Knowing When to Refer a Group Issue to Someone Else

John Ortberg wrote a book called Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. I think he was on to something. Group life is messy. People come to our group looking neat and clean. They are well mannered. Then, they start opening up. Group is a safe place to share the stuff that they’re wrestling with, and then the problems come out. Rather than throwing your hands up in the air, congratulate yourself. Your group is actually working. If no one in your group has a problem, then your group has a problem. But that’s for another day.

The question, then, is not if a group member has a problem. The question is what to do once problems are identified. There will always be problems.

1. What kind of need does the person have? Are you dealing with a past hurt, an abusive situation, an addiction, a job loss, a financial problem, or something else? The type of need will largely determine what your group can and should do.

For example, if the person has a large financial need, then before your group starts helping financially, it would be a good idea to check with Brookwood’s Care Ministry and have them assess the need. Our benevolence folks have pretty good discernment to know who has a legitimate need and who’s trying to scam the group. Unfortunately, some groups have been taken for a ride. The Care Ministry also has access to many resources in the community that could be of help. Your group can still help, but the help should be offered in coordination with the Care Ministry.

2. What help seems to be working? As your group gives their attention to this hurting group member and listens, how is that helping them? Do they feel better after they talk things out, or does this add fuel to the fire? When your group prays for the member’s needs, what is the result? Does your group member find peace? Many people just need to know that other people care, that they are accepted as they are, and that it’s normal for them to be experiencing this. If prayer and group support is encouraging to them, then keep it up.

Caution Here: Your group should avoid “fixing.” Let group members talk without giving them advice. Give them the gift of your attention without interrupting, telling your own story, or trying to solve their problem. They need to be validated by being heard. Sometimes, a listening ear is all they need.

3. How is the care of the hurting person affecting the group? Most of our small groups at Brookwood Church are designed primarily as Bible study groups. Our groups offer care and support, but this is centered on a Bible study. If the hurting person in your group wants to turn your Bible study group into their personal support group, this can certainly cause some tension. Check in with your other group members. Are they willing to serve, or are they becoming weary in well doing? Can the hurting person participate in group life, share what they need to share, but not make the group about them? You don’t want to forfeit the rest of your group members over one member who dominates the group with their problems.

4. How is the Holy Spirit directing you? When you pray for this person, what are you prompted to do? If the Spirit prompts you to buy groceries, then go buy groceries. If you feel prompted to adopt the adults in your group, you should check in with your coach or a pastor first.

5. What’s your motive? Do you want to help because helping makes you feel good? Do you need to be needed? It’s good to check in with wise counsel. One member of my group was helping a friend with some bills. When I asked, “What do you feel led to do?” He said, “I’m co-dependent. I feel led to fix the whole thing.” That was one of the most honest moments in our group. The Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), but it also tells us “each one should carry their own load.” (Galatians 6:5) When something becomes too heavy for another, we should pitch in and help, but we have to avoid doing for other people what they should be doing for themselves. This creates an unhealthy dependency that won’t do anybody any good.

6. Check in with your coach. If you feel out of your depth on something, it’s not necessarily time to pass the problem along. God may be using the situation to stretch you and to show you how He intends to use you. Your coach is a great resource to determine how you should be involved.

7. What other resources are available? If a group member is dealing with an issue, more than likely Brookwood Church has a support group that addresses that particular issue or at least knows of one. Currently, Brookwood offers support groups for Divorce, Separation, Grief, Substance Abuse, Single Parents, Single Mothers, Blended Families, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Marriage Issues, Financial Issues, and others. Sometimes, it’s helpful for a person dealing with the loss of a loved one to attend a grief support group in addition to your group meeting. Ideally, their grief issues for the most part are addressed in the support group, and then they can participate in the small group Bible study as well. That doesn’t mean that they will never bring up their grief, but maybe they won’t spend the whole group time on it.

8. If after all of this, the hurting person just doesn’t seem to be getting help, it’s probably time to refer them to a church counselor or a licensed counselor. The Care Ministry at Brookwood Church offers many resources through both a lay counseling ministry and professional counseling. Cindy Woodside in the Care Ministry is a great resource person for the counseling ministry.

9. If the hurting member won’t follow direction regarding what’s appropriate in group, then it’s time for a difficult conversation. The presence of a narcissistic person will destroy your group. If after several personal conversations with them, they continue to dominate the group with their issues, you must stop this. Clearly and directly redirect them in group: “Now, [Name], we have talked about this. This is not something that we are going to discuss here.” Sometimes, a look and a shake of the head will do it. I pray that your group never gets to #9 on this list, but if it does, you have to consider the good of the entire group.

This is about the time when a leader will say, “I didn’t sign up for this.” No, you didn’t, but God did.  

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Allen White
Allen White consults and speaks in the areas of small group strategy, staffing structure, volunteer mobilization, and spiritual formation. He blogs at http://allenwhite.org.