Hallmarks of a Healthy Support Group

Simply stated, a support group is a regular meeting of individuals who have joined together to offer one another support and encouragement in order to overcome a shared problem.   In informal, small group settings, participants, in turn, share their own experiences, feelings and struggles

Ideally, a good support group is, first, a place where recovering addicts will find true acceptance and a sense of what unconditional love is all about.   It is a safe, non-judgmental setting where they can express struggles, thoughts, ideas, and feelings without fear of rejection.   Hearing the stories of others with similar difficulties and how they overcame them, gives the struggling addict great encouragement to go on in a life of sobriety.

Healthy support groups can provide a sort of “family” atmosphere that stimulates the hope for a better life in all involved.   Because addiction wreaks havoc upon an individual’s relationships with others, a good support group is a wonderful place for recovering addicts to begin the difficult and painful process of re-connecting with other people.

What does a healthy support group look like?

1.   It protects the confidentiality of its participants by not disclosing what members share during the meetings to those outside of the group.

First and foremost, a healthy support group protects the confidentiality of its participants by not disclosing what members share during the meetings to those outside of the group. If a detail of what is shared in a support group gets out, if a detail of what goes on in a program or session gets out to people who aren’t authorized to share that, you’ve lost that person. You will never ever get them back. Not just that, but you will have harmed the reputation of your group. There has to be really up front understood confidentially.  

2. “Cross talk” (interrupting out of turn) is avoided along with offering unsolicited advice and counseling during the meeting.

Avoid cross-talk, which is basically interrupting out of turn and offering unsolicited advice and counseling during the meeting. This happens in NA, EA, Al-Anon, ACOA, as well as any of the Christian support groups.

Just about every group has it’s self-appointed “experts: and all I can say is avoid those people. I would encourage you, that if you are going to use any support group, Christian or not specifically Christian, that you make sure you visit it two or three times to know what is going on before you send people to it, or at least have someone you know involved with it that you trust. Don’t just sent them cold. There are some groups hostile toward Christianity, others that are not. The only way you are going to find them is to visit them or get some advice from people that you know.

Support groups are a lot like churches. If I went to a church, I am involved with the Assemblies of God, if I went to one Assembly of God, there are several that I visited, where if I went to them the first time, I would never go back, because it couldn’t relate, or whatever. And that is within one denomination. What if you just dropped into any church on any street corner to find out what Christianity is like? That is not a representative of the church and what Christianity is all about. In the same sense, support groups are not some kind of monolithic thing and they are all the same. And if you are not a recovering person yourself, look for an open meeting and find out what is going on there and talk to people. This cross-talk thing is always going to cause problems, because usually it is a strong personality who is trying to exhibit undue influence is not right.

Without a facilitator, how do you avoid the cross-talk? You have probably heard a term called “group consciousness.” Group consciousness is basically the commitment of the group that actually monitors itself. A good group has group consciousness so that when someone is getting out of turn, they will be confronted.

The best way, if you don’t have a group, is to find two or three leaders. That is the way you start a support group. Of course, the best person to start it is someone personally, who has had NA and AA experience and some other support group experience. Support groups that turn into Bible studies are people who have never been part of a support group experience themselves. How can you create or replicate something that you’ve never done or experienced yourself?

3. It provides the recovering person with a combination of personal support and group accountability

Group accountability is important, just knowing I have people I report to who will care about what is going on in my life and wonder what is happening with me.

4. It offers a format for honest sharing of personal thoughts and ideas

It provides a format for honest sharing of personal thoughts and ideas. It gives people a chance to process things by talking about them. There really is a tremendous healing value to talk, to get things out and to share. It is a tremendously healing experience.

5. It is a safe and non-judgmental environment for the risky experience of exploring and verbalizing emotions

A healthy support group provides a lot of room for feelings, and you hear people verbalizing, expressing feelings, and people aren’t rejected or judged by any of those feelings.

6. It supplements the entire recovery process and is not the single focus or an end in itself

The group isn’t recovery. It’s not the sum total end of it. It’s not really a program. It is more a support and a supplement to the entire process. A good support group communicates acceptance and freedom of expression without fear of rejection. People aren’t censured or confronted by sharing honest and difficult feelings and things.

7. It communicates acceptance and freedom of expression without fear of rejection

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a meeting where it sounds so negative. There are groups like that. It doesn’t really do what you want to do. Hopefully it is a group where people are sharing hopefulness and good experiences and positive reinforcement.

