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Support Groups:
Paradigm For Transformational Ministry

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 349

Find a need and fill it…and you may be surprised at what you will discover!

Support group experiences are characterized by one predictable factor: they are never predictable. Support groups can open the doors of any local church to an unprecedented variety of people. Once word get around of a good support group the energies required to properly support a support group can be extensive and overwhelming.

This past year my secretary and I decided to lead a support group for divorcees. We desired to have a more aggressive outreach to the community. We recognized the increasing numbers of divorcees coming to the church for counseling placing greater demands and opportunities for outreach.

As the basis for our support ministry we used DivorceCare.* The program seemed simple enough to implement. Each session would have a thirty minute video, a workbook-guided discussion, some reflection and sharing and a closing prayer.

The Fall session began innocently enough. Two individuals from a local grief recovery group attended. Over the next weeks several others joined the group. By the fourth meeting there were 16 in attendance.

Interestingly much of the initial increase came from one satisfied individual who was also a member of another area support group. Each week he invited others to DivorceCare to see Betty and "Super Pastor." 

The meetings went on for two hours each Monday evening for the duration of the fifteen week program. When a new fifteen week program was started many of the ones from the first session attended plus many more. Over the two series over 40 individuals (only two were members of our church) had attended.

Some Observations

Initially the DivorceCare sessions appeared to be a success. And it was. On further reflection, however, the support group demonstrated some rather interesting comparisons to dysfunctional churches. In what ways were they similar? They both share

1) High Pastoral Expectations: The high quality of the presentations and discussions certainly addressed many of the participants needs. Interestingly enough, however, over time they began to become expectant of high-quality experience and less responsive to following the focus of recovery which each message proposed.

2) Participant Passivity: In early stages many were excited about this new divorce support ministry. Several of the individuals mentioned how it would be neat for the program to expand to a full-fledged recovery program for divorced families. However, when individuals were asked for their willingness to assist the response was rather lackluster.

3) Resistance to Extend Beyond Themselves: When given the vision of an expanded recovery ministry and asked specifically if they would help none of the individuals came forward. In fact, once they were empowered and given permission to provide auxiliary support to a growing and diverse list of ministries, they quit offering suggestions and became strangely silent.

4) Shallow Sacrifice: The sessions were offered at no charge. Though free will offerings and financial support were encouraged each week so as to assist expanding the DivorceCare ministry, the total received was generally less than five dollars per week.

5) Entitlement Mentality: This was most obvious when a policy restricting their attendance to two consecutive series of DivorceCare was announced and enforced. "How could you do that to us?" "We're not healed yet?" were common responses reflecting a sense of the leaders "taking" what they felt they were entitled to receive.

6) "Poor Me" Focus: Though many participants underwent personal counseling and support from the facilitators in addition to the program, the closer it go to the date of the program's end the more they began to complain, "Where are we going to go?" And, it seemed, that those who complained most vociferously were those who had been attending support group meetings several times per week over a period of several consecutive years. One, in fact, attended five support group meetings per week at the same place for over ten years!

7) Projection of Guilt: Though the facilitators had given their time for free, the group attempt to project guilt on the leaders for not continuing the program for them. If the leaders had not be well-differentiated, the leaders might have second-guessed themselves and motivated by guilt to change group policy and offer the program indefinitely.

8) Anger Directed At Leader: Common indications of their dissatisfaction were little anger-driven cutting or cute remarks. They were clearly not happy that the 16 week support group series was ending. But, on the other hand, they clearly didn't know what to do. Having no other recourse it appears that they experienced increased levels of anxiety, often expressed and directed at the leaders in the form of anger.

9) High Anxiety: Anxiety rose as they began to realize that the group was going to end…no matter what they said. The fact that they believed there was no other recourse or appeal seemed to increase their anxiety and their sense of helplessness. Giving them a "voice" and listening helped…but only to a limited degree. The anxiety still remained.

