and how these groups can help their hurting members. When pastors are familiar with the concepts and processes involved, they can better identify individuals in need of recovery and respond with support and encouragement to those who wish to integrate recovery with their faith.
Building the Foundation
When beginning a recovery ministry, it is important to identify issues that need to be addressed. Usually, these issues stem from a myriad of past or present events and circumstances. They include chemical dependency, eating disorders and emotional damage caused by incest, violence, living with an alcoholic, or growing up in a dysfunctional family.
The need for recovery support groups within the church can be identified in various ways, including a survey to determine the specific needs for healing within the membership. Refer to the Appendix for a sample survey. Pastors and church leaders can also talk with their parishioners to uncover relevant issues. After these needs are identified, church leaders can then meet with members to discuss their concerns and establish goals for a recovery ministry. Asking for congregational support will encourage individuals who are already in recovery programs to help organize Christ-centered support groups.
Church Leadership and Support
Support and encouragement from pastors and church leaders are fundamental requirements for a successful recovery program within the church. When congregational leaders understand the concept of recovery and provide a solid foundation for its incorporation into the church, hurting members are often more receptive toward the program. They feel more secure in pursuing recovery if they believe church leaders understand their dilemma and are willing to support them. Even without actively participating in recovery support group meetings, pastors and church leaders can have a powerful impact on their success by:
- sharing personal life experiences, even if they are not directly related to recovery issues;
- joining the National Association for Christian Recovery (NACR), an organization that supports recovering Christians and provides valuable tools to help them integrate recovery with faith;
- providing educational opportunities through books, videos, or other visual aids for those who want to start a recovery ministry or participate in one;
- organizing educational workshops with recovery-related themes such as "Improving Self-Esteem" or "Recognizing Denial;"
- arranging recovery-related Sunday school lessons, such as "Identifying Codependent Behaviors" or "Healing the Brokenness of Our Past;"
- developing materials that introduce young people to recovery issues;
- being available to discuss problems with recovering Christians or direct them to professional counseling if it appears necessary;
- arranging for church members to give testimonies of their own recovery experiences as part of the worship services;
- being aware of the pain involved when individuals begin to confront their past and make changes in their behavior and circumstances; and
- presenting a series of sermons on understanding the twelve-step discipline, explaining how God uses the process to manifest His healing power.
There is an important distinction between church-sponsored recovery support groups and similar outside groups that only rent meeting space from the church. It is extremely important that church leaders understand the church’s legal responsibility regarding each of these types of meetings.
When a church rents space to outside groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, or Codependents Anonymous, the need for personal liability coverage is minimal. The only requirement is protection against accidents or injuries while people are on the premises. The church is not responsible in any way for the reactions or behavior of any individual that may result from participation in a recovery meeting.
Church-sponsored recovery groups are a different matter. Pastors and leaders need to know that the church may be held liable for an individual’s destructive behavior occurring as a result of these meetings. Concerns about potential liability should be discussed with a lawyer and an insurance professional. An example of a legal opinion regarding Church liability is included in the Appendix One.
To help minimize the risk of litigation, group leaders should stress that Christ-centered recovery meetings are not to be confused with group therapy or professional counseling sessions. Law commits psychologists, therapists and counselors to a professional standard of behavior while counseling others. Group members should understand that support group facilitators do not assume a professional role, and group processes are not intended to imitate methods used by these licensed professionals. The purpose of these groups is not to offer advice, but rather to provide spiritual guidance and support to participants dealing with painful life issues. There is no charge for participation. By tradition, recovery groups are self-supporting. Participants are collectively responsible for expenses incurred, such as rent, materials and refreshments.
To further guard against legal difficulties, recovery group participants should never be advised to perform a particular act or to refrain from doing something. Statements such as, "Leave your drunken husband if he comes home again in that condition" or "Don’t waste your energy getting angry it just makes matters worse" are inappropriate in recovery group settings. However, it is acceptable to assist a woman in coping with her drunken husband by strengthening her spiritually through prayer and encouraging her to seek professional guidance if necessary. Individuals can also be encouraged to honestly express their thoughts and feelings to other group members. Ministry leaders should be familiar with agencies that can provide help when a circumstance goes beyond the functions of a recovery support group or the responsibility of church staff.
