Divorce—How Can We Minister Without Meddling?

A practical look at the boundaries of fellowship groups.

A couple in our fellowship group is having serious marital problems. A divorce is very possible. How can we help without intruding or going beyond the amount of ministry group members should perform?

This question gets to the heart of what a fellowship small group should and should not be.

What a Fellowship Small Group Is

First, let's discuss what a fellowship small group is. It is a place where group members are supported, loved, held accountable, and encouraged. The longer the group has been together, the more likely these things will take place on a regular basis. The participants in a small fellowship or nurture group (as opposed to a content-oriented Bible-study group) share life together as a family. As they grow together, they are more able to trust one another, which builds their ability to support and pray for each other, to hold each other accountable, and even confess their sins to one another (James 5:16).

In the past, people were cared for or "pastored" by a designated person, such as a staff minister or elder. But real care for people happens best in a small group where people know one another and are naturally concerned for each other. Relationships are built in groups before a crisis happens. Then, when a death in a family, bankruptcy, or marital problems occur, people are already prepared to care for the ones who are hurting.

So far, I've mentioned only the internal functions of the group. Members of a healthy small group also encourage each other to serve people outside the group, share their faith, and live Christ-like lives in the world.

What a Fellowship Small Group Is Not

Now let's see what a fellowship small group is not. It isn't a recovery group. A fellowship group does not focus on recovering from some addiction or emotional difficulty. Leaders do not allow meeting after meeting to dwell on one person's problem or one particular predicament that a few members share.

A fellowship group should not turn into a counseling session. Members will have problems, and the rest of the group should be supportive. But counsel should never be offered unless it is asked for, and then only with great care. It is easy for a group to begin paying too much attention to one member or couple who is hurting at the neglect and expense of the rest of the group.

A fellowship isn't an accountability group, either. An accountability group is usually made up of only two to five members who focus on holding one another to spiritual disciplines and development. They work together on specific spiritual or moral issues, confess sins to one another, and practice "tough love" with each other. While the participants of a fellowship group will hold each other accountable, it will not be to the degree that it happens in an accountability group.

Balanced Care

All of this is the foundation on which I want to answer the specific question: How can you help this couple with marital problems without intruding or going "too far"?

The answer depends on how much trust your group has built with one another. If you have developed deep relationships with the couple, you can do more. I believe that part of the Christian life is being involved in one another's lives. We are genuinely concerned for the other person. The question in your case is if this couple is willing to let you be involved. If they are not willing, then you have no business intruding.

The main thing is to be available for them, let them know you are available, and pray for them. Do not get in over your head. Remember that you are not a marriage counselor. If necessary, and if it is appropriate to do so, talk to a staff minister or an elder at your church. He or she may need to step in, for the good of the couple and of the group.

Mike Mack is a co-founder of Smallgroups.com. He currently serves as the minister of small groups at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Interested in learning more about difficult situations in small-group ministry? Check out these great training tools from Building Small Groups:

  • Dealing with Divorce in Your Small Group: The chances are good that either a couple or an individual in your small group will have to wrestle directly with divorce, which means the entire group will deal with it, as well. What should a small-group leader do to prepare for the impact of divorce on individuals, couples, and the group?
  • Shepherding People in Pain: Everyone experiences pain at different points in their lives, and as a small-group leader you will need to shepherd people who are suffering. Learn how to care for, listen to, and minister to people in pain.

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