Recovery Groups and Small Groups
by Dale S. Ryan
Not long ago I heard someone say:
"I don't see any need for recovery groups in our congregation
because we already have a very vital small group program." This
comment started me thinking about the differences between traditional
small groups in the local church and recovery groups.
I have been a participant in small groups and small group ministries
for a long time. I have led groups, I have been trained as a group
leader, I have written curricula for small groups, I have organized
small group ministries and trained small group leaders. These
experiences have been very helpful to me and I count them as some of
the most valuable of my entire Christian experience. None of them
prepared me, however, for the kind of group experiences found in what
we now call 'recovery groups'. I remember, for example, the first time
I attended a 12 step group. I knew, from the moment the very first
person began to speak, that I was participating in a group dynamic
which was dramatically different from any other I had experienced.
In order to understand the differences between traditional small
groups and recovery groups it is important to begin by understanding
that the purposes of these two kinds of groups are usually very
different. Traditional small group programs may have a variety of
goals but they are usually optimized to encourage the development of
social relationships within a congregation. The primary task is to
encourage acquaintances to become friends and to encourage friends to
become good friends [this would include goals such as assimilation of
new members, retention of existing members etc.]. These are good and
important goals. They are, however, very different goals from those of
recovery groups. Recovery groups are optimized to facilitate personal
transformation, personal change. If people make some friends in the
process[and they often do], that's great. But the central goal is
personal transformation - not social networking, or education. For
example, a recovery group might seek to help people whose character
and identity have been dominated by an experience of trauma[e.g.
sexual abuse] to become people whose lives are free from this
domination. Or, a recovery group might seek to assist people whose
character is dominated by the addictive process to become people whose
character reflects a deep experience of serenity. These are rather
more psychologically ambitious goals that those of typical small
groups and, as a result, the groups are different in many ways.
Normally small group programs in local churches are open to
participation by any member of the congregation or community. Small
groups are often encouraged to include as broad a diversity of people
as possible. For that reason there are few 'entry fees' or 'hoops' you
must jump through in order to get into the small group. Leaders are
trained to make all kinds of people feel welcome. In contrast, the
vast majority of recovery groups are designed for a very specific
'target' population. Recovery groups are for 'adult children of
alcoholics', 'adult survivors of childhood trauma' or other specific
populations. The reasons for this specificity are probably obvious.
Because you must recover from something, a recovery group necessarily
names the thing from which you are recovering. More importantly,
however, limiting group participation to people working on a
particular issue also integrates some of the spiritual discipline of
confession into 'just showing up'. Mere attendance at a traditional
small group does not typically provide any benefit to group
participants. But merely showing up at a recovery group can have some
powerful benefit because it is a public confession that I still am
working on this issue. Like 'showing up' for therapy, just showing up
reminds me that I am still in the process, I still need to be working
on this issue. God honors this discipline of confession - it makes
accessible the resources of God's grace in some powerful ways.
In traditional small groups leadership skills are vitally important.
The more training the leaders have, the better. Leaders are expected
to be creative, to take initiative, to 'manage' the group dynamics
well. Expectations of leaders in recovery groups are very different.
Most importantly, in the vast majority of recovery groups, leaders are
expected to be participants first and leaders second. It is not
difficult to find recovery groups who are profoundly distrustful of
the whole idea of 'leadership' because of the critical importance of
each person present working on their own issues. If someone comes to a
recovery group to work on other people's issues, you've either got a
'therapy group'[which is fine as long as everyone knows what the deal
is] or some one's codependency is out of control[which is not fine and
could work to the detriment of all participants]. In some cases
leadership of recovery groups is rotated among several participants to
de-emphasize the role of leader. In twelve step oriented recovery
groups the role of leader is often further limited by having a written
'script' for the group process which the leader for the evening reads
aloud. I know one trainer of twelve step group leaders who is fond of
saying 'if you are working on your own issues and you can read, you
can lead a twelve step group.' Clearly the emphasis is on the leader
as a participant! The closer, of course, that a recovery group leans
in the direction of a therapy group, the more demanding will be the
role of leader and the more important it will be for leaders to be
trained appropriately and for participants to have clear, shared
expectations about the role of the group leaders.
Probably the biggest difference between traditional small groups and
recovery groups is in the area of group dynamics. Let me point out
three of the largest differences.