8. It promotes an atmosphere of positive reinforcement and   hopefulness

9. A “family” atmosphere is maintained when each individual feels he/she can fit in

It is an amazing experience, in the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, the only qualifications for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. That is all you need to be there. It is one of the groups with the least exclusive membership that I have ever seen because they are coming together with the stated unspoken understanding that we are here because we have problems and we want to work on them together. It is really a super safe place, and it really does become a family atmosphere to help people to sense again the belonging or being part of something that is good for them.

10. It has mature, stable leadership, but is not controlled by one or a few dominant individuals

11. It has a definite format for its meetings, not rambling, directionless discussions

My best advice for finding a support group that works is to begin by visiting the ones in your vicinity.   There are a number of online directories that you can consult – such as the one that can be found at Christians in Recovery.   Also, before really deciding on whether or not a group is right for you, be sure to visit it at least three times.   A single visit is never enough time to really know how a group functions.


Advice for the Urban Ministry Worker

baby2Urban mission work is certainly unique.   The rewards can be tremendous, as well as at the discouragements.    So, here are a few things I thought about as I looked at the new year ahead:

A. Keep a life for yourself  I often struggle to the balance between personal priorities and ministry opportunities.   It’s easy to get caught up in ministry and put my own needs on the “back burner.” Because the rescue mission can be a very stressful place to work good “self care” practices are essential.   One of the most important of them is to cultivate a life that is separate from the mission and its staff and clients.   We need to leave work stress behind and pursue our own interests and relationships.   For people who live in the mission facilities, failing to develop meaningful outside relationships and activities is a sure path to “burn-out.”

B.        Make time for the Lord, your spouse, and your children  — Spiritual service is no replacement for spiritual relationship.   We need to protect our walk with the Lord and continue to grown in our faith.   In regard to the family, Paul said it best, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:3 NIV)   Too many Christian workers have not made their marriage and their children a priority and have suffered greatly as a result.

C.        Get committed to a local church  – We all need own church where we can be spiritually nourished and develop relationships with people who can minister to us, instead of looking to us for help.   An effective rescue mission workers knows where to go to get his or her “tank refilled’ spiritually.

D.        Develop yourself professionally  – Cultivate your gifts and take advantage of education and training opportunities that will help you grow to be more effective in your calling from God.   Maybe you need to take advantage of formal aptitude testing offered by employment and career counselors.   In the rescue mission field, there is a wide variety different areas in which we may serve. These include fund raising and administration to direct supervision of clients, and counseling and case management.   Getting the best “fit” for yourself will certainly lead to a more satisfying and effective ministry.

E.        Find a Mentor/Confessor  — Again this past week, I heard another Christian leader, whom I greatly respected, destroyed his marriage and his ministry through infidelity.   We all face temptations like resentment, jealousy, sex, greed, and power.   Some of us also have a past that includes addictions.   My friend with the Navigators likes to ask — “Who’s your Timothy and who’s your Paul?”   There is a real benefit to having the accountability and input of a mature believer who can serve asour “Paul.”   And, at the same time, why not take some time to seek out a “Timothy” if you don’t already have one.   There is surely at least one other younger Christian worker who could benefit from what you have learned in your years of services.   Few things are as rewarding as Investing in the life of other leader.

F.        Be a team player —  When working with troubled people, it’s important to ourselves as part of a team that God has assembled to reach out to them.   He has been at work in every individual’s life long before they ever came to the mission     So, I f I’m not God’s only representative to this person, whether they leave or stay, He will continue to work in their lives (with or without me). Though this may be your time to work with a certain person you are not expected to have all the answers or resources.   But, there is probably someone else who does.   Sometimes, the greatest help we can give someone is to point him or her to another resource where he or she can get needed help.   And, if you are stuck, remember that it’s OK to ask a fellow worker for input and assistance.

G.        To God, our faithfulness is more important than our fruitfulness. –    A “performance orientation” is another path to burnout.   Deep, lasting life change is a process — and an often time-consuming one at that.   Each individual progresses at his or her own rate.   So, we need to be mindful to set realistic goals for our clients — and for ourselves.   Above all, it’s God who ultimately does the changing.   So, we need to avoid shame and guilt-driven efforts, which are from self not the Spirit.   Sometimes the most effective thing we can do is to get out of God’s way.

— Michael Liimatta is Chief Academic Officer for  City Vision College, Kansas City MO

  From Urbansermons.org Mon, 01/09/2012

A Decade of Change in Gospel Rescue Missions

bakersAn interview with Michael Liimatta

The local church is not the only arena in which recovery has made some progress in the last decade. There have been a number of remarkable changes, for example, in the rescue mission environment that are worth noting. To learn about these developments we interviewed Michael Liimatta, the Director of Education for the International Union of Gospel Missions, an association of 270 inner city missions that help the homeless and other needy people.

