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.
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, as 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.
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.
While establishing the first support group in your congregation, start your political ‘home work’ well in advance. Pray for wisdom on how best to present the goals and objectives of the support group program to different audiences. Find ways to introduce ‘support’ and ‘recovery’ into other ministries of the congregation. 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. 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. One of the promises of support group ministry is that we can become people with honest testimonies instead of people with ‘good’ testimonies.
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. 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. It is very important to anticipate and respond to the reasonable concerns people might have about the group. Three kinds of concerns which demand much focus are: 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.
Support groups are a powerful tool in the recovery process. The new behaviors and spiritual disciplines learnt 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.