I was in a program where I received treatment in a group setting in a clinical environment. Being a former minister, it was oftentimes difficult for me to adjust, first to not being the leader and second to being the one to open up in these settings. Yet what I learned about myself and about these small group systems was invaluable.
Serving in the mainline protestant church in the upper Midwest, I realize that we can often be somewhat ‘stuffy’ at times. The words ‘frozen chosen’ often come to mind. These are the kind of churches where you can easily visit and have no one realize you were ever there. The frustration of many pastors is how to get their people ‘out of their box’ and talking about things deeper than the weather.
It is at these times that I sometimes envy our evangelical counterparts and how they have often created deep, intimate settings more similar to what I experienced in these clinical settings in their congregations. However, as a former evangelical, I have also seen how these groups can cause great harm from unprofessional, judgmental and unnecessary words or advice.
So, what is the solution? It seems as if the church is trying to create what the clinical settings, Alcoholics Anonymous, and other support groups have found, and are fumbling at various levels. Here are some attributes of these groups that I believe make them work better than church small groups.
Each group has a set purpose.
The group I was in had a set purpose. Everyone was welcome and respected. We were there to listen to each other and provide feedback. We were in Henri Nouwen’s words, each other’s “wounded healers.” It took some time for some of us to open up, less time for others. If a person did not fit, they were referred to a different support group.
I have found that the age of the ‘Bible Study’ is just about over but topical studies that apply to life are still very applicable. A group that has a well-formed purpose and gives each person the opportunity to grow and share can still heal.
We had set boundaries.
Boundaries were discussed before we walked in the room. If you’ve ever observed an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (or similar meeting) you know that they go over their boundaries at the beginning of every single meeting. You know what’s expected of you and you know what’s expected of your groupmates.
Knowing each other’s wounded.
This is likely the ‘heart’ of the matter. No one walking into the group should assume that they have everything all together. I use the word ‘wounded’ rather than ‘broken.’ Broken implies an inability to be fixed. Wounded implies healing can and will be found. The very purpose of the group is to offer healing. No one will get there if they do not share each other’s wounds and offer them up to the group and God for healing.
A well-prepared, well-trained leader.
I cannot emphasize this enough. The leader(s) of the group need to be aware of what they are doing in order to keep the group on purpose, ensure everyone has the ability to speak, and to make sure everyone is treated with love and respect. Sometimes this takes time and training in the form of a training retreat or time spent apart learning the curriculum of the program being used. Either way, ministry should be intentional.
Again, if you’ve ever been to a support group, you will know that they use ritual. They begin and end at a certain time. They read a certain amount of literature. They say prayers. They hold hands. They have an identity. This is group building. Group members know what is expected of them and of the leader.
We are at the cusp of a new era in the world of the church when it comes to small group ministry. People are looking for less of a church experience and more of a ‘real’ connection. Clinical settings are providing this at a cost of thousands of dollars. Support groups meet in church basements are doing this at no cost. Why is the church itself not taking on the task itself in ways that are healing?