Chapter 7: Mental Health and the Group Life of the Church

The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 7: Mental Health and the Group Life of the Church

For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them -- Matt. 18:20

That their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery -- Col. 2:2

There are many things which a person can do alone, but being a Christian is not one of them (From John L. Casteel (ed.), Spiritual Renewal Through Personal Groups (New York: Association Press, 1957), p. 169). -- William T. Ham

Groups, large and small, are the fabric from which a church's program is shaped. Many church groups provide rich opportunities for developing interpersonal skills, leadership abilities, spiritual depth and intellectual discipline. The existence of a variety of sizes and types of groups in a local church is an invaluable asset in fulfilling its ministry of growth, healing, service, and reconciliation. The spiritual vitality of a local church is directly correlated with the health of its groups -- particularly its small groups where heart-hungers are most apt to be satisfied. Here a sense of Christian community can flourish.

Unfortunately, many church groups do not discover their untapped potentialities for growth and healing. They fail to find the secret of group creativity. Rather than providing growth-stimulating experiences, they become drags on the mental health of their members. Instead of sharpening the creative edge of living, such groups have a dulling effect, encouraging the investment of precious human life in trivial activities. Out of a sense of duty, guilt, or habit, persons continue in such groups, cluttering their schedules with a plethora of meetings. A perceptive student of church groups states a fact that stands as a judgment on our churches: "We affirm that our churches are Christian fellowships, households of faith, beloved communities. But many churchmen find deeper fellowship in a union, a trade association, or a lodge." (M. E. Kuhn, You Can't Be Human Alone (New York: National Council of Churches, 1956), p. 1.)

Church groups, once established, tend to become self-perpetuating. Even if they become sick, they grind on like cogs in a machine, year after year. To measure a group's viability, the minister and lay leaders need to ask these crucial questions: Is this group useful in achieving the kingdom goals for which the church exists? What are its effects on personality? Is it contributing significantly to the service of humanity, the growth of persons, or the deepening of relationships?

How can a church's groups make their maximum contribution to mental and spiritual health? As the central issue of this chapter, this question will be treated with a dual focus: How can the health of the existing groups be enhanced and how can such new groups be created as are necessary to meet the needs of a church's members and its community?

The Mystical Identity of a Church

What is "Christian community"? A church as a psychological reality is not just a collection of groups any more than a family is only a collection of individuals. There is a unifying identity which is more than the sum of its members and groups. This makes the church-fellowship-as-a-whole a psychological entity. The over-all identity of a given congregation is a mystical unity which transcends the collective identities of the subgroups within its structure. The identity of the local church is, in turn, strengthened by an awareness of sharing in larger circles of identity -- the denomination, other branches of the mystical Body of Christ, and in the largest circle -- the family of God. The theological and historical dimensions of a church's corporate identity account for its uniqueness as a social organism. Unlike other groups, a church fellowship participates in a century-spanning heritage which finds the ultimate meaning of existence in man's relationship with God.

Coming into a particular congregation opens the door for the individual to participate psychologically in this many-faceted corporate identity, The depth of an individual's participation depends on the degree to which he is able to enter into the fellowship and its heritage. The corporate identity of a congregation is most apt to come alive for the individual as he builds strong relationships in the church's groups. Persons who find the richest satisfactions in church membership are almost invariably immersed in the fellowship of one or more of its smaller groups. Conversely, the "fringe member" is one who has not gotten into one of the centers of group life.

Participation in the psychological identity of a church fellowship undergirds one's sense of individual and family identity, thus strengthening personality health. As Arnold B. Come has stated, "Participation in the life of the church has a formative power below the level of consciousness." (Drinking: A Christian Position (Philadelphia Westminster Press, 1964), p. 78.) This vital contribution to the mental health of millions of church members is so ubiquitous that it is easily taken for granted.