10) Inability To Recognize Options: In the concluding weeks of the program the leaders indicated that DivorceCare was intended to be the front door of our congregation's recovery ministry. Those who had completed DivorceCare were invited to participate in other phases of our congregation's recovery ministry. 

Participants were given repeated reminders, explanations and brochures describing the congregation's recovery ministry and encouraged to attend. Though led by the hand to try other ministries participants, for the most part, did not want to consider--or even recognize--that there were other options for participation and personal growth.

11) Egocentric Focus On Their Own Needs: Many in the group wanted the DivorceCare group to continue forever without limits on their participation

even if it meant that their participation would exclude other hurting divorcees in the community who would need the support group. As long as they felt the plan of action didn't benefit them they didn't want to consider, much less hear, their options.

12) Unwillingness To Change: One advantage of a team of co-facilitators for the support group was that each leader could approach the negative participants in their own way. 

What was found, however, was that those who were not willing to change would not change regardless of the approach used. Whether the approaches were directive, passive, explanatory or empathetic the results were basically the same. Participants simply didn't want to change.

13) Overall Ineffectiveness of Empathy: Throughout the support group session the leaders used various approaches to urge healing. Regardless of the therapeutic approach--whether Reality Therapy, Noetic Counseling, Freudian et al--seemed to have no real net affect on the long-term healing and growth. No matter how much caring, empathetic personal support was offered, the bottom line was this. If they were unwilling to change they would not changed. If they wanted to heal they did.

14) Selfish Focus On Their Own Needs At Others' Expense: DivorceCare had given them an important push toward greater healing. They knew and experienced that. When told that they need to move aside so others could get the healing, it was as if we were confronting a well-fused group. They had what they wanted. Having received what they wanted they didn't want to do anything to enable others to have the same experience.

15) Grouping Together: Some of the members were part of a support group clique which attended other support groups together. Having bonded other like-minded individuals, they were able to reinforce each others' resistance to healing and justification for maintaining the status quo.

For these members sharing the pain with others having similar pain seemed to have many functions. Four of these functions were...

First, it perpetuated their bond based on their common pain. 

Second, it justified their unwillingness to really deal with the pain. 

Third, as long as they had each other's friendship, they could depend on certain friends to help them managing their pain instead of healing it.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, these unhealthy friendships enabled their denial that they really needed healing.

16) Tendency To Become Inconsistent In Their Faith Walk: Many of the participants demonstrated some outright inconsistencies of faith. They claimed that "God led them here" and that they were "obedient to God" in every area of their lives. 

The adulterous lifestyle of many of these individuals demonstrated some rather obvious inconsistencies in their obedience to God. Others would speak of "awareness'" of God's presence in their life but refuse to follow these awareness' unless they conformed to what the individual wanted for themselves.

Most interesting was that none of the participants ever had any awareness', revelations or words from God to tell them to forgive those who hurt them, to put away their anger, to relinquish an immoral, adulterous lifestyle, to follow the path of healing and discipleship, to attend church regularly and, when possible, reconcile with their spouse or ex-spouse.

17) Lack Of Healthy Boundaries. In her book, Emotional Unavailability: Recognizing It, Understanding It, And Avoiding Its Trap (Lincoln Wood, IL: Contemporary Books, 1997, p. 220), author Bryn Collins offered a listing of twenty characteristics of good boundaries. 

Based on this listing, the most obvious indications of poor boundaries among the support group were their apparent inability to:

* Be assertive with themselves and others;

* Avoid co-dependent attachments;

* Use "I feel" language. Instead, direct, vociferous anger-driven characterizations and communication patterns were used to express dissatisfaction;

* Give and receive gifts and sex in a Biblical manner;

* Develop intimate communication prior to sex;

* Keep secrets. The more they got together the more gossip they had in common;

* Identify unhealthy boundaries in others. Thus they kept on getting into unhealthy relationships;

* Be intolerant of self-abuse of various kinds--physical, sexual, emotional, verbal.

