Chapter 7: Sharing Groups in the Church: Resource for Positive Mental Health by Robert C. Leslie
The most natural structure for the church to work with is the small group. Most of the significant work of the churches is done through its committees or its study classes or its action projects. When people come together in the life of the church they expect to meet in small groups and feel comfortable in such a setting. But the level of interpersonal interaction in most church groups leaves a great deal to be desired. The potential of church groups for aiding in personal growth is seldom recognized and even less often utilized. The possibility, however, of making use of small groups in the church as a resource for positive mental health is very great.
In order for small groups to be significant resources for growth, personal sharing needs to he a chief characteristic. Whatever else is carried on in the group, there needs to be a real place for the kind of sharing that leads to a feeling of support and closeness out of which relationships are deepened. For example, in one church a group of young mothers, each having small children, was organized for a study class with an expert from the psychological world. After meeting for several weeks for lecture and discussion, the young mothers were asked if they would be interested in continuing to meet in a small sharing group in which they could support each other in their efforts at being adequate mothers. The leadership would be provided by the associate minister. In response to their eager request for such a group, the first meeting was scheduled.
As the young mothers gathered for the first session of their sharing group, meeting in the library of the church, the leader set the mood for their work together. He asked each member what first name she liked to use, inquired into the ages of the children represented, introduced himself, and then said: “Well, how do you feel about being here in this group?” The sharing group had started. The basic pattern of its interaction had been indicated and the tone for the sessions had been set. By meeting in the church, the concerns of religious commitment were implied. By acknowledging each person in turn as a participating member, the focus on individuality had been stressed. By noting the ages of the children, the common bond of being young mothers had been indicated. By posing the opening question in terms of present feelings the orientation of the group had been established and the focus of the group had been indicated.
The expectant waiting of the leader made it clear that the work of the group would be carried out not by him but by the members. In the opening few minutes, as the leader refused to be cast in the role of answer man, and as interaction among members was encouraged, it became clear that this was a new kind of group experience. The members discovered that they were authorities on their own feelings, that their feelings were quite similar to those shared by others, that they did not need to be ashamed of their feelings. Sensing acceptance from the leader, and recognizing support from the other group members, they quickly learned that they could look deeper into themselves and reveal even more of their feelings. Hearing experiences from other young mothers, they discovered new ways of functioning in the mother role. Sensing the support of the group, they could dare to risk experimenting in new patterns of dealing with their children.
Such a sharing group has as its goal the facilitating of personal growth. It is not a treatment group, although it has some of the features of such a group. It is not a study class, although it has some of the features of study. Its distinctive characteristic is that it combines both of these emphases. It draws on research findings from the field of group therapy, and it makes use of the small group as a facilitator of learning. Indeed, the first distinguishing characteristic of the sharing group is that it combines the therapeutic with the educational.
Since the sharing group as we have described it centers on a sharing of feelings, the emphasis is more therapeutic than it is educational. But because the church group is always concerned with assisting the growth of its members toward Christian goals, it always has an educative function. Of course, any meaningful educational experience takes into account the deeper needs of the learner. There is always resistance to any new ideas which might imply a need for new patterns of thought, and until this resistance is taken into account, little learning takes place. Any educational process has a primary responsibility to master a body of knowledge, but this responsibility can be carried out only in an environment which is constantly alert to therapeutic needs.
A second characteristic of the sharing group is its emphasis on communicating feeling. One of the most significant learning experiences that takes place in a sharing group comes when communication of feelings is given a priority over mere socialization. It is characteristic of most groups that communication is conceived of as being at a fairly high level. Even in a large group we like to feel that we have a basic understanding of what the other person is trying to convey. In smaller classes or in committees or in training groups we are even more ready to assert that we are, in truth, a comfortable sort of group in which the flow of ideas and decisions is carried on in an atmosphere of good fellowship. When group activity is analyzed carefully, however, it becomes apparent that some groups have achieved far greater facility in communicating in a fundamental way than others, and that, indeed, some of the groups seldom reach a point where interaction is on a meaningful level.
A large part of the uniqueness of the sharing group lies in the experience of communicating freely, without defensiveness, in as personal and emotional a manner as one desires. Ideally the sharing group is one in which it is possible to be perfectly honest about emotions present as they are recognized in the self and shared with others. One student in a sharing group writes of what the experience meant to him:
I have felt freer and more able to be myself in that group than in any other I have been in. It wasn’t so much being able to express hostility, but being able to express my inadequacies and feel that they were understood and shared to some extent by the rest of the group.
A third characteristic of the sharing group is found in the kind of involvement which the leader permits for himself. Whether one subscribes to the orthodox psychoanalytic pattern of a passive therapist or not, it is very clear that no leader can really encourage sharing until he is willing to share himself. Granting that the leader needs to maintain objectivity in order to function in the leadership role, it is equally important that he involve himself as a participant.
