Mental and Emotional Illness in Small Groups

They have been labeled as the people with ‘Extra-Grace-Required’ in our Small Groups.  People who have emotional or mental strain-stress-illness.  They can dominate the emotional tone of the group.  When others are wanting to stay on task and move forward with the content and conversation the ‘EGR’ is slowing everyone down.   What’s going on here?

Nearly 1 in 5 Californians report a need for mental health services.

I was shocked last summer when I heard a report on the radio about the current emotional health of people living in California.  Here is a quote from the research report.

“In a comprehensive new study of mental health status and the use of mental health services by Californians, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that nearly one in five adults in the state—about 4.9 million people—said they needed help for a mental or emotional health problem. In addition, approximately one in 25, or more than 1 million, reported symptoms associated with serious psychological distress (SPD), which includes the most serious kinds of diagnosable mental health disorders.”  (Published: Wednesday, July 28, 2010, Psychology & Sociology)

Accepting the Emotionally Sick

At Gateway we are always moving towards the unchurched in relationships and in our Sunday morning audience.  One of the results of this is having high contact with people responding to a crisis in their life. Many of them are breaking down from life’s disappointments and finally giving church a try.  They come to church for selfish reasons. They are desperate consumers of what we offer.  This is a good thing!

I want them to consume what we offer.  We offer them grace and hope in their situation.  Jesus has come to bring them peace.  Jesus seeing the multitudes had compassion on them.  He healed their wounds.  Taught them truth.  Invited them into the Kingdom of God.  The emotionally and mentally struggling are Jesus’ people.

Group Life With Emotional Strugglers

If the UCLA study is accurate, then every Small Group with twelve (12) people in it has two (2) people struggling with a mental or emotional illness.  This statistic goes over great at a New Small Group Leader Orientation!!!  “Sign up to lead a group today!  Crazy people headed your way.”

Seriously, though, as followers of Jesus who are entering into the relationally messy work of the church, we must recognize that we are losing our life for the sake of others. A profound love that comes from God is needed for people.  Jesus teaches us to love our enemy.  The love he speaks of here is the same love on display for the emotionally hurting in our group. It is a love that gives.  It is patient love.  It’s a love that exists in the awkwardness and irrationality of someone’s ramblings.  It is a love that offers hope and grace.  With great love given, in these situations, usually none or little is returned.

We accept the cultural soup we live in that has created relational brokenness, isolation, insecurity and shame. When trouble strikes, our Small Group leaders need a perspective of acceptance, grace and time.  Yes, truth shows up, but it shows up as “acceptance, grace and time” in the beginning.

Training Small Group Leaders for Emotional Strugglers in Their Groups

As I recognized the need to equip our Small Group leaders with more training around these EGR individuals, I re-read a resource on my bookshelf.  It was the book Making Small Groups Work, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.  I decided to have our Gateway Group Life team read it together.

There was an interesting response from one of the team members who oversees our Support and Recovery Groups.  She loved it! My perspective as I read the book was mainly for aspects of Group Dynamics I could learn.  She was reading from a different perspective: the perspective of counseling strugglers towards healing.  When she shared the excitement of her findings, we all recognized the need to test some training with our Small Group leaders using this resource.

We recently trained 17 existing group leaders using this book as a foundational resource.  At the end of the training, the feedback was very positive.  The real-life situations these group leaders were experiencing were very similar to the counseling scenarios presented by Cloud and Townsend.  These leaders now have a new confidence and equipping for the messy work of people in their groups.

If we are going to be a church on mission to people in our city, then we must accept that the emotionally hurting will join us.  We must be ready with a love that is competent for their needs.  A cultural soil of grace and acceptance is crucial for them.  Leaders with patient love to give them time to heal and grow is required.  Jesus shows up for these people.  They are Jesus’ people.

Have you found good resources for training group leaders to handle people with emotional or mental illness?  How much can we expect of a Small Group leader in this area?  

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Kirby Holmes
Kirby Holmes is a Groups and Growth Pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, TX. Gateway is a No Perfect People Allowed church where we often say Come as You Are…but Don’t Stay as You Are. Half of the people who attend Gateway would say they were far from God when they started attending. Gateway is a place where God is helping un-churched messy people become beautiful masterpieces of God’s design. Twitter: @KirbyHolmes Web: www.KirbyHolmes.me Church: www.GatewayChurch.com