* Put limits on what others would take from them.

As long as they were unable to implement these boundaries their unhealthy patterns of anxiety and unhealthy relationships continued.

18) Pain-Driven: Some individuals, after receiving intense counseling, would determine a healthy long-term plan to aid their recovery. After experiencing positive initial results of their actions, often they would stop their efforts. Why? Because their initial positive results reduced the pain to a tolerable level. 

As long as the pain was tolerable their healing would stop. Only when the pain arose again to intolerable levels were they motivated to change. Apparently many had lived their entire lives by trying to avoid pain. Because of this, urging them to live by higher ideals such as Christian character were less than effective.

19) Immediate Gratification Oriented. Those most unable to live by the moral compass of Christian virtue and character were driven by the need for immediate gratification. 

As virtually every sin is related to the immediate fulfillment of needs, the individuals in this group discovered that their healing would require a total spiritual transformation. This transformation would necessitate their ability to develop capacities for patience, long-suffering and other long-term capacities required by Christian character.

20) Low Self-Esteem: Given the trauma experienced in their lives via divorce and other experiences, participants tended to have chronic sense of low self-esteem. This was demonstrated in numerous ways. 

The most dramatic indicator of low self-esteem was individual's inability to believe they could actually recover from their trauma. For some it was an acute, passing condition. For others, however, it was a chronic state from which they had not really made progress toward recovery for years, even decades. 

To the extent that they were unable to overcome their trauma they lacked hope and confidence in God's power to give healing.

21) Controlling Behaviors: Those most un-recovered were marked by their controlling behaviors. Some would tend to be very aggressive and intimidating. Others would use passive "poor me" behaviors. 

"Poor me" behaviors appeared to be especially effective means of controlling others. "Poor me" behaviors elicited sympathy from the group. "Poor Me" behaviors also enabled a passive-aggressive manner of controlling others. As long as they remained passive they could incite victimization dynamics which, if confronted, made the facilitator appear to be the "enemy." 

Another important result of "Poor Me" behaviors was that they appeared to strengthen group's anxious cohesion while empowering the "victim" and increasing their perceived sense of self worth.

22) Undermining Leadership: Several individuals, particularly those who were in denial, tended to engage in various kinds of behaviors to undermine the authority of the leaders. 

The majority of these behaviors was done by the passive aggressive "poor me" controllers. Though the appeared "kind" and "caring," these individuals characteristically used sugar-coated statements of apparent agreement followed by the word "but." 

For example, they would say "I agree with you but…" or "I can see your point but…" or "Perhaps it might occur in some but…". The words following the word "but" contained the venom of passive-aggressive antagonism intended to chip away, albeit slowly, the leaders' credibility and authority while bolstering their own.

23) Defensive Behaviors: Defensive behaviors were quite obvious…at least to the leaders. Interestingly enough, leaders could anticipate defensive behaviors as leaders addressed necessary areas of healing. 

However, not everyone in the group recognized the attacks. Those most likely to perceive the attacks were those who had made the greatest progress toward healing and who, in order to heal, had to differentiate themselves from the healing-resistant members of the support group. Those who didn't recognize the defensive behaviors were those who had not experience significant healing and recovery.

What Worked Best?

In order to maintain a healthy environment for recovery the co-facilitators needed to continue to do certain things. The more they continued in these behaviors the greater the likelihood that some individuals would experience recovery.

1) Remain Differentiated. Without healthy boundaries the leaders would have been immobilized and the recovery goals unreachable. The leaders had to make conscious efforts to remain differentiated from the group. Self-examination was helpful.

Most helpful, however, were the facilitator's tacit and spoken agreement to hold each other accountable to maintain the necessary boundaries. Conversations before, after and in preparation of meetings helped to solidify the boundaries and, resultantly, keep the vision and strategy for healing and recovery intact.