The Small Group and the Church's Purposes

Robert C. Leslie, a leader in the field of group pastoral counseling, has observed: "One of the healthiest signs of renewal in the life of the church is the increasing number of small, intimate, sharing groups which are springing up on all sides." (''The Uniqueness of Small Groups in the Church," Pastoral Psychology, XV (June,1964), 33) The flowering of small groups in the churches is one of the most significant religious developments of our times. The labels are varied -- "sharing group," "growth group," "discovery group," "personal group," "encounter group," "quest group," "healing group," "therapy group," "Yokefellow group," and so forth. All emphasize personal sharing, depth communication, and growth in the spiritual life. Collectively these emerging groups represent a tremendous wellspring of mental health influences.

Church historians have noted that the training of small groups has been a part of every major surge of spiritual vitality in the church. In The Human Group, George Homans points out that early Christianity grew through the spread of its "network of new and tough groups." ((New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), p. 658.) In his dissertation, "Group Therapy as a Method for Church Work," (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1948.) Robert C. Leslie identifies these salient points at which small groups played a vital role in church history: Christ and his disciples, the Apostolic church, Montanism, monasticism, the Waldenses, the Franciscans, the Friends of God, the Brethren of the Common Life, German pietism, the Anabaptists, the Society of Friends, the Wesleyan revival, the Great Awakening, the Iona Community, the Emmanuel Movement, and the Oxford Group Movement (from which came Alcoholics Anonymous). The contemporary renaissance of small groups in the churches follows an ancient, time-tested path.

If a church is to be "a creative cell in our mass society," (Alan Walker, address at Garrett Theological Seminary, August, 1957.) it must offer people abundant opportunities to experience Christian community. Large groups have a vital function in achieving the instructional and inspirational objectives of a church. Think, for example, of the spiritual lift which comes from being a part of a congregation singing the mighty Easter hymns of renewal. But a church's smaller groups are the settings in which lonely people can best experience the reality of religion as creative relationships -- with self, others, and God. In the lay academies of the continent, the "house churches" of Britain, the ecumenical retreat centers in the U. S. and elsewhere, in denominational and local church camps, youth assemblies, parent education and Bible study groups, hundreds of persons are discovering the excitement of life-to-life communication in small groups. Many are finding a fresh baptism of the biblical experience as a small, honest group becomes a channel of God's grace for them. There is no doubt that the small group renaissance is a powerful factor in the recovery of Christian community and of the healing mission of the church.

Small Groups and Personality Needs

Human beings have a spontaneous tendency toward grouping resulting from the fact that man is essentially a social being whose deepest personality needs can be satisfied only in relationships. In early childhood his personality is created through interaction with his family. Throughout his life span the maintenance of personality health depends on the adequate satisfaction of his personality needs through positive relationships.

The basic "heart-hungers" or personality needs were described in the last chapter. Each of these hungers is satisfied to some degree in an effective church group. Feelings of security are derived from belonging to an accepting group. Opportunities for meaningful service should be present in every church group. (In a personal sharing group this may be the service of helping others discover themselves.) Self-esteem is enhanced as one feels esteemed by one's fellows. Group activities allow for the enjoyment of a variety of shared experiences. An effective group helps bridge the separateness of individual life by empathy, affection, and concern. The sum of these is love, the absolutely indispensable personality food. A group elicits loyalty because it satisfies personality needs. This loyalty to the group gives the group power to influence the values and set limits on individual behavior. A health-enhancing group respects the need for encouraging individual freedom within necessary limits.

The religiously oriented group is the instrument par excellence for nurturing that experience of trust which is called faith. Trust is contagious and the place where it is most likely to be caught is in a group committed to the religious quest. In a small, accepting group many persons discover that the kingdom is already among us!

Small groups are particularly important in our period of history. It is psychologically true, as in John Donne's familiar line, that "No man is an Island, entire of itself." But the fact is that millions of persons experience themselves as islands, cut off from the continent of humanity. Many are not aware of the depth of their loneliness. They live in what Tennessee Williams describes as "a lonely condition so terrifying to think about that we usually don't." (Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, introduction.) Cut off from real communication with others, they feel like grains of sand, washed back and forth by the waves of impersonal forces, having friction with others but no organic relatedness. In this kind of society, small, lively groups in a church offer sorely needed opportunities for persons to drink deeply from the fresh springs of relationship, discovering the reality of the New Testament experience of being "members one of another."

