Note: This article has been excerpted from Handling Tragedy in Your Small Group, a SmallGroups.com Survival Guide.
Real life doesn't wait outside while we attend our small-group meetings. Fortunately, a small group is a place where burdens can be shared, and often will be shared. But what happens when the really big problems hit? At what point do group members move beyond listening and praying for group members in trouble, and move toward offering concrete help?
One example is when a group member faces a financial crisis—perhaps the loss of a job, falling behind on a mortgage, getting into serious debt, and so on. What should the group do? What should the group not do?
There is no step-by-step manual for a situation like this, but there are some definite guidelines that can be very helpful to both the group and the group member in crisis.
Identifying the Need
When a group member shares a financial crisis, the first thing the group must do is give the individual a chance to share openly about the particulars of the situation—what led to the crisis, what circumstances were beyond control, what overspending or imprudent behavior may have contributed, what are the likely eventualities and consequences of the current crises, and what resources might be explored.
In this situation, it's particularly important that the group recommit to their covenant of confidentiality. Financial losses, particularly to the breadwinner in a family, can be shattering emotionally and psychologically, as well as practically. Gossip about such matters is sin; it is harmful to the church community as well as to the individual.
It's also important that the group demonstrate genuine care to the person or family in need. The Bible tells us we are to "weep with those who weep"; what this means most of all is that we imagine how we would feel in the other's place. If we are able to walk a mile in the other persons' shoes, we will be better equipped to show and speak our true and deeply felt sympathy for the pain of the current moment. We do this without any predictions of the future or attempts at explaining it away. We simply say, "This is so hard, and I am so sorry you suffering through this. I care so much for you."
One thing that a small group can offer is a reminder that economic success or failure is not a measure of a man or woman in God's eyes, nor is it a measure of the bounty and grace of God. A struggling person suffers more when made to think that some spiritual failing has caused the problem, or is made to question the provision of God. A lot of false ideas and principles have seeped into our culture in recent years—ideas and principles that might lead one to believe that financial success is a measure of God's favor. Having a group member suffer financially is an opportunity for the group to explore Scripture's teachings on these aspects of our faith walk.
Once the situation has been shared and heard, it is critical for the group to pray to God together, asking grace and wisdom not just for the person experiencing the need, but for the entire group. Pray that all of you might know how best to be helpful.
Deciding How to Help
Scripture tells us that if we see a brother or sister in need, we are never to say "Go in peace, may your problems be solved" without becoming involved ourselves in giving real help. A crisis for one member is an opportunity to reaffirm the teaching that we are indeed our brother's keeper.
Still, any group must acknowledge that no matter how much its members care for one another, it is very unlikely that the resources exist for the group itself to solve the entire financial problem. Difficulties will often arise that require huge amounts of money, and any group's resources will never be boundless. The group should discuss how members of the congregation might be in a position to help, and just how the one in need might best share his or her situation with others in the church.
With these considerations in mind, it is then important for the group to devote some time to an exploration of what the individual can do, what options exist, and how the group can be of practical help. This discussion should be deeply practical. Can a car be lent for transportation to job interviews? Can babysitting be offered? Can food be shared? How can one member help the person in crisis get needed information, do required paperwork, and meet with necessary people or agencies that may help? This has the advantage of demonstrating that the individual is not alone—that we are part of one body.
When such a meeting occurs, it is important that the person in trouble be included. This demonstrates deepest respect, and not doing so means that the group presumes to know more than, or be superior to, the one who is in need.
There may be times when one person in the group is in a position or is led by God to offer very specific financial aid. It may be very important that this person, for whatever reason, make his contribution privately or anonymously. This inclination should always be honored. It is common practice in many churches for money to be given to clergy members with the express wish that it be transferred to a particular person in need, and that the person not be told who the donor is.
Here are two more things to consider when deciding how to help:
- Equality among membership. Financial crises can sometimes reveal a sort of double standard in a small group—particularly if a family is involved, or if the member is very well-liked by the group. In those situations, there can be an inclination to jump in with aid in an amount and a proportion that would not be available should another member have a similar need in the near future.
A group needs to develop an understanding of itself as a balanced and fair gathering of people. In certain circumstances, it can happen that one member becomes the ongoing recipient of the group's charity, even while others in the group are also in need. Of course, there really is no way to make certain that everyone is treated "fairly," but groups need to be aware of the possibility of deeply wounding one member while helping another. The situation calls for wisdom and true discernment.
- A separate meeting. When life problems are overwhelming, it is possible that a group may find itself devoting much or all of its meeting time to one member's crisis. This might not best serve the group, nor the individual member. In an instance where it is apparent that a member's current crisis will require significant time in the group, this should be addressed directly in the meeting. It may then be then decided that the group wants to devote the current meeting to discussion of the member's crisis, or it may be decided to hold a separate meeting—perhaps at another time or as an extension of the usual group time.
A Chance to Grow
This may sound insensitive, but a financial crisis within a small group can be a great opportunity for growth—not only for the person experiencing the crisis, but for the rest of the group, as well. When a group is faced with such a challenge and works and prays together to offer real help, the results often include a stronger bond among members, a feeling of deep trust, and a sense of real joy in being of use and service to one another.
A financial crisis can also be the opportunity for each group member to examine prayerfully his or her own value system when it comes to money. This is a great chance to talk very openly about the choices we make with our money. How much do we give away? Why? How do we decide? How do we make decisions about purchases and entertainment that are not necessities? These questions can be explored as a group, which creates a wonderful opportunity for group members to take an honest look at how financial decisions are made, priorities determined, and charity supported. There is no one who cannot benefit from periodic examination of the uses we make of the money God has placed in our hands.
In the end, if a member is able to share his financial needs with the group, and to receive caring help and support, this will encourage others to share their needs, as well. This might include needs for companionship, for activity, for rest, for friendship, for solace, and so on. Every member of every group will struggle with something. When the group is seen as a safe place to share these struggles, God can be glorified as members love, serve, pray, and truly care.
And what a witness to the world when that happens. "See how they love one another."
— Linda McCullough-Moore; copyright ©2009 by the author and Christianity Today