By Allen White
Small Groups can meet some of our basic emotional needs. Everyone needs to feel that they belong. This is a high value among Small Groups. The Bible teaches us, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5). We all want to be included by others. Our Small Group is the place where we’re always included. We belong.
We also need to feel accepted. Regardless of where we’ve come from or what we’ve done, Small Group is a place where we can come as we are to learn, to connect and to encourage each other. That doesn’t mean that our group will allow us to stay where we are. If there are things going on in our lives that are harmful or damaging to our well-being and our spiritual growth, then it’s the group’s place to address these things in our lives. Sometimes we are blind to things about ourselves that are very obvious to others. The group should never approach anyone with a judgmental or self-righteous attitude. The rest of the group has their issues too.
Our couples’ Small Group in California was a diverse group. We had a broad age range. Some couples had small children. Others had teenagers. One couple had grown children. One member enforced the law, while another member gave us the impression that he might be running from the law. It was a mixed bag of folks.
Two of our guys would always end the evening by going out in front of our house for a smoke. The rest of the guys were a little jealous of the fellowship they enjoyed out there. For a brief time, we even considered taking up the habit. Word got out to other Small Groups that we had a couple of smokers. In fact, a member of another group approached me at church one day, “It must be embarrassing that you as a pastor have small group members that smoke in front of your house. What do your neighbors think?”
I said, “I know it’s terrible. But, what’s even worse is that I’ve heard that some of our groups are full of gossips.” Okay, I didn’t actually say that. But, if I had, wouldn’t that be awesome?
We have to accept people where they’re at. Think about it. Where else are we going to accept them? I suppose we could put some prerequisites for being accepted into our group. But, why make it harder to be accepted in our group than it is to be accepted by Jesus Himself?
While Small Groups can meet some important emotional needs for our members, groups can’t meet all of their emotional needs. And, I’ll go ahead and say it, they shouldn’t try to meet all of their emotional needs either. While the Bible does tell us to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), it also tells us that each one should carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). John Townsend and Henry Cloud do a great job of explaining this in their book, Boundaries.
As a group, we can help people process what’s going on in their lives. We can care for them. We can pray for them. We can follow up with them. But, we can’t allow the needs of one member to dominate the group. If we begin to see this happen, we need to gently recommend other resources to address their issues. At that point a support group or counselor could help them work through their issues. If someone is struggling in a relationship or with a life controlling problem, the group can certainly support them in his progress, but the group cannot become his “support group.”
Now, I didn’t say kick them out of your group. I didn’t say that. In fact, the leader should let them know that they are welcome to stay for Bible study and that the group will gladly support them in their journey. But, the work that needs to be done has to happen in another setting.
It’s important to know what we can and cannot do in a Small Group. We can offer teaching from God’s Word. We can offer fellowship. We can offer prayer. We can offer acceptance and belonging. We can’t offer anything that caters solely to one group member and excludes the others. We can’t take on all their problems. We can’t meet all of their emotional needs. We can’t do for them what only God can. But, we can keep pointing them back to God.
A member of my group was struggling with how to help a friend who had a financial need. He wasn’t sure about how much more involved he should be. He had already paid some of this person’s bills. I asked him what he felt led to do. He gave one of the most honest answers I’ve ever heard. He said, “I’m codependent. I feel led to solve all of the problems. That’s why I need the group’s insights.” We helped him figure out where to draw the line.
What is your group carrying for your members? Where might your group be trying to carry the member’s whole load as well? How do you know when it’s time to ask for help? I would encourage you to check in with your coach and determine what help is truly helpful.
By Allen White
John Ortberg wrote a book called Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. I think he was on to something. Group life is messy. People come to our group looking neat and clean. They are well mannered. Then, they start opening up. Group is a safe place to share the stuff that they’re wrestling with, and then the problems come out. Rather than throwing your hands up in the air, congratulation yourself. Your group is actually working. If no one in your group has a problem, then your group has a problem. But, that’s for another day.
The question, then, is not if a group member has a problem. The question is what to do once problems are identified. There will always be problems.
1. What kind of need does the person have? Are you dealing with a past hurt, an abusive situation, an addiction, a job loss, a financial problem, or something else? The type of need will largely determine what your group can and should do.
For example, if the person has a large financial need, then before your group starts helping financially, it would be a good idea to check with church staff and have them assess the need. Staff who serve with benevolence have pretty good discernment to know who has a legitimate need and who’s trying to scam the group. Unfortunately, some groups have been taken for a ride. There are also many resources in the community that could be of help. Your group can still help, but the help should be offered in coordination with the staff.
2. What help seems to be working? As your group gives their attention to this hurting group member and listens, how is that helping them? Do they feel better after they talk things out or does this add fuel to the fire? When your group prays for the member’s needs, what is the result? Does your group member find peace? Many people just need to know that other people care, that they are accepted as they are, and that it’s normal for them to be experiencing this. If prayer and group support is encouraging to them, then keep it up.
Caution Here: Your group should avoid “fixing.” Let group members talk without giving them advice. Give them the gift of your attention without interrupting, telling your own story, or trying to solve their problem. They need to be validated by being heard. Sometimes a listening ear is all they need.
3. How is the care of the hurting person affecting the group? Most of our small groups are designed primarily as Bible study groups. Our groups offer care and support, but this is centered on a Bible study. If the hurting person in your group wants to turn your Bible study group into their personal support group, this can certainly cause some tension. Check-in with your other group members. Are they willing to serve or are they becoming weary in well-doing? Can the hurting person participate in group life, share what they need to share, but not make the group about them? You don’t want to forfeit the rest of your group members over one member who dominates the group with their problems.
4. How is the Holy Spirit directing you? When you pray for this person, what are you prompted to do? If the Spirit prompts you to buy groceries, then go buy groceries. If you feel prompted to adopt the adults in your group, you should check-in with your coach or a pastor first.
5. What’s your motive? Do you want to help because helping makes you feel good? Do you need to be needed? It’s good to check-in with wise counsel. One member of my group was helping a friend with some bills. When I asked, “What do you feel led to do?” He said, “I’m co-dependent. I feel led to fix the whole thing.” That was one of the most honest moments in our group. The Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), but it also tells us that “each one should carry their own load” (Galatians 6:5). When something becomes too heavy for another, we should pitch in and help, but we have to avoid doing for other people what they should be doing for themselves. This creates an unhealthy dependency that won’t do anybody any good.
6. Check-in with your coach. If you feel out of your depth on something, it’s not necessarily time to pass the problem along. God may be using the situation to stretch you and to show you how He intends to use you. Your coach is a great resource to determine how you should be involved.
7. What other resources are available? If a group member is dealing with an issue, a support group that addresses that particular issue would be a great resource for them. You can find groups in your church or community for Divorce, Separation, Grief, Substance Abuse, Single Parents, Single Mothers, Blended Families, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Marriage Issues, Financial Issues, and others. Sometimes it’s helpful for a person dealing with the loss of a loved one to attend a grief support group in addition to your group meeting. Ideally, their grief issues for the most part are addressed in the support group, and then they can participate in the small group Bible study as well. That doesn’t mean that they will never bring up their grief, but maybe they won’t spend the whole group time on it.
8. If after all of this, the hurting person just doesn’t seem to be getting help, it’s probably time to refer them to a church counselor or a licensed counselor.
9. If the hurting member won’t follow direction regarding what’s appropriate in group, then it’s time for a difficult conversation. The presence of a narcissistic person will destroy your group. If after several personal conversations with them, they continue to dominate the group with their issues, you must stop this. Clearly and directly redirect them in group: “Now, [Name], we have talked about this. This is not something that we are going to discuss here.” Sometimes a look and a shake of the head will do it. I pray that your group never gets to #9 on this list, but if it does, you have to consider the good of the entire group.
This is about the time when a leader will say, “I didn’t sign up for this.” No, you didn’t, but God did.