Effective Small Groups and the Christian Counselor
John Townsend, Ph.D.
One of the most significant contributions a Christian counselor can make to the Church is in helping to create, maintain and replicate small groups. Small groups have been growing tremendously in churches for some time, and they are here to stay. Whether they be basic growth groups, psychotherapy groups, spiritual care teams, issue-led groups, discipleship, home groups, Bible studies, or a host of other types, you can add great value and effectiveness to groups with your training and experience. Here are some of the basic ideas and tips to help you encourage that process.
First, let’s understand the importance of small groups. From a biblical and a practical standpoint, you can’t overestimate what assembling on a personal level can do in people’s lives. When people are safe, surrounded by a few good and growing peers, and have the right structures in place, miracles can happen, anything including emotional breakthroughs, wisdom and courage added, clinical issues resolved, and permanent life changes and decisions made. In a word, groups provide so many of the spiritual, emotional and relational growth experiences that people need. Groups operate as a context for the Body to help heal and mature the itself: “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love (Eph. 4:16, NLT).” You’d be hard pressed to find a better way to follow all of the “one another” passages in the New Testament of how we are to treat each other: accepting, building up, being kind, admonishing and so forth.
However, my experience in working with many churches and organizations in small groups has shown me how valuable Christian counselors can be to making this process work so much better. Often, group leaders need equipping, supervision and feedback. This is especially true as a group ministry progresses and matures over time in a church. As you are aware, increased safety brings out deeper material and feelings. Churches need someone to help them understand how best to help groups and group leaders know what to do to be effective and healthy for the members. This is why many churches already consult with a counselor who has group expertise, and it is a very helpful arrangement.
Here are a few of the components of healthy, well-working groups that you can incorporate into your own setting, or in your supervision of others. They are universal aspects, no matter what your context or type:
Purpose of the group.
What do you want the group to accomplish? Why does it exist? Either determine this for yourself, or with your leaders or members. Here are some examples:
- General spiritual and personal growth
- A Bible study
- Life issues: depression, grief, addiction
- Intimacy and relational growth
The more clear you are on your purpose ahead of time, the fewer “audible calls” you’ll have to make several months down the road, for they are decisions that have already been taken care of.
Make sure time, location and roles are clear. Without being too obsessive about it, start and end pretty much on time. So many groups have died, with attendees making excuses why they left because the group didn’t hold to its time commitment, and it was too chaotic for people. Have the house, office or church setting available and make sure everyone knows how to get there. And everyone should know their roles and responsibilities, such as leaders, facilitators and hosts.
Ratio of process to structure.
This is a key element. As you know, process refers to the experience of connecting, vulnerability, crosstalk, feedback and the like. It is the sharing part of a group, and hopefully goes deeper as time moves on. Structure involves the more task and functional aspects: do we want to study a book or curriculum? What topics are we interested in? Are there assignments? Some groups are better for lots of process with very little structure, for example, a long-term growth group of friends who know one another well and know how to use the process. Some are better with less process and more structure. A topical Bible study with some group interaction time is an example of this. However, as a counselor, you are probably oriented more toward the process end of things. And that is where you can help groups deal with process, such as making sure people feel accepted, are invited to be vulnerable, and can handle emotions.
Grace and feedback.
Help groups be high grace and high feedback. On the grace side, banish judgment and condemnation from the group experience, and help people to accept each other’s weakness and struggles: “Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory (Rom. 15:7).” That is high grace. However, at the same time, people grow more when they learn the value of giving and receiving honest feedback and confrontation: “Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church (Eph. 4:15).” That is high feedback. So many people come to groups either not knowing how to confront, or how to receive it. Groups help train people for better real-life experiences in relationships.
As a counselor, help the group to normalize problems in the group and equip them to deal with them. This can range with anything from someone who has a life crisis like a divorce or the death of a loved one, to people having power struggles within the group. Individuals often don’t know what to do when real life issues enter the group, and they become afraid or even leave the group. Give them tools and empowerment to handle them, and they will really value what they are getting, and the group will flourish.
Some resources for this important part of your work are the ReGroup DVD curriculum (Zondervan Publishing) that myself, Henry Cloud and Bill Donahue have released. It presents a paradigm that trains leaders and groups together at the same time, in the issues mentioned here. Also, Henry’s and my book Making Small Groups Work (Zondervan Publishing) is a manual for how to make small groups a context for growth. So best to you in your small group work, and God bless you!
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