Guidebook iII: Caring for group members
How to identify and support those who are struggling.
Paula looked in the rear-view mirror to apply concealer beneath her eyes. The circles would soon deepen beyond what makeup could erase. Tonight, however, she could pass it off as tiredness. She checked her phone for what felt like the hundredth time that day. No news. She considered dialing her mother’s number but stopped herself. After checking her reflection one last time, she went into her Bible study group.
She had been tempted to skip the group; after all, how could she possibly concentrate with all that was going on? However, the alternative of going back to her housemates’ questions seemed worse. When the group leader asked if she was okay, she could not get the words out, so just nodded. Prayer was exactly what she needed; why did she struggle so much to ask for it?
“They’re running tests,” her mother had told her through tears the previous day.
Paula wished she did not hold on so tightly to her pain. Sharing it with the group might help, but she didn’t know how to. Instead, she settled into her chair and allowed the discussion to flow around her.
When people stopped talking and started to whisper, Paula woke up. How long had she been asleep? They were looking at her, curled like a cat in the armchair. Paula’s cheeks flushed. The Group Members averted their eyes, and the conversation started up again. The words on the page of Paula’s Bible swam through her tears. She kept her head down until the heat in her cheeks subsided.
What to Look for
Some members of your group will be willing and able to share their ups and downs quite openly. Others will find it more challenging to offer personal information in a group setting. As Group Guide, it is important that you pay close attention to the ways in which your members communicate how they are doing. Here are some things to look out for:
When people are struggling with issues in life, there are often physical signs of distress. A person who cannot sleep due to stress or anxiety will wear this in dark circles beneath their eyes, or in sallow skin. Tone of voice says a lot about a person’s mood. Listen to how they are talking and pay close attention to those who retreat into silence.
If a Group Member is usually light-hearted but becomes withdrawn. If someone is known for their participation in discussion but seems distracted and reluctant to engage. Look out for any behaviour that is at odds with the person as you have come to know them.
Repeated absence from gatherings
Bringing painful personal situations into a group context may feel impossible for some people. They may believe that they can only participate in gatherings when they are doing ‘well.’
How to Act
If you are picking up signals that someone in your group is struggling or out of sorts, here are some steps you can take towards them:
Ask a question
Sometimes, it really is that simple. Find a quiet moment to approach the person privately and check in with them. This may be all it takes for the person to feel that there is space for them not to be okay.
Small group work
Creating opportunities for your group to break into smaller groups makes it possible for more intimate conversations to occur. If there are people holding back during group discussion, splitting up may encourage them to share more openly.
Tell a friend
If someone is struggling, it may be possible to appeal to a close friend of theirs in the group for help. A third party may be able to offer insight into how you might best support the Group Member.
Advice for You
Growing in awareness of other people is a skill that will serve you well in your role as Group Guide. However, there is a thin line between awareness and responsibility. As Guide, you can pay attention to how your Group Members are doing, but you are not responsible for ‘fixing’ them. Here are some safeguarding techniques to ensure that you are not stretched beyond your means:
Don’t take it personally
If someone withdraws, encourage them to engage with the group rather than relying on you for one-to-one input.
Have courage to speak out
You cannot force people to share or participate in the group, if they are unwilling to. There will be times you need to let it go so that you can focus on the rest of the Group Members. If you communicate your love and care for the person involved, you can do this without causing offense.
Ask for help
There may be issues your members are dealing with that are beyond your ability to support. In these circumstances, you can direct them to other sources of help such as counselling or pastoral guidance.
Make a note
Are there particular members of your group that you need to take note of? Perhaps you could jot down a few lines down things you have noticed and need to monitor. Take some time this week to reflect and see what comes to mind.
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