‘We then had 4 foster families in our church…at that point the church said ‘right, well, this is what God’s doing.’’
In your church or local area, you may have noticed there is a growing number of adopters and foster carers. If so, you may think it helpful to start a peer group, but how might you go about that?
What are the benefits of a peer group?
Without a doubt the most important aspect of a peer support group is that it is made up of people with shared experiences. Adopters and foster carers are often looking for people who automatically ‘get it’. They can share stories more freely, without the need to overly explain the context, with a group who are fairly unshockable.
Another significant benefit is the opportunity to share wisdom and information. Many parents/carers need help to learn to navigate the bureaucracy of professional services. They need recommendations of what interventions have been helpful and maybe some encouragement to be more assertive.
Managed well, a support group can be a ‘safe place’ for parents/carers, particularly in times of crises. It may even be the only place where they can relax and have fun without fear of judgement.
Adopters and foster carers can often find peer groups through their local authority or adoption agency, however, the effectiveness of these groups can vary. A Christian peer group gives another layer of shared experience for the parent/carer. Their concerns about adoption and fostering can be discussed with a mutual understanding that they can turn to the Lord for help as well as each other.
What can be the challenges of a peer group?
There are two main challenges with peer groups: setting the tone and the rhythm. Peer groups can add to the stress and worry of the parent/carer when they cannot see a hopeful perspective to their communal troubles. They become ‘moaning shops’, leaving members feeling trapped in their predicament.
Often peer groups struggle to find a good rhythm because parents/carers are at capacity. They may well have an unreliable and inconsistent schedule that makes regular commitments difficult. They may want to attend but find themselves managing competing priorities, and be too exhausted to start new relationships.
When a peer group is formed in a church, an added challenge is that it may silo their support. There may be a perception that the group members are looking after each other, when in reality this is not possible or desirable. Parents/carers want to be seen as an integral part of the church and they are unlikely to have capacity to help each other beyond the emotional support. Peer groups should not replace fellowship within the wider church.
Practical aspects of establishing a peer group
Peer groups are a form of semi-structured support. It is the informal relationships that make it so fulfilling for the parents/carers, but it is a carefully thought-out structure that will allow the relationships to flourish. Before starting a group, it is helpful to think about leadership, goals and audience, format and content, and ongoing supervision:
1. Leadership: It is best when parents/carers are taking the lead on peer groups. But, they rarely have extra time or energy to plan and host meetings. Ideally, you’d have 2-3 people who could take on different responsibilities. One of these people could be a Families Worker / church leader who is willing to listen and serve the parents/carers.
2. Goals and audience: These two go together because your goals may define your audience. If the leadership decides that one of the goals of the peer group is to promote adoption and fostering, then you may have a wider audience which includes social workers and prospective parents/carers. But, if the goal is to create a safe, supportive environment for the parent/carer, you may want to narrow the audience only to families who have a child in their care. It could be that a broader audience jeopardises the sense of felt safety for parents/carers who don’t want to put people off by their frankness. You might also want to consider whether the peer group is only for members of your church, or for other Christian parents/carers locally. If the latter, it may be helpful to have a Statement of Faith that every parent/carer reads before joining.
2. Format and content: What seems to be most helpful to parents/carers is establishing a closed group on a social media platform that they can turn to anytime for prayer, encouragement, and information . Face to face meetings are also incredibly valuable if they are well structured and well run. A clear idea of why you are meeting and what you want to achieve in your time together helps the parent/carer know if they want to prioritise attending over a number of competing tasks. Some parents/carers just value the opportunity for sharing and praying together, others would value some structured input (eg. reading a book together/listening to a podcast). Once the peer group is well established, it could be that a fun, termly gathering for all family members helps solidify the relationships. Face to face meetings will need comfortable and safe venues, and a small budget for catering or activities. The church might want to consider budgeting for this.
4. Ongoing supervision: If the peer group is working well, parents/carers will be sharing deeply. The leadership of the peer group will likely need to debrief with church leaders on a regular basis to ensure they are providing appropriate care. When complex situations come up, it is really important that peer group leaders can turn to people who have relevant experience in pastoral care and safeguarding, and who can apply this knowledge in a timely and appropriate way. In times of crises, it may be necessary to adapt existing pastoral care structures or create new ones. Supervision helps a peer group have longevity; leaders develop skills and resilience as they learn to face challenges that may come up.
By endorsing a peer group in your church, you are creating a safe space for parents/carers to explore the complicated calling the Lord has placed on their lives. Adopters and foster carers face a variety of challenging situations with their children for which they need biblical wisdom. Proverbs describes wisdom as a person – someone we need to get to know (Proverbs 1:20-33). This takes time, attention and care. A meaningful peer group will not shy away from addressing the difficult questions that emerge but will also tolerate living with messy or incomplete answers.
Turning to the Bible in a peer group setting may look a little different to a ‘regular’ Bible study. Instead of complex texts, ideas, and discussions it may be easier to concentrate on one or two Bible verses which focus on hope and encouragement. Perhaps guests could be invited to share a Bible verse that has been helpful for them in the past, and to revisit it in their present context. Alternatively, Bible narratives are easier to absorb when the mind is busy. Jesus’ encounters with the needy and the hurting always remind us that God is close to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18).
As the church journeys with parents/carers, the whole community will benefit from the wisdom the Lord is forging in the trials and sufferings of home life. They are a blessing to the church as much as the church is a blessing to them.
Some helpful books to read together are: