Christian Support Groups for People Struggling or Suffering
What is a support group?
Look at Webster's definitions for the word SUPPORT:
- to hold up or serve as a foundation or prop for
- to keep from fainting, yielding, or losing courage
- to keep (something) going
Incorporating these definitions, we can say that a support group is
a meeting of people coming alongside of each other to help keep each other going .... to help each other maintain a healthy ability to function ... so as not to cave in to or lose courage in the face of their suffering
Certainly this would include elements of encouraging, admonishing, comforting, and assisting one another. All believers are called upon to come alongside of each other in this way. A support group is a small group of people who intentionally gather on a regular basis to ensure this happens in their lives in ways and doses that might not naturally occur.
Usually the participants are going through similar difficulties. They may all be grieving due to a loss they have suffered. They may have experienced abuse or gone through divorce. They may be struggling with addictive behavior. Support groups should target in on a specific need so people can find points of identification with one another.
What makes a support group different from other small groups?
A support group, like any small group, should number no more than 12 people in size for optimal effectiveness, but has a distinctive purpose that sets it apart --that of bolstering those who are suffering or struggling, with compassion and unconditional acceptance.
While Bible study may be a part of the program, it is not primarily a Bible study group. While prayer should be a part of the process, it is not primarily a prayer group. While a witness of Christ should be maintained, it is not primarily an evangelistic event.
Who will tend to go to a support group?
- those who feel isolated in their suffering and need to know they are not alone in their struggles
- those who feel lonely and need someone to talk with who will understand
What are essential elements in a good support group?
an atmosphere of trust
sense of belonging
In essence, people need to feel safe if they are going to open up and share their deepest feelings with one another. If they sense people are out to judge them or "fix" them, they may find it difficult to share. If they believe people care about them and accept them as they are, they will be more likely to open up and share.
What should happen during a support group?
If you are using a designed curriculum or plan, the material will probably suggest a specific format for you to follow. If you are structuring your own group, you will want to include the following:
- someone to serve as the facilitator --This person serves as a guide and a servant-leader, not as a dictator or monopolizer of the group.
- a get acquainted time --This is essential particularly if you have newcomers to the group. For regular attendees it helps to build community.
- a springboard question or topic --This could also be a brief instructional or devotional time out of which discussion will grow.
- opportunity for everyone to participate in sharing where they are in their journey --Guard against conversation dominators. And, do not force someone to share who is not yet comfortable.
- sharing of prayer requests --This may not be appropriate if your group consists of believers and unbelievers.
- continuation of sharing informally --This often happens naturally over refreshments.
- occasionally invite a guest speaker or have a special event --This, however, should not be the norm because you need to structure for adequate sharing time.
Where should the support group meet?
Meeting in a home will provide the most relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere.
Meeting in a church could be threatening to unbelievers and will give a more formal feeling to the meeting.
Meeting in a community building would be less threatening to unbelievers but will still give a more formal feeling to the meeting.
Who can facilitate a support group?
While it certainly would be helpful for the facilitator to be someone who has experienced the same kind of loss or problem, it is not necessary. The requirement according to 2 Corinthians 1:3-6 is that we "comfort those in any trouble (notice that it says 'any' trouble, not just the ones we have experienced) with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." If you know the comfort of God in your life, then you can help others.
God's comfort is what hurting people need most.
You don't have to be able to say "I've been there, done that" but you do have to honestly be able to say "I care." If you know the comfort of God in your life you will be able to reach out with compassion and mercy to those who hurt or struggle even if you do not share a common experience.
If you have the gift of mercy and/or exhortation, God has enabled you to dispense His grace to people in ways that comfort and say "I care."
If the facilitator is someone who has experienced the same hurt or struggle as the group, be sure this person is far enough along in his/her own journey to truly be a help. The facilitator needs to bring to the group a level of mental objectivity, emotional stability, and spiritual perspective that only comes when a person is far enough in the healing process.
What is a facilitator supposed to do?
To have an effective support group, a facilitator must do more than show up and lead the meeting. All of the following tasks need to be accomplished if the group is to flourish:
- notify people of the upcoming meeting: post card, note, phone call, church bulletin, flyer, one-on-one invitation, or other means of advertising like the newspaper and radio if the support group is open to the community
- plan for the meeting: get acquainted time, springboard question or topic, etc.
- conduct the meeting: implement your plan but be flexible
- follow-up: pray for group members, contact absentees, acknowledge by note or phone contact dates of events significant to group members (good to maintain a database or file card system containing vital information)
For help on shepherding the people in your group, click here.