In terms of what actually happens during group process, most
traditional small groups are discussion groups. The hope is that, in
the process of discussing something, people will develop more
meaningful relationships or that they will learn things. I really
enjoy discussion. It can be a wonderful, educational, and stimulating
experience. But, let's be clear - discussion is rarely the 'stuff' of
personal transformation. I can discuss my issues until I am blue in
the face but it will not result in personal change unless empowered by
other dynamics. It's worth noting that there are no specific biblical
promises about discussion - there are no texts which say 'blessed are
those who discuss'. It is also worth mentioning that those of us who
use our cognitive skills to support our dissociative tendencies, may
enjoy discussion for the wrong reasons. Many of us have learned how to
'hide out' in discussion groups. I learned very early that I could use
the discussion dynamic to avoid letting people know who I really am.
If I was creative and energetic as a discussion group leader, I could
feel good about my competence and even impress people with 'what I
thought about things.' But 'what I thought about things,' while
important, is only a very small part of me. For me, keeping groups
focused on discussion was a way of guaranteeing that my deep emotional
pain would be safely and securely hidden.
Recovery groups rarely emphasize discussion-centered group dynamics
and in many cases go to great lengths to eliminate discussion[often
called 'cross talk'] from group dynamics. What replaces discussion as
a group dynamic is typically the dynamic of testimony. Whatever else
may be going on, the development of recovery groups in the local
church represents a recovery of 'testimony' as a spiritual discipline.
Testimony, in brief, is a story telling discipline - it involves
saying aloud part of my life's story in such a way as to clarify how I
have (or haven't) experienced God at work. Like confession, testimony
is a social discipline which builds in us a capacity for the truth.
Recovery groups typically spend most of group time allowing group
members to tell their stories. It is a simple but very powerful
If you learn in your small group or bible study that Mary is having
surgery this week, you would probably assume that you were providing
Mary with a valuable service by calling the people who head up the
'prayer chain' at your church and telling them about the pending
surgery. The more people who know about Mary's situation, the better.
Failing to pass on this information might, in fact, be construed as a
failure to 'care'. This is often called 'sharing' and it is understood
by people who do this sort of thing to be a practical way of
expressing love and concern. If, however, you learn in your recovery
group that Mary is having surgery this week, and you choose to pass on
this information to anybody, for any reason, without Mary's explicit
permission, you would have profoundly violated the typical
expectations of group members. Your behavior would not be construed as
'sharing' but as 'breaking confidentiality'. What accounts for this
dramatic difference? First, 'discussion' does not usually require
confidentiality. As long as we are talking about what we 'think' about
things, the level of self-disclosure is relatively low. But,
'testimony' demands a much more significant level of self-disclosure
and the need for confidentiality goes up dramatically. To 'share' what
someone 'thinks' about something is very different from 'breaking
confidentiality' about some one's testimony.
c. Self Disclosure
Most people feel the difference between 'discussion' groups and
recovery groups most intensely at the level of self-disclosure. Once,
in a training program for small group leaders, I was encouraged to
begin the group process with a really 'safe' question - like 'What's
your favorite flavor of ice cream?' The theory, of course, is that, in
order to build trust, you must begin with safe material and then very
gradually work towards questions that require increased amounts of
self-disclosure. This is, in fact, a reasonable theory for
discussion-based small groups with relationship-building or education
as their central goal. At this point, however, the instincts of
recovery groups are almost exactly the opposite of traditional small
groups. Recovery groups typically begin by having participants say
aloud one the most difficult and painful facts of their lives. In
twelve step groups, for example, the first thing said is typically
"Hi, my name is ____ , and I'm an _______." No attempt is
made to gradually 'work up' to "I'm a sex addict" or
"I'm a cocaine addict". Such confession is an entry-level
requirement for group participation. This requirement may not be
implemented by going around the group and having people say "I'm
a . .". But just showing up for the group often has the same
effect. There is a lot of self-disclosure involved in showing up for a
group advertised as for people struggling with a particular issue.
This entry-level requirement of honest self-disclosure profoundly
alters the dynamics of the group process.
There are other differences which could be mentioned. The spirituality
in recovery groups may be more diverse than the normative spirituality
in the congregation. There may be group traditions that are unlike
those in the congregation as a whole (e.g. 90 day pins, graduations,
I thoroughly enjoy discussion-based small groups. They are good places
to make friends and good places to learn things. But they are rarely
the place to look when you need to become a different kind of person.
In times like that, you need places where the spiritual disciplines of
confession, testimony and prayer can be used by God to transform you
into a more grace-full person.
Go to Dale
Ryan's Articles in STEPS Magazine.
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