Support groups are a common part of many communities in our culture. Many newspapers list meeting dates, times, and places for community groups. In these listings, you will find a diversity of self-help groups that have a common cause or issue as the glue that holds the group together. That homogeneity provides undergirding love and friendship to those facing a common pilgrimage. From such societal precedents come ministers support groups. Incidentally, the term “support” has nothing to do with finances.
What can a minister’s support group do? A minister’s support group:
- Helps develop a deep friendship. I’m referring to the New Testament concept of koinonia. Fellowship cannot be contrived, nor can it be developed without sharing time and experiences.
- Helps produce a sense of “belonging.” Moving is always bitter-sweet. You put your roots down one at a time, but when you move, you pull them up all at once. Everyone needs a group in which he or she feels a sense of belonging.
- Helps participants gain a different perspective. This is particularly important when a minister is in the midst of conflict with his or her congregation or with the church’s leadership. A group with which to “brainstorm,” or from which to gain feedback, can be priceless. It often enables ministers to work through issues which otherwise might overwhelm them.
- Enhances leadership confidence. This is especially helpful to younger or less experienced ministers. Many times I have used my support group “try out” some ideas and let the group help you find the weaknesses as well as shape the concept, especially as the ideas impact you or your family.
- Helps participants get in touch with their feelings. Ministers often lean toward denial. Though this quality can enable the minister to face major challenges in leadership, it can also encourage one to begin to insulate oneself from his or her feelings.
- Provides affirmation and confrontation in a healthy way. There are times when you do not need advice. You simply need to know that someone cares. An overload of affirmation is not healthy nor is an overload of confrontation. But a balance of the two can help enhance your self-esteem and help you to face your own responsibilities.
- Helps reduce the competition between ministers. Trust builds as you risk your vulnerability with one another. As koinonia develops, mistrust and fears fade and so does the sense of competition.
- Encourages longer tenures. With a sense of belonging, a new freedom emerges. This is a group with which you can be open and honest, knowing they will both affirm and confront you. With such an asset, ministers are more prone to work through issues in their parish settings than to “up and run” every time a problem surfaces or conflicts develop.
The rules and organization for a support group are very simple and serve only to help keep the focus on target. They include:
- No officers. Someone will need to handle administrative matters, and someone will need to serve as convener.
- No shoptalk, except as it affects your feelings or impacts you personally or professionally.
- An absolute necessity. A confidentiality covenant should be addressed early in the developmental stage.
- Participants should be present whenever possible.
- Though there will be varying levels of participation, and openness is a growing process, each participant is expected to share in the process.
- Defined purpose. Keep the purpose before the group.
There are a few things participants should keep in mind in developing a support group.
- Some ministers find openness more threatening than others. This means that some ministers will need more time to learn to trust and be willing to risk openness.
- Participants in a minister’s support group need the freedom to drop out. Some support groups renew their commitment each year, thus providing an opportunity for participants to drop out if they desire.
- A ministers support group is not a clinical therapy group.
- There’s no room for “pseudo-psychologists” in a ministers support group.
- Size limitations of a minister’s support group must be recognized. An ideal number of participants in a support group range from six to ten. Less than eight limits the perspectives that can be brought to the group. With more than ten, time will be a constant pressure.
- Diversity in a minister’s support group is a plus.
- An overnight retreat is the secret success ingredient for support groups. The investment in the group process and in one another’s lives is vital.
- Telling their stories during a retreat is a good way to launch a minister’s support group. Koinonia cannot develop without the sharing of time and experiences. Telling their stories has a bonding effect.
Many ministers have stated that their support group enabled them to face opposition and work through it. Others have stated that their support group was the difference between sanity and insanity as they experienced forced termination. Healthy ministers and healthy churches work through issues rather than adopting more destructive alternatives. Health breeds health just as churches which force the minister out are prone to repeat the process. A minister’s support group could mean the difference.
The amazing thing is that a support group is available to anyone – a priceless asset at your fingertips. And it’s free! The only cost is time. That’s a small price to pay for better emotional – and sometimes physical – health.
If you have not had a support group experience, I hope you will consider it…for your health and for the health of the church which you serve.
A CHECKLIST IN DEVELOPING A MINISTER’S SUPPORT GROUP
Charles H. Chandler, D.Min.
Identify ministers whose needs indicate they might become participants in a minister’s support group.
- Groups of two or three ministers who are already meeting informally for coffee
- Individual ministers who stop by periodically to discuss problems with the local denominational executive
- Ministers interested in personal and professional growth
- Ministers who are hurting
- Ministers who are geographically isolated
- Ministers new to the area
Schedule a Ministers support group workshop or retreat.
- Enlist a competent and experienced person to serve as the facilitator
- Enlist ministers who have expressed interest even though they may not yet want to commit to a minister’s support group
- Provide an opportunity for a group experience within the workshop or retreat
Supply reading material about a minister’s support group
- Begin with the book, Minister’s Support Group: Alternative to Burnout
- Choose other recommended materials from the suggested reading list
- Use reading materials suggested by the workshop or retreat leader
Secure a commitment from those interested in participating in a minister’s support group.
- Commitment to membership in the group
- Commitment to participation and not just observation
- Commitment of priority to the meetings
- Commitment to confidentiality
Meet to negotiate the contract for a minister’s support group.
- Time of meeting
- Frequency of meeting
- Meeting place
- Convener of the group
- Size of the group
- Duration of the group
- Joining or withdrawing from the group
- Format of the meetings
- Frequency of the evaluation