2) Continued Restatement of the Vision: Healing. Those who did experience growth were those who after tireless repetition understood that the purpose for their being in the group was healing and recovery. They continued to hear of the pain and commitment that would be required. As the leaders conveyed the relief and rewards they would experience in recovery these individuals kept the vision.

3) Encouragement Even In Failure. Those intently pursuing recovery frequently made mistakes. Those with the greatest capacity to heal seemed to be able to admit them with the leaders either on their own or as a result of confrontation. Those making the mistakes knew, however, that mistakes are common in recovery.

Having examined the reason for their failure, they listened, learned, regrouped and went forward on the path of their recovery and growth. Having experience the support of leaders such individuals began developing transparent, trusting patterns of relating, patterns which, in themselves, demonstrated their progress and growing capacities for healthier relationships.

4) Continued Expectation Of Change And Transformation: There are two ways to prove that change is one of the hardest things for any human being. The first proof is this: try to change someone else. The second proof is even more point: try to change yourself. If you think the first is hard, for many of us the second is virtually impossible. The task for support group leaders was to continue to urge necessary self-reflection and motivate people toward a healthier walk of faith and life.

5) Keeping Them Accountable For The Successes And Failures: Perhaps the greatest joy of leading a support group is having individuals thank the facilitators for keeping them accountable. Participants seemed to equate the leaders' urging for personal accountability with a genuine personal care for individuals. They were right. Leaders who care hold others accountable to healthy standards of growth and faith.

6) Continued Provoking Of Health-Directed Pain: "Go see Pastor. He'll show you your pain!" got to be kind of a standing joke in the support group. But it wasn't a joke. Those who had undergone counseling understood that knowing and understanding pain is important for growth. 

They learned that pain directed them to the areas that God would bring healing in their lives. As they experienced the healing that resulted from leaders' provoking and naming their pain, participants learned to appreciate the need to address their pain and engage in healthy self-examination every day to maintain their growth.

7) Personal Support: Throughout the duration of the support group individuals needed--and were given--personal support. They experienced a sense of teamwork, that others cared, and that the leaders would assist and encourage them in their healing on a reasonable basis.

8) Trusting And Releasing Them: Releasing participants from the every Monday night experience was not without anxiety for the leaders. But it was the right time. The participants had been taught, equipped, and empowered with the tools necessary to go to the next phase of healing. 

In the months following the meetings it was a source of joy to meet people in the community, talk with them when they visited church, or chat with them when they might call and hear how their lives were changing for the better. Certainly some experienced setbacks. But they understood the reasons for the setback and, with further encouragement, often began to pick themselves up and move forward.

9) Continued Urging Toward Healing: The leaders continually reminded participants that healing was outside of their existing groups. There would be no real changes in their lives until they changed the relationships they had. As leaders continued to remind individuals of their need to heal some participants started to respond to that encouragement in a positive, healing manner.

10) Urging Them To Leave Their Former Lives Behind: Participants had to forsake fantasies of family togetherness, reunion with their divorced partner, or somehow realizing a miraculous reuniting with a loved one. Having exchanged fantasy for reality they increasingly were able to leave behind and grief their former lifestyle and relationships and begin a whole new healthier life in the gracious love of power of God.

11) Sharing One's Own Journey: As individuals grieve their unhealthy relationships and connections and move toward healing they need to know what the spiritual journey of new life in Christ entails. Leaders freely shared the dynamics of their own journey. Leaders reminded participants of how God calls and leads each of us in love. Leaders reminded participants that God could be trusted and that, as long as they live in the Gospel, they need not fear God's leading and transforming work in their lives.

12) Teaching Participants To Be Vulnerable To God And His Plan: Perhaps this is the most important attitude of healing. Those individuals who recovered learned that "faith" means to "trust" God. "Trust" means "to be totally open and vulnerable to God's leading in such a way that one will let God have His way with you for any reason, time or purpose that He so chooses as a function of His love for us." 