Creating a True Group

In the psychological sense, a group is not just a collection of individuals in geographical proximity. Fifty people packed like sardines in a subway train do not constitute a true group. A group comes into existence when, through interaction, there is a partial merging of the "psychological field" or "life space" of two or more individuals. The significant world of each is to some extent involved in the other. There are definite, predictable stages through which an aggregation of people go in the process of becoming a true group. When this process is well advanced, there is a strong sense of group identity, of group boundaries and of cohesiveness, interdependency, and belonging.

Although the process of becoming a group is a natural one, certain factors in our society tend to block it -- for example, competitiveness, fear of intimacy, and general reluctance to relax our defensive masks. Consequently, many so-called groups meet for years without achieving more than superficial interaction. Unfortunately, glib talk about "Christian fellowship" will not produce it. Only as a group satisfies the conditions under which vital interpersonal relationships can grow will genuine fellowship be experienced.

A group tends to develop a distinctive "personality" -- a persistent emotional climate and style of relating which distinguishes it from other groups. Many groups have personality problems. Since groups can be robust or sickly, energetic or anemic, it behooves church leaders who work constantly with groups to be able to diagnose and treat the factors which limit group creativity.

For any group to come into existence there must be "physical, social, and interactional proximity." (Quoted from Eugene Jennings of Michigan State University in You Can't Be Human Alone, p. 6.) Physical proximity must be combined with continuity of meeting. It takes time together to develop a sense of group identity. Social proximity refers to the common goals or interests which bring certain individuals together. The sense of group identity grows as mutual need-satisfaction develops and psychological fields overlap through interaction. Emotional involvement in the group flowers as its members communicate and share meaningful experiences. The more intense the experience in which they participate, the more powerful the bond -- witness the rapport among men who have been through a battle together.

In the growth of a healthy group, openness and honesty of communication are essential. Speaking of small groups in the churches, John Casteel declares: "The vitality of the group's life together depends upon the freedom, honesty, and depth with which members come to share their questions, problems, insights, and faith with one another." (Spiritual Renewal Through Personal Groups, p. 201) The kind of participation which produces emotional involvement is based on the awareness that one's feelings and opinions are recognized, valued, and taken into account in group decisions.

A unique aspect of a church group which contributes to its health is its vertical as well as horizontal reference. The growth of individual group members is seen in relationship to God and the needs of the world. This tends to balance the necessary introspective aspects of a sharing group. In her description of the spiritual pioneering of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, D. C., Elizabeth O'Connor put the issue squarely: "The group does meet for the nurture of its own members, but it also meets in order that God may have an instrument through which His power may come and through which His life may break in new ways for the world." (Call to Commitment (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), p. 37.)

Group-Centered Leadership

The most crucial single factor in group health is the quality of its leadership. In an authority-centered group, honesty of communication tends not to occur. Members hide their real feelings and withhold themselves from wholehearted participation. The more a leader assumes responsibility for what happens in the group, the more the group forces him to carry the ball. In a leader-centered group, members give only enough of themselves to "get by." Uncreative conformity and its Siamese twin, "foot-dragging," flourish. Coercive devices such as penalties and rewards become increasingly necessary to keep the wheels turning.

Various studies have shown that authority-centered patterns of leadership produce negative effects on personality health. The morale of workers and the emotional stability of children have been found to be enhanced by job situations and homes, respectively, in which they participated in some of the decisions affecting them.( From Thomas Gordon, Group-Centered Leadership (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955), pp. 8-9.) The distribution of leadership in the "therapeutic community" approach in mental hospitals (including patient self-government and even participation in decisions regarding the discharge of fellow patients) has produced remarkable therapeutic results.