STEPS:  My recollection is that ten years ago you were working as the director of a treatment program. Is that right?

Michael:  That’s right. I was the director of New Creation Center, a licensed substance abuse treatment center in Michigan. We served mostly homeless men or those released from prison and jail. We also worked with a lot of people who were coming out of very expensive treatment centers but who had no more insurance to pay for treatment. We had a twenty-bed facility and a six month waiting list. There were times when people would be calling for help and we’d put them on the list but by the time there was a bed available they would be dead. That actually happened.

Back then, we didn’t know of any Christians anywhere who had ever considered having a program that took the Bible seriously and included AA principles as well.

When we first started up the program we got some good input from AA-based treatment programs and from Hazelden. But, back then, we didn’t know of any Christians anywhere who had ever considered having a program that took the Bible seriously and included AA principles as well. It wasn’t until 1985 when Dr. Spickard’s book Dying for a Drink came out that I realized there were other people who understood this recovery stuff. As soon as I saw his book I called him right away because I was amazed that there were other Christians who really believed in the twelve steps. I never knew anyone like that existed! Back then it was really exciting just to find one other person.

STEPS:  It seems like a pretty common theme when you talk to Christians in recovery about the late eighties or early nineties that we were all really isolated. Even those of us who were starting to work in this area didn’t know the other people who were headed down the same path. Did it feel that way even when you took your current position as Director of Education at the International Union of Gospel Missions?

Michael:  There were a few rescue missions who had adopted the twelve steps as part of their programming, some as long as 20 or 30 years ago. But out of the 250 IUGM member rescue missions at that time, there might have been only 4 or 5 that understood the importance of having a Twelve Step component in their program. It was very rare.

STEPS:  Most people who read STEPS probably don’t know how much that has changed in the last decade in the rescue mission movement.

Michael:  Exactly. It has changed a lot. If you go to rescue missions now, probably you’d find most of those with long-term residential programs would be Twelve Step oriented. That’s a huge change. In 1990, I started doing workshops for rescue missions on how to develop a recovery component for their ministry. In 1993 we published A Guide to Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs. This “how to” manual with 12 audio tapes and a 250 page manual has sold over a thousand copies since then. So, this is definitely the way things are going. “Soup, Soap and Salvation” used to be the battle cry of the rescue mission movement. Actually, just last year I noticed that “recovery program” has become the normal term used by rescue missions for their long-term life-change programs. Part of this is surely God’s providence.

The common thread among all homeless people is “disaffiliation.” There are two parts to this: 1) they are cut off from meaningful human relationships and 2) they are cut off from any system of support. So, what it amounts to is that people need what I call the three reconnections of recovery: with self, with God and with others. There is a part of the Christian recovery process in which people are actually “reconnecting with the human race.” That is the only way you can ever get out of being homeless. Recovery principles are exactly what homeless people need.

STEPS:  I’m guessing that the process of introducing recovery principles to the rescue mission movement has not always been easy. Is that accurate?

Michael:  At the beginning I was pretty much considered by some to be a promoter of godless psychology. There were big rumors and complaints about me promoting this philosophy that some people thought was so contrary to the traditions of the rescue mission movement. Steve Burger, the director of the IUGM, has always been the kind of guy who has thought “outside of the box.” So even hiring me for this job was reaching for someone outside of the traditional rescue mission world. It has taken time. But, for example, we just had our Central Regional Conference and there were about 80 workers present. There were four different workshops being offered at the same time and 50 of the 80 people came to my workshop. Three years ago when I was down in our Southern District, there were over 200 people there and everybody came to my workshop and none went to the others. The second day of the conference they told all the other presenters to stay home. That was very embarrassing! But it clearly suggests that people were looking for some principles that would really make a difference in the lives of the homeless people they were working with. Another big change is that ten years ago there were no materials to use. If you wanted to do anything with the Twelve Steps and the Bible you had to come up with it yourself. In the 80′s we wrote lots of materials for use in our program but then in the early 90′s the Christian publishing houses went through a kind of Christian recovery fad. They published many titles about Christian recovery. The sad part of that is that so many of those titles were not all that different. The long term problem, of course, is that Christian publishing has to follow the market. And the market for Christian books is the white middle-class female. So a lot of the stuff that came out was not all that helpful for us. Now, we’re finding more suitable materials. Now that the publishing fad has passed, I think we’ll see that the truly useful things are what’s going to be left. Just because a publishing fad has passed, doesn’t mean that there are any fewer wounded people out there. The need hasn’t changed.