The Scriptures constantly indicate that this kind of trusting vulnerability is the hallmark of the gracious relationship that believers have with God. The more individuals learn to "Let go and let God" the greater their healing and potential for God-pleasing growth.

13) Extending Empathy Not Sympathy. Perhaps one of the greatest potential pitfalls for leaders to avoid was to extend empathy, not sympathy. Unlike empathy, sympathy seeks to fuse others emotionally to the anxiety, fear and pain of the affected individual. Empathy, on the other hand, acknowledges the pain but seeks to set a vision of hope and healing .

Whereas sympathy involves a transfer of power from the sympathizer to the sympathized, empathy allows and encourages both sympathizer and the sympathized to maintain their own power. Sympathy seeks to take over the sympathized life so that the sympathizer can codependently take over the sympathy-seeker's pain.

Empathy, on the other hand, empowers individuals so that they will take responsibility for their own healing and proactively embark on a self-driven, self-motivated recovery process.

14) Be Resilient To The "You Don't Care" Accusations. Certainly there are leaders who are insensitive or lack capacities for demonstrating appropriate sensitivity to others. More often than not, however, individuals who attack leaders for "not caring" are acting from unhealthy expectations that it is the leaders' responsibility to change them, not their own. Healthy leaders understand that "You don't care" can be an indication of avoiding personal responsibility. Thus, they do not let it affect them.

15) Leaders Must Intervene As Change Agents To Avert Organizational Tendencies For Self-Sabotage. From the organizational perspective what happens in the support group also demonstrates that without proactive leadership, the group will collapse on itself. The church needs vigorous, proactive leadership able to challenge and keep leading forth even the most resistant people of God.

What's The Point?

The purpose of this analysis is not to degrade support groups of any kind or discourage the formation of support groups.

Support groups can serve a very important outreach function for the church. Support groups are a way the church obeys the mandate of Christ to minister to those who are broken-hearted (Is. 40:1ff.). 

Most important, perhaps, is that support groups are an effective forum wherein God's Word can work in the hearts of individuals to transform their brokenness and bring them into the new life in Christ.

Insight For Congregational Leadership From Support Groups

Having shared the dynamics experienced in a support group experience, the striking this is just how similar support groups are quite similar to congregations. Having considered the description of support groups above…

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this reflection on the support group experience is that support groups are just like churches. The task of leaders of support groups and pastors are strikingly similar as are the variety and types of participant responses and reactions to leadership.

The Greatest Benefit

Perhaps the greatest benefit of considering the dynamics of a support group is that pastors and Christian leaders may gain a needed healthy dose of reality of how things really are in the church. This consideration of how support groups are like churches demonstrates what leaders can expect in any transformational ministry--whether support group or dysfunctional congregation.

It also underscores--and this ought not be minimized--that congregational leadership is essentially transformational. It is essentially change-oriented. The leader of the healthy congregation is called, required and mandated to be a change-agent leader. If the leader shrinks from this task--whether it be from fear, anxiety, lack of faith, shyness, or lack of abilities--the organization will suffer.

By the same token if congregational members avoid God's call for transformative change in their lives and congregation, they will become instruments of their own self-sabotage. 

As in the support group, if fear is not challenged, if growth is not set as a goal, if spiritual transformation is overlooked, and unhealthy dynamics denied, the church will certainly decline in a mire of increasingly traumatic emotional processes which have as their end the death of the organization.

When this unhealthy emotional process sets in the results are predictable. Congregational members become impervious to vision. Members place unhealthy expectations on pastors. 

Pastors become unhealthily fused and identified with the perfectionistic expectations of the congregation. Hostility develops between pastor and parishioners. Multiple staff resignations and/or force-outs occur. Stewardship declines and membership involvement becomes more passive, even in the face of ever-increasing antagonism.

In this kind of environment the chance for spiritual transformation is extremely low. But, as in the support group, unless someone preaches that transformation the transformation will likely never occur.

A New Pastoral Paradigm

The most remarkable thing suggested by the comparison of the support group and the church may be that it speaks of the need of a new paradigm for the pastoral office. 