The point is that the able leader is willing to let the group see him as a real human being struggling with problems. One seminary teacher tells of being at his greatest effectiveness during the days that he shared with his students the blow-by-blow account of his dealings with real estate people as he sold his house to a member of a minority group and tried, at the same time, to act responsibly toward his neighbors. In my own experience with group leadership, I believe I was closest to the group with which I shared my anxiety over a long weekend as I waited for a pathologist’s report on a tumor taken from my daughter.
A fourth principle for the sharing group makes the present situation the focus of attention. The situation of the moment, the here and now in this room and around this table, is never lost sight of. This means that investigation into past behavior is not only not encouraged but is even consciously discouraged. By keeping the focus on the present, many of the unfortunate excesses of a confidential nature about past events are avoided and one of the chief complaints against sharing groups in the church is eliminated. Excursions into the past are entered into only to clarify the present. The real interest centers in the immediate, current scene, and past relationships or past events are of only incidental interest.
To keep the focus on the present calls for considerable activity on the part of the leader. I recall a group situation where one of the group members, a mature woman, dominated the first part of the group with a fascinating account of her recent trip to Europe. After permitting her to go on for a short time, I interrupted to say that although what she was saying was interesting it was inappropriate for our task. Later she wrote me a letter in which she demonstrated that she had learned a good deal:
I want to thank you for what I learned; how to keep quiet and listen to others; the whole concept of what you termed “unfinished business”. . . which meant that there was an interpersonal relationship which had not been worked through; the surprising truth that there is no conflict that does not disappear if both people will go into the encounter and face the negatives and articulate them in terms of actual feelings; your continual emphasis on getting rid of the things that keep people from loving each other.
A fifth characteristic of the sharing group in the church stresses personal sharing as opposed to probing for answers. There is a common tendency in any group that is working with feelings to probe for underlying motivation. The inclination is thus to focus attention on other members with the intent of pushing for an answer as to why a person acts the way he does. I am proposing, however, that a far more productive pattern is to develop the capacity to share in a personal way with increasing freedom. Thus the attention turns from why someone else functions the way he does to sharing the way a person, himself, feels.
It is obvious that the leader plays a major role in helping groups to share their own feelings rather than to probe for underlying motivation. Thus the leader appropriately asks: How do you feel when Tom keeps pressing you for an answer?” but he does not ask Tom: “Why do you press so hard for an answer?” The principle here is that the exploration of motives is not the task of the sharing group, but the disclosure of feelings present always is appropriate.
There is at least one more principle which characterizes the sharing group in the church. Observations are always welcomed, but attacks are avoided. Whereas the natural inclination is to fix blame for feelings on someone else, the sharing group encourages a recognition of the feeling without ascribing a responsibility for it. Thus instead of saying: “You have a very annoying way of interrupting me” (in which the blame is placed on the other person) , the group member is encouraged to share his feeling without attaching blame by saying: “I find myself getting annoyed whenever I am interrupted.” Here is an observation about personal feelings which leaves open the question of whose fault it is, and which makes possible an exploration of the meaning behind the feeling in a freer and less defensive manner.
I do not mean in this principle to deny the existence of strong negative feelings or to prohibit their expression. I do mean to suggest that negative feelings are dealt with best in an atmosphere in which a person is not on the defensive. A major advantage of the group situation is that support can be so real that angry and fearful feelings can really be recognized and explored. It is my experience that such recognition and exploration seldom take place in the presence of attack.
To recognize sharing groups in the church as a resource for positive mental health does not imply that everyone in the church should be organized into a group. Sharing groups call for a special interest in a personal kind of sharing. Not everyone is prepared to share his feelings, and so not everyone is interested in participating in a sharing group. A more exact way of putting it is that many do not want to risk involvement in a group that will ask for sharing at a personal level. Hence some kind of screening is needed in order to bring together those who are eager to share without raising resistance from those who are too anxiety-ridden to share. To attempt to organize a whole parish into small sharing groups overlooks this important factor and dooms the program to failure before it even gets started.
The kinds of groups in the church in which personal sharing is possible are almost unlimited. High school seniors in one church met for breakfast each week throughout the spring to talk with their minister about their place in life and their feelings about the future. Some churches have sharing groups for parents of teenagers, for retired men, for divorced women, for parents of retarded children. We have already noted the possibility of an educational program out of which smaller, more intimate groups can be formed for sharing on a more personal basis. One church held an all-day conference in September for single parents and then announced a continuing group (or groups) to meet weekly during the fall until Christmas. In a similar pattern one church has an annual Marriage Clinic with outside speakers for four consecutive weeks and then provides opportunity for couples to meet together on a less formal basis in small sharing groups over a period of ten to twelve weeks. In each case the goals are the same: to provide an intimate, supportive group in which personal attitudes and feelings are talked out and in which supportive friendships are developed.
For additional reading
Anderson, Philip A. Church Meetings That Matter, Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1965.
Casteel, John L., ed. The Creative Role of interpersonal Groups in the Church Today. New York: Association Press, 1968.
– -, ed. Spiritual Renewal Through Personal Groups. New York: Association Press, 1957.
Clinebell, Howard J., Jr. “Mental Health and the Group Life of rise Church,” Mental Health Through Christian Community. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965, pp. 149-70.