In conducting support group meetings, it is important to further maintain the distinction between group processes and professional counseling by using religious and recovery terms instead of professional phraseology. It is appropriate, for example, to refer to individuals as meeting participants, group members, or ministry students instead of clients; to use the term prayer group or support group instead of group therapy; and to offer spiritual guidance and support instead of advice.
Finally, when a recovery support group functions as part of a church ministry, both the leader and group members are expected to act appropriately. Regular meetings held between church leaders and group leaders can be an important communication tool that helps to keep problems from becoming unmanageable.
Common Characteristics of Recovery Support Groups
Christ-centered recovery support groups are intended to provide a safe place where individuals can share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with others. They create an atmosphere where people from similar backgrounds can learn to replace denial with honesty and thus begin to confront their negative behavior. This process offers individuals an opportunity to recover from the effects of their self-defeating behavior.
Within the group setting, participants are considered equals. Titles, degrees, or other factors that could foster a pecking order within the group should be minimized so that individuals can communicate as peers and learn to develop healthy, functional relationships.
As members become better acquainted and more comfortable with one another, they can try out new behaviors within the safety of the group. By learning to respect one another, participants can take emotional risks through honest sharing and thus benefit from loving experiences. Through this process, every member is given an opportunity to testify to the love of Christ.
For many Christians, the church environment has provided a mask behind which they can hide from reality and pretend that life is free of problems. These individuals may have been led to believe that the Christian faith is a "quick fix" for life’s difficulties, that all one has to do is believe, and problems will disappear. Within the group setting, however, people come to realize that struggles are natural, that God did not intend for us to lead an uncomplicated life. Even Jesus experienced days of discomfort and weariness when everything seemed hopeless.
Support group leadership is group-centered. A facilitator should provide overall guidance to keep the meetings running smoothly. This person offers support and direction to meeting participants and serves as a resource for answering questions relative to the material.
Facilitator Qualifications and Responsibilities
Experience has shown that recovery support groups benefit significantly when led by a recovering person with an understanding of twelve-step materials and experience in leading recovery support group meetings. Someone who has attended other support group meetings understands group dynamics and processes and can extend this knowledge to others. An experienced facilitator offers group members an element of security by being available and aware of what to do when problems arise. Facilitators can become acquainted with participants by interacting with the group members each week.
When selecting a facilitator it is recommended to choose an individual who has:
- an understanding of twelve-step principles and traditions and a working knowledge of twelve-step programs;
- an understanding of dysfunctional behaviors and their origins and effects;
- a God-given desire to serve the Lord by helping others confront and overcome their problems; and
- a lifestyle consistent with Christian principles.
The Facilitator is responsible to:
- provide a positive example of working toward recovery by honestly facing and dealing with personal issues;
- moderate the meetings and ensuring that they start and end on time;
- help weekly leaders to resolve difficulties within the group; and
- help to provide a loving, trusting environment that encourages sharing and caring.
It is important for participants to understand that a facilitator cannot give professional advice, but is available to share his or her own experience, strength and hope. When a professional therapist, counselor, or psychologist facilitates a recovery group, he or she must be willing to participate on the same level as other members and not in a professional capacity. A facilitator shares personal experiences and faith, as blessed by God’s grace. This person does not dominate the meeting, but gently guides its progression so that everyone can experience discovery and healing. It is important for all concerned to remember that God is guiding the entire recovery process; He is the ultimate authority within the group.
Starting a recovery ministry within the church is not difficult. It can be successfully integrated into the lives of church members simply by inviting interested parties to participate. The program can be publicized in church bulletins or newsletters and through announcements at church meetings, including Sunday school and worship services. In addition, announcements at secular support group meetings give Christians attending those meetings an opportunity to join a Christ-centered group. Further discussion on recruiting participants is included in Chapter Six.