Certainly the pastor is a shepherd, preacher, teacher, administrator, caregiver, etc. Often pastors become frustrated because the sheep don’t' follow the shepherd as they might expect.

If pastors and congregations would change their expectations of the pastor to highlight the pastor's role as support group leader, what changes might occur?

* Would pastors have healthier expectations of what to expect in ministry from the congregations?

* Would congregations have healthier expectations of what to expect from their pastors?

* Would congregations begin to see that the mandate of the Great Commission is the continuing ongoing spiritual transformation of the lives of God's people as a consequence of their new birth in Baptism?

* Would the prioritization of the church's role to bring transformation incite healthier dynamics into congregations as they realize that if they are to transform the world that the congregation also needs to experience God-pleasing transformation?

* Would pastors and congregations work in a closer and healthier partnership of a shared vision of utilizing the local expression of the Body of Christ as a transforming--and ever transformed--catalyst to transform the world?

What other things would occur? The list of possible healthy changes and might occur could be innumerable. They might even help to ignite a new fire of outreach, growth and vision for Christian churches and leaders throughout the world.

The Ministry Reality

Granted the reality of what Christian leaders experience in ministry may not be as grandiose as some may have believed in their wildest ecclesiastical fantasies. But knowing the reality helps to curb unreal expectations while helping avoid common leadership pitfalls such as perfectionism, burnout, poor boundaries, unreal expectations, and taking power struggles and conflicts too personally.

This reality also convincingly demonstrates that God still works in His Word to transform, change and renew the lives of those who are broken. And He does it through leaders such as us. Though some in our ministries will change or be changed, we can boldly continue on with a healing ministry of grace and transformation.

The Church Is A Support Group!

In Jesus' inaugural hometown sermon at Nazareth He indicated the nature of His Messianic ministry.

"The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him, and He began by saying to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Luke 4:18-21 (NIV)

It doesn't take much exegetical analysis to recognize that there are significant similarities between Jesus' Messianic calling and support group leadership. One might say they are nearly identical. In fact in many ways they are identical.

The pastor's role is to step up to the pulpit, as Jesus did, and say, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" and challenge congregations to fulfill it through their ministries. 

Certainly it will not happen overnight. It will not happen without transformative leadership. And, of course, it will require the Spirit of God to move powerfully to transform the Body of Christ in such a way to enable local congregations to be transformed so that they might have a vision to transform their communities and, indeed, the world.

Properly speaking the Church, functioning as a support group, aspires to the Messianic mission of Jesus Christ. As it's leaders become transformation-direct agents of change, they will proclaim the Good News of the "year of the Lord's favor." 

As God transforms the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed the Body of Christ will realize the great healing and power of the Gospel. It will experience new joy. And we will experience the exhilarating realization that "Today this Scripture is fulfilled" before our very eyes.

The Path Of Intervention

What is the path for intervention to make this occur in your church?

There is no one path. Changing a "stuck" church around requires a smorgasbord of all kinds of interventive techniques and methodologies. But whichever is used, perhaps the most important thing is to continue using them repeatedly…again and again and again. The moment one ceases in this regard the church, as the support group, will relapse into their preferred former unhealed state.

Since there are many styles of intervention, there is no one way to intervene. This is good news for leaders. There are virtually as many unique styles of intervention as they are leaders. All of them can work when used repeatedly, conscientiously and in a manner pleasing to God.

But any intervention will be based on trusting, using and expecting the power of God to transform individual lives…including yours.

Why not begin this transformation today in your ministry? Don't just be a "pastor." Makes yours a "messianic pastorate." Experience the transformation of God to make your ministry aspire to the messianic blueprint to be a "support group leader" in your church and in all the world.

Thomas F. Fischer

* DivorceCare Resources are available from Church Initiative, Box 1739, Wake Forest, NC 27588 or contact them via email .

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:51 PM