STEPS:  That’s surely another one of the things that hasn’t changed in the last decade. There are no fewer people needing Christian recovery. The need hasn’t changed at all. Let me ask you about Alcoholics Victorious. That part of your ministry, like Overcomers Outreach, Alcoholics for Christ and several other ministries, is focused on the local church.

Michael:  Yes, Alcoholics Victorious began in 1948 so it’s the oldest, still functioning, fellowship of Christian recovery groups. It started in a rescue mission of the Chicago Christian Industrial League. The director, William Seath, is a past president of the IUGM and he knew some of the founders of AA. The original name he came up with for the organization was the “Thirteenth Step.” But, for a variety of reasons, it ended up as Alcoholics Victorious. The groups meet in a variety of settings; churches, in prisons, in Salvation Army centers and in rescue missions. After functioning as an independent organization for many years, the IUGM took over administration of AV in 1997. I talk a lot with rescue mission workers about what makes a therapeutic environment. What is it that enables a long-term program to function as a healing community? People experience family for the first time and they have a safe environment where they can begin to explore issues and share, and reconnect with their feelings and use the fourth and fifth and eight and ninth steps to make those important reconnections. Part of the problem, of course, is that most of our rescue mission workers come from the church. The problem is that the church has tended to be so cognitive. The church is mostly set up for cognitive learning. So one of the challenges which recovery presents to the church is to find a way to be more than just cognitive. There is an experiential dimension that has to be there if there is to be any change. One of the interesting things that we had to learn early on is that the Steps are really steps —they are things you do. It’s not like a creed or some kind of philosophy statement. They are actions you take.

STEPS:  Do you think that the emergence of recovery ministries in local churches has made it easier for rescue missions to connect with the local church? Is there a new kind of common ground because you have recovery ministries in both settings?

Michael:  Well, we’re working on that. We see Alcoholics Victorious as a kind of bridge to the local church. Often the people who are attracted to rescue mission work are those who have experienced healing in recovery groups or treatment programs themselves. One of our biggest challenges continues to be finding resources for formerly homeless people who have been through one of our programs. They have been discipled, have experienced a healing environment and now are ready to move on. Where do we send them? What we teach is that there are two important communities that every program graduate needs to connect with. The church community. And the recovery community. They need both of these if they are going to keep their recovery going. Like all of us, even after a one year residential program there’s still a lot of work to do. So the connection with the recovery community is vital. But where can these people go in the Christian community to find accountability, encouragement, and positive input?

STEPS:  Working on our own recovery issues does have a kind of dramatic leveling effect. It doesn’t really matter if you started your recovery at the Betty Ford Center or at the Salvation Army. You still need the same stuff. We’re in this together, whether we are up-and-out or down-and-out.

Michael:  Exactly. Who can relate more to the homeless addict that the person who is sitting in the church in recovery themselves. And maybe this is the new comprehension of God’s grace that we have come to in recovery —that there but for the grace of God go I. If my addiction had not been arrested when it was, or if I hadn’t had certain people in my life that helped me at key moments, I would have become homeless too.

STEPS:  Any instincts about what lies ahead?

Michael:  You know, I think that so much of it depends on the leadership of our churches. One of the areas that I’m not sure we’ve made much progress in is seminaries. The people who are training to be pastors and Christian leaders. I think that’s where we need to focus some energy. If the church is ever going to embrace the message of recovery, that has to happen in it’s halls of learning. I think if we are able to see more of that happening we’ll see a growing acceptance of recovery. Pastors are more and more being taught to refer to professional counselors rather than to do counseling themselves. But the issue then becomes “who can afford it?” The last time I took advantage of professional counseling myself, it was $100 an hour and not covered by my insurance. That’s the biggest challenge. The people who need recovery the most find most professional services are beyond their financial reach. I think it is time for the church to devote some creativity to finding a solution to this problem.

STEPS:  One of the main strengths of recovery strategies as compared to therapeutic strategies is that they are very cost effective. Any time you want to work outside of the middle class, economics becomes a big issue. And, of course, this becomes an even bigger issue when you start looking around the world. Expensive models, even if they have real advantages, are not going to work in most of the world.

Michael:  That’s right. Recovery is oriented to building a support base —a therapeutic community of some kind. That’s how it’s going to have to happen. This is one place where we can learn from AA. More people have sobered up through AA than all treatment centers ever. If you look at people who have sustained their sobriety long-term, the key has been participation in AA and other support groups that have sprung from it. I think professional treatment centers have in some ways detracted from that focus. In the early years especially, AA had a very high success rate because it was people who had experienced healing themselves who were bringing the message to those who still suffered. It is that healing community concept that is so important.

From Steps magazine, Fall 2000, journal of the National Association for Christian Recovery