Support Groups May Be Worth the Trouble

A church needs to carefully consider the risks and benefits before launching a group.

Support groups cost something. They tax the entire system of the church. A church may be flush with excitement at the prospects of helping a needy group, but if a church is not ready, a new support group can do more harm than good. We are wise, then, to count the cost of support groups before we start them.

After starting more than two dozen different support groups in our church, I've learned what costs to anticipate and how to deal with them.

Yet I don't want simply to identify costs; that one-sided approach would make me too timid. Before I survey the costs, I remind myself of the benefits.

The Payoff

Just as a house or car has a high cost with a significant benefit, so support groups have proven to be worth our while. As our divorce recovery groups illustrate, they foster:

Healing. Larry was hurting when he came to our divorce recovery group. His wife had abruptly pronounced their marriage over, and soon he found himself divorced. The members of divorce recovery groups are, by definition, gashed and wounded. Their grief is as real as any cut or bruise. Over the following weeks, the group gave Larry the support, acceptance, and living skills that brought hope and the beginning of health.

Evangelism. Although she didn't have a church background, Angela came to one of our groups. In the course of the sessions, she saw faith at work in others and sensed her own need for Christ. She began visiting the church on Sunday mornings and was baptized approximately a year after beginning with the group.

While our groups are open to anyone—without pressure to attend the church or to believe in Jesus—our caring enough to offer the group often earns us a hearing. It's not unusual for group members to begin attending the singles fellowship, Sunday morning worship, or other activities, and eventually commit themselves to Christ.

Deeper faith. Once wounds begin to heal, group members experiencing the grace and forgiveness of Christ often find their faith increasing.

Strengthened family members. Many recovery group participants have family members who are also hurting. When Ginger attended the divorce recovery group, she was concerned about her two children, both in elementary school. She wanted similar support for them. We provided that in the Children of Divorce group, which we offer periodically.

The Cost

Other pastors frequently ask whether I believe they should start this or that support group. I have two responses: First, I know of no more effective ministry than support groups. Second, before starting one, a church should count the cost. To estimate the cost of a group, I ask these questions:

How will this group affect other church ministries? One church, well known for ministry to the divorced, has been so effective that divorced people now account for approximately half of the church. And a majority of the children in the church now come from divorced homes.

These children need extra attention and individual help; they often struggle with major emotional problems. This puts a heavier load on the children's ministry and the church's counseling services. As discipline problems increase, recruitment of children's ministry workers becomes more difficult. The church now finds itself drained of both financial and human resources.

Had the church considered the effects of such an outreach, it may have made the same decisions, but it would have better prepared for such difficulties.

When we considered offering a group for male sexual abuse victims, we projected an increased demand for counseling services, as well as a need for airtight security around the children's ministries. In our case, we weren't administratively prepared to deal with these costs.

What church tensions might emerge? Our congregation offers three different support groups for sexual abuse victims. As a result, such people perceive us as "safe," meaning they think we'll be sensitive to their traumas and needs. Consequently, as a percentage of our congregation, we have more abuse victims than do most churches.

The presence of such victims in our church, however, puts other members on edge. Each support group attracts a unique population, and each population causes the congregation unique anxiety.

In addition, if a church is successful with such a ministry, its demographics may shift, and that can lead to resentment among (or loss of) long-time members.

One church in a university town developed support groups for students away from home. Within a year, many new young people were attending the church. The church found itself starting other ministries for these new members; in fact, the number of programs literally doubled, as did church attendance. However, as some established members noted, although the new members received much support, they gave back little money, time, or leadership.

Can we deal with well-intentioned but troubled volunteers? One couple came to our church after they saw a public service announcement for one of our groups. One day in the hall the woman told me, "God has led us here to work in your counseling ministry. My husband and I can do a lot to train you and your workers for this ministry."

We explored what she meant, and then I asked, "Can you name other churches you've worked with?" Later I called one pastor whose name she had given me, and I learned she had previously approached him in the same manner. Sensing she was unstable, he had her meet with a church counselor, who later recommended, "This couple will have to deal with some personal issues before they can be considered for church leadership."

So she and her husband left that church and, as I later discovered, moved rapidly from church to church for several years before landing in ours.

I decided to meet with them for lunch to discuss their past and to see if we could help them build a credible foundation for ministry. I told them what I had learned. I haven't seen them since.

Hurting people often avoid their pain by trying to heal the pain of others. Such people need the church's help but too often reject it when they're not allowed to become leaders. Well-meaning church leaders looking for willing volunteers often fail to see the dangers such people represent to the church and to themselves.

What church resources will the group require? A local church told me they were starting a therapy group (versus a support group) for abused women. They envisioned a group of ten women who would meet at the church; in addition, a program for their children would be provided and individual therapy for group members offered.