The leadership model which maximizes the growth-stimulating effects of groups is described by Thomas Gordon in Group-Centered Leadership, A Way of Releasing the Creative Power of Groups. Here are some of the functions of a group centered leader:

(1) He seeks the maximum distribution of leadership among the group members. (2) He sees that all members of the group have an opportunity to participate in group decisions. (3) He encourages freedom of communication. (4) He seeks to increase opportunities for participation. (5) He attempts to create a non-threatening group climate in which feelings and ideas are accepted. (6) He conveys feelings of warmth and empathy, thus encouraging others to do likewise. (7) He sets the tone by paying attention to the contributions of others, perhaps of reflecting what they are saying with, "Let's see if I understand what you mean . . ." (8) He helps build group-centered (as contrasted with self-centered) contributions by his linking function in which he points to the relationships among various individuals' contributions to the discussion.( Paraphrased from Thomas Gordon, ."Group-Centered Leadership and Administration," in Client-centered Therapy by Carl R. Rogers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1959), Chap. 8.)

Such a leader is a catalyst and midwife -- a facilitator of the group process. As group-centeredness grows, dependence on the leader decreases and the functions of the leader are gradually taken over by the group. It is important to emphasize that the degree to which members give of their abilities to the group's thought and work is determined by the extent to which emotional involvement is elicited through the distribution of leadership and meaningful participation.

Democratic (or group-centered) leadership is not the same as laissez faire leadership or leader passivity. The democratic leader actively helps the group to release its own potentialities. He knows that the only way this can happen is by not doing the things for the group that they can learn to do for themselves. His respect for persons and for the group process assures him that he can depend on the group's discovering its identity and power. As midwife, he helps in a "natural childbirth" process by which a creative group is born. His job is to help the group achieve an emotional climate and a level of communication which will facilitate natural group-birth.

The spirit rather than the mechanics of leadership is at the heart of this matter. To illustrate, an authority-centered person can misuse a knowledge of group dynamics (or even the methods of group-centered leadership) to manipulate a group in subtle ways. On the other hand, the person-centered leader, believing deeply that the group-entered approach releases human potentialities, will carry this spirit into those situations requiring more directive approaches. Church groups require a variety of leadership skills, including the constructive use of authority. Like counseling, leadership calls for different facets of a leader's personality in different situations. On the same day, a minister may function with a family temporarily paralyzed by a tragic loss, a ministerial association meeting involving numerous routine administrative matters, and a planning retreat for his church leaders. The use of any one leadership style in all of these situations would miss the needs of at least two. The first calls for a firm, parental, supportive approach. The second needs efficiency in leadership in order to save the group's time for important matters. But in the third situation -- the planning retreat genuine group-centered methods are essential in order to reduce leader-dependency and allow each person the freedom and incentive to contribute his creativity to the planning process.

Types of Small Groups in a Local Church

There are at least four types of group functions which have useful roles in a church program -- (a) work and service, (b) study, (c) supportive-inspirational, and (d) modified therapy.( I am indebted to Robert C. Leslie for his elucidation of this term in "Group Therapy: A New Approach for the Church," Pastoral Psychology, VI (April, 1955). Many church groups combine two or more of these functions. Each of the four types can play an essential role in contributing to the health and growth of persons.

Work and service groups (called "task-oriented" in group literature) accomplish the essential administrative, fund-raising, social action, and community service functions of a church. They can contribute to mental health by providing the therapy of worthwhile work and satisfying the need for self-investment. Take, for example, the group in a west-coast church which produces an excellent church paper. The mental health values to these persons include participation with congenial friends in achieving worthy goals (producing a channel of information and inspiration) and the reward of well-deserved appreciation from church members and minister. The editor's leadership is the key to understanding the esprit de corps of the staff. He delegates responsibility in ways that reveal his respect for persons and calls regular staff-meetings at which important decisions are made regarding layout and policy.

The methods frequently employed in work groups to "get things done," ride roughshod over feelings and stifle individual initiative. In an article on "Group Dynamics in a Local Church," Philip H. Anderson asks rhetorically: "Are we so sure that the committee which ignores the feelings of individual members in order to get a job done is the most efficient and productive in the long run?" (Pastoral Psychology, III (January, 1953). p. 21) Even if it could be proved that a steamroller approach is the most efficient way of getting certain work done (as it may well be in the short run), the fundamental issue is the negative impact of this methodology on personality.

