Shepherding Ministry Venue: Support Groups
The primary purpose of a support group is to bolster those who are suffering or struggling, with compassion and unconditional acceptance, as they help each other maintain a healthy ability to function. If the leader is willing to invest into the people's lives beyond facilitating the group time, it can also be a platform for looking after the spiritual welfare of the members --- shepherding.
Without a network of shepherds, the leader may get overwhelmed.
Since a support group is generally attended by people who are struggling or suffering in some way, the leader who wishes to also shepherd the people would undoubtedly burn out if he/she tried to do it all. Though a support group should involve only a small number of people, the needs are often so great that one person can't facilitate the group time and also be available to provide all the shepherding these people need.
Having a co-leader would help. Along with sharing the load, having another leader involved also provides a protection for liabilities that can sometimes occur in these kinds of groups.
Even so, you need a broader network.
- In a support group you do not usually get into the kind of in-depth Bible study needed to feed their souls.
Encourage the people to regularly attend a good Bible believing church and to study the Word on their own.
- In a support group you do not usually get into the kind of in-depth praying that is sometimes needed to secure victory in people's lives.
Encourage the prayer ministry of your church to pray for your group. Confidentiality is critical but you can have people praying in general for your group. When given permission, you may share specific needs. When needed, you may be able to pair up an attendee of the support group with a prayer partner.
- In a support group you do not usually get into the kind of in-depth counseling some need.
Encourage those who need extra guidance to meet with a Christian counselor or to find someone to disciple or mentor them. Be prepared with a list of referrals.
Dependency must be on the Chief Shepherd, not on the group leader(s) or members.
While one of the goals of the support group is to meet needs and provide support, the overriding objective should be to help people find their security in the Lord. He will be with them in their darkest moments. He is available 24/7. His wisdom is great. His lovingkindness endures forever and is unconditionally extended. His grace is sufficient. His power is limitless. He can be their all in all.
The same cannot be said of the leader or other members of the group. They may not be available when most needed. They cannot always be there. They do not have all the answers. They may not always act and react without bias. They cannot work in and through people to change lives. They cannot be all in all.
A safeguard against developing codependent relationships within groups is to teach God's design for interdependency. One of the best ways to help the healing process is to learn to give and not just receive. Do not allow any one member to monopolize the time and focus of the group. If an individual refuses to look beyond themselves or consistently gets hurt when he/she does not receive "sufficient" attention, perhaps this person is not ready for a support group. Perhaps this person needs one-on-one counseling first.
You probably won't be an instrument of change if you don't assess the condition of the flock.
Though a common issue or struggle draws a group together, the needs will tend to vary from individual to individual. Even the same person may need one thing this week and something else the next. To effectively shepherd a support group, and not just facilitate a meeting, you must learn to discern where people are by noticing their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Ultimately, however, only God truly knows the heart of a person so spend much time in prayer. Rely on Him for wisdom and understanding. Learn to pray as you lead. That quick prayer for "help" in a second of silence may open the windows of your heart to perceive the need of the moment.
For some, merely experiencing the presence of others is enough. Others may need you to give plausibility to their suffering. Some are ready for a good dose of perspective.
Consequently, at times you will provide comfort or encouragement. Other times you will challenge or warn. And, sometimes you will offer help or guidance.
If you challenge, warn, try to give perspective or help when all a person needs is presence or plausibility, then you may exasperate them. They may go further into despair or feel more guilt or isolation.
If you are merely a presence or only give plausibility when the person needs perspective or help, then you may enable them. They may get more set in their ways and not change.
Shepherding a Support Group Involves More Than Facilitating the Group Time
The general duties of a shepherd can well be applied to a support group leader who wishes to shepherd the members of the group which shows why support groups can be a good venue for shepherding.
- Loving the Sheep: Often people coming to support groups need an extra portion of love and grace.
- Serving the Sheep: A leader who consistently serves without worrying about return will tend to make significant impact. In leading a support group, expect giving to be one way though the ultimate goal is for them to learn to reciprocate.
- Being an Example to the Sheep: Telling people how to rise above is necessary but showing them how is when they will better understand. Telling people they need to walk the walk even when it hurts and give even when there is no return is important but modeling such behavior speaks to their hearts more than words ever could.
- Leading the Sheep Gently: Tough love does not have to be gruff. Tough love should be filled with grace. Shepherds should never be quarrelsome or abusive with the sheep. Do not guise your own frustration and impatience with people as "tough love."
- Equipping the Sheep: A support group should not be to simply provide a place for people to vent their feelings. Rather, the objective should be to help people learn how to rise above and cope in healthy, God-honoring ways.
The Shepherding Ministry Manual contains this content along with some questions for further reflection and evaluation to help personalize this teaching.
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