Their vision was wonderful but not terribly realistic. I suggested they think about what would be required for the group:

1. Leadership. Such a therapy group requires at least two trained therapists to lead it. Most churches will have to pay the therapists' fees.

A support group, on the other hand, does not delve deeply into psychological issues. It's more concerned with the sharing of experiences and mutual care. It doesn't require a professional psychotherapist and thus is less expensive.

2. Oversight. If a professional therapist leads the group, he or she should in some way be accountable to the church, usually through a staff member. If a lay volunteer leads the group, the church should provide trained supervision. In either event, group leaders need administrative oversight from either a staff person or key lay leader.

3. Curriculum. Therapists themselves set the format of many therapy groups, so many groups do not need a curriculum. However, this church wanted to provide a related program for children. Such a curriculum is difficult to find; the church would have had to develop one or hire a specialist to do so. Each option demands substantial time and money.

4. Childcare. A church will want to provide facilities and staff to care for any children of participants. Without childcare, a church shuts out many would-be participants, especially single and lower-income parents.

5. Facilities. A therapy group requires a private and comfortable meeting room. Since the group experience could spark trauma in an individual, it's good to have private rooms nearby so that people can be individually counseled on the spot. In addition, childcare facilities should include cots or mats for children staying up past bedtime.

What problems might be exposed in the group? One church formed a support group for parents of troubled youth. As a result, that problem received some attention in the congregation. Whether you call it concern or gossip, it brought out the problems of one leader's family, who were not attending the group and whose teenage son was involved with drugs.

Many considered this a positive thing; a problem was finally out in the open and could be handled. However, some people didn't like the way the problem was brought out, nor did they think it right that it was not dealt with until some group members began talking. The friends of the family began to distrust such a group. Many thought the group was "dragging people through the mud."

What expectations might be raised? The more any church gives its people, the more they expect. When I served a small rural church, I was grateful for the chance to use an IBM typewriter on a mimeograph master to produce a handout. Today, I expect the quality of a laser-copy printed from a computer, duplicated on a high quality, multicolored duplicator. The same dynamic can occur with support groups.

When I first came to my current ministry, the idea of any group excited the congregation. Shortly after we started our first group, a member of the church timidly asked whether we could start another. When the answer was "Not at this time," they were happy the answer wasn't "No!"

Four years and numerous groups later, people ask me almost weekly to start new groups or provide new services. When I cannot begin a new group, or when counseling requests are referred or put on a waiting list, people are offended. The more we offer, the more congregants expect, and the more upset members get when something cannot be provided.

If the Cost Seems Too High

Sometimes the price will be too high. At such times I remember three things.

1. "Not now" doesn't mean "never." When considering a new ministry, I'm sorely tempted to feel, It's now or never. The crying need and my excitement to help combined to create in me a sense of high urgency. But I'm finding that good ideas can stand the test of time.

2. More resources are available than we're now aware of. If lack of resources is the main roadblock, that may not be enough reason to say no. When beginning our divorce recovery ministry, we needed to inform the community of the new ministry, but we couldn't afford advertising. I mailed public service announcements to the cable television "bulletin board." We received several phone calls, but I noticed that the cable station aired the announcements erratically.

I phoned the cable commission and was told, "The announcements are put on by volunteers, and we don't have any." I began sending my secretary to the cable commission two hours a week, and we soon not only received regular phone calls from the community regarding our groups but were also asked if we owned the cable company, our name being so frequently on the air!

3. We are not the Messiah; we only work for him. A church is tempted to think needy people will be lost without this or that potential ministry, and that there is no substitute for what the church can offer. That may be true in some instances, but in others it simply is not.

At one time we sponsored a "Freedom Group" for people recovering from chemical dependency. We ran into several crippling problems: there was competition from other organizations, such as AA, and we found that if people can get help from some non-religious organization, they tend not to come to the church.

We also lacked leadership; chemical dependency groups usually want leaders who have overcome the problem themselves, and we didn't have a former addict who wanted to lead our group.

Finally, our policy of confronting those who showed no indication of repentance alienated those accustomed to AA, where no "cross talk" is allowed.

We know that many of our people struggle with chemical dependency, but we finally faced the fact that we weren't providing an effective group. We closed it down. Within weeks, however, the participants found other groups in the community, some of which I didn't know existed. The Lord provided for their needs when we couldn't.

Janet, a member of our church, was talking to a friend at work when the subject of churches came up. When Janet mentioned she attended ours, her friend exclaimed, "Oh, you go to the support group church!"

When she told me about this episode, I thought, That's not a bad way to be seen. People in our community view us as champions of the cause of the weak and needy, an image that well fits the church of Jesus Christ.

© Christianity Today International; from the book Building Your Church Through Counsel and Care.

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