The idea of forming a network of people who can support and encourage us is old — as old as the Old Testament. The Book of Sirach offers an entire section devoted to friendship, including instruction on who we should and should not take into our confidence.
“Let those who are friendly to you be many, but one in a thousand your confidant” (Sir 6:6).
Sirach isn’t being philosophical; he’s offering sound, practical advice. He’s talking about people in whom we can confide when we feel overburdened and on whom we can lean when we’re feeling unsteady. During those times especially, but also throughout our entire lives, we need others who can be a support to us in our journey through life and on the way to heaven. That’s called a support network.
According to professional counselor Margaret Vasquez, we all need support networks.
“Everyone needs a support network because we’re made for community,” she said. “How elaborate and intentional that network needs to be is contingent upon the needs of the individual. Hermits would have a much more limited support system than someone just getting out of rehab, for example. But most of us probably fall somewhere in between.”
The purpose of a support network is to help us grow in holiness and wisdom, and so it’s wise to choose members that we can trust and who will encourage us in our striving, but who will gently redirect us when we get off track. A genuinely godly support network isn’t comprised of people who tell us that we’re always right; it’s comprised of those charitable enough to also tell us when we’re wrong.
The number of people in our support network is less important than the individuals themselves. A healthy support network can be as small as three members, or as large as 12 or more, as is the case with some therapeutic support groups. We may have support groups for different areas of our lives. For example, we may need support in navigating the business world, parenting, relationships or for spiritual growth, and each of these may contain different people.
“When we talk about a Godly support network, we’re talking about those with whom we seek to surround ourselves for the purpose of supporting our walk with the Lord,” Vasquez said. “I believe that the primary criterion is that they be people of truth and be able to witness and/or speak truth to us, as we invite them into our lives and give them permission to do so. That is an invaluable gift that cannot be replaced.”
Types of networks
Whether we realize it or not, most of us have some sort of support network in our lives. For some of us, that occurred intentionally; for others, it happened somewhat by accident.
Megan (not her real name) is a wife, mother and recovering alcoholic, and she has been enrolled in the Alcoholics Anonymous program for many years. She joined AA because she felt her life spiraling out of control and wanted it back for the sake of her family. She has benefited greatly from the program and its members who form for her a vital support network.
“When you’re dealing with something as big as alcoholism,” she said, “you need people around you who will tell you the truth and who, when needed, can be brutally honest with you.”
Megan added a spiritual director to her support network because she realized that she also needed someone who could help her dig into the deeply spiritual issues she faced. Both professionals interviewed for this article recommended reputable spiritual directors as part of every godly support network.
“The ideal support network helps you grow and work for positive change,” Megan said. “They also need to be willing to work with you on a regular basis and to be able to help you step out of the box when you’re stuck.”
For the Vestermarks, the challenge of caring for their special needs son and five other children was too difficult to contend with. They felt alone and were desperate to find others who could offer their support. Additionally, they needed help in providing therapy for their special needs son.
Even though they had been disengaged from the Church, Kathy turned to the only place she could think of for help — the local Catholic parish. The pastor recommended that Kathy contact the parish mothers’ support group. She did, and it was not only the instrument for the Vestermarks’ reversion but also became the support network for which they had longed and the practical help they needed.
If Kathy had not dared to approach the mothers’ support group, her life would not be as rich and balanced as it is today. Her advice to others sensing the need for support network is to dare to ask for help.
“When we first found ourselves in need of help, we tried to do it all alone,” she said. “We quickly ran into the problems that come with pride — arguments, distress, lack of hope and so on. We finally realized that we needed to humble ourselves and ask for help. It was the hardest, yet the best decision we ever made. Our faith has grown enormously as a result, and we are now in a network of people whom we can trust and rely upon.”
Loretta Winn’s support network developed from her use of social networking sites. Although this requires caution and prudence in screening those with whom we associate online, it is possible to connect with people who can become true supports to us. Loretta’s goal was to find people with whom she could have intelligent exchange about the Catholic Church and from whom she could learn for her own spiritual growth.
“The members of my social network post information that is most helpful to me, and I do the same for them,” she said. “Then we share what we’ve learned, and it becomes a ripple effect.”
Regardless who or what kind of support network we choose to form, it’s always best to begin the process prayerfully.
Licensed mental health counselor and founder of Catholictherapists.com, Allison Ricciardi, recommends invoking the Holy Spirit and spending time in discernment.
“The support network will generally evolve over time, and one should be careful not to dive in too deeply until you see if someone can truly offer the support that you need,” she said. “It’s also important that the relationships be reciprocal to some extent. Choose members who are positive, mature and pursuing holiness themselves. Also, choose people who can keep confidences and can listen without judgment or prejudice based on their own experiences.”
In all cases, the primary maxim for godly support networks is to include individuals who share our values and morals, respect our faith perspective, are committed to us, aren’t afraid to disagree with us and who can challenge us to become the persons God intended us to be.
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.