Study groups, like work groups, have varied effects on the mental health of their members. As indicated in the preceding chapter, sound educational methods encourage involvement, enhance self-esteem, and stimulate growth. To maximize its mental health impact, a church should have a wide variety of study groups for all ages. Most churches have hardly scratched the surface of their opportunities to offer adults horizon-widening encounters with new dimensions of truth. Having a face-to-face contact with many more adults than any other agency in our society gives the churches a tremendous natural opportunity in adult education. Through lively study discussion groups, persons from young adulthood through senior citizenship can discover the zest of loving God with their minds.

One church in the South has a "Christian great books club." Twenty-five couples each contribute the price of one book per year. A committee from the club recommends twenty-five choice books, drawing both from contemporary theological writings and the religious classics. The books are circulated. Each month a panel of members leads a discussion on two of the books. At the end of the year, the books are added to the church library. This approach provides a group incentive to read solid religious books and to wrestle collectively with ideas from many facets of religious literature. The group bond is strong because they are sharing a highly significant experience. Invariably the group discussions focus on the relevance of the books to a broad range of practical problems in living. A study group thus becomes a kind of modified therapy group, encouraging growth in the adequacy of one's total life.

Many churches are forming koinonia groups. Their primary focus is disciplined study with an emphasis on personal commitment. Robert Raines describes the operation of koinonia groups in his church. (Pastoral Psychology, III (January, 1953). p. 21) He holds that they are an effective way of training a hard core of dedicated, growing disciples who can leaven a local church. Bible study is the core of the groups' activity, for three reasons: (a) Rediscovery of the biblical message is the shortest path to the God of the Bible. (b) The Bible gives the authoritative content of the faith which provides substance for the small group experience, helping members avoid the "self-centeredness and sentimentality" of many prayer groups. (c) An invitation to work out an intellectually respectable faith through grappling with questions and doubts about the Bible is the most efficient way of getting large numbers of adults into small groups.

Koinonia groups usually meet two evenings a month for two hours. After fifteen minutes of devotions, one and a half hours are spent discussing the material for that session. Study is based on a w cycle of books, beginning with a survey of the Bible followed by the Gospel of Mark. New groups are led by carefully trained laymen with previous koinonia group experience. In describing group sessions, Raines comments: "No matter how academically I would start the discussion, the people would invariably bring it down to their daily lives where they needed help." (Ibid., p. 84 )The goal of these groups is to reach and change people quickly in the direction of Christian discipleship. There is no doubt that these groups have therapeutic (healing) effects. In fact, they may be more therapeutic than many "therapy groups" simply because they have a center outside themselves and a goal which is more inclusive than simply the growth of their members. Raines reports that these groups have transformed lives and revitalized his church from within.

Some church groups are primarily supportive-inspirational in their function -- that is, fellowship groups give emotional support to their members. Typical prayer groups are supportive-inspirational. Their goal is the deepening of the members' spiritual lives through experiencing a vital relationship with God. Canon Ernest W. Southcott, founder of the "home church" movement in England, writes in The Parish Comes Alive: "We need fellowship -- the fellowship of the Holy Spirit -- in 'upper rooms' where two or three are gathered together in His name, so that He can be in the midst of us." ((New York: Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1956), p. 121.) His movement aims at taking the church into the homes of people primarily through the celebration of home communion.

The usual assumption in group therapy thinking is that a group cannot be both insight-oriented and "repressive-inspirational." One of the significant things that small group experiences in church settings have demonstrated is that a group can be inspirational without being repressive. Put another way, a group can have an inspirational dimension without putting the lid on the emergence of insight. In fact, experiments like the koinonia groups suggest that an inspirational aspect may facilitate the process of self-discovery in certain people by providing a sense of support and safety. This reduces their anxiety level sufficiently to allow them to examine previously avoided areas of their inner lives.

The leadership of a group makes a decisive difference in determining whether inspiration is used repressively or to facilitate self