Not all social experiences provide the kind of fellowship we need. Most of us know what it is like to be surrounded by people but to feel profoundly alone. Regardless of the specifics of our spiritual struggles, we know that superficial social niceties or interactions that don't go past "How are you?" and "Fine, thanks" will not help us. When we try to replace true fellowship with mere socializing, we may end up feeling emotionally drained and discouraged.
Each of us longs for a community where we can be honest about the spiritual struggles we experience. If our faith community gives us the message that it is not okay to be struggling, each of us will think we are the only one in the community who struggles. We will feel isolated.
There is an appropriate place for coffee and doughnuts, and there is an appropriate time for saying hello and chatting about the weather and sports and whatever. We do not need all our relationships to have honesty, vulnerability and transparency as the highest priority. But we do need a safe place, perhaps several places, where we can be our authentic selves. Recognizing these places and growing in our ability to create such places are some of the most important things we need in the process of rebuilding our spiritual lives.
The first and perhaps most important question to ask about any community when we are in the rebuilding process is whether this is a safe and supportive place to do what we need to do in rebuilding our spiritual lives. In order to answer this question, there are a few characteristics that are almost always useful to check for.
• Confidentiality versus gossip. Communities that understand the importance of confidentiality are almost certainly more helpful than those that do not. We cannot say what we need to say unless we know that the people who hear us have a capacity for confidentiality. If gossip is a common practice in a community—in spite of how sharply it's condemned in the Bible—there is no way for that community to be safe for us. A safe community, of any size, is one that can maintain confidentiality. A small support group works best when things that are said in the group are not repeated elsewhere.
• Identification versus advice. Unless we ask for advice, we probably don't want it—and won't benefit from it. What is much more helpful is to interact with people who can identify with our struggle sufficiently to offer hope. It is always appropriate for people to present their own stories about difficult experiences and how they overcame them with God's help. But this does not mean they should preach or grandstand or deliver long lectures. We need people who can identify ways in which they have experienced what we are experiencing and who can humbly share their experience when it might be helpful.
Identification is given a very high priority in the dynamics of twelve-step groups. People in recovery from addiction or codependency have learned from difficult experiences the importance of having robust boundaries about not giving advice, not asking questions, and not making comments about other people's stories during the group time. It is all too easy to focus on other people rather than on the work we ourselves need to do. Jesus' teaching about the speck of sawdust and the plank seems relevant to us in this context (Matthew 7:3–5). Imagine what a group would look like if every group member took Jesus' teaching seriously and showed up ready to work on their own planks rather than on other people's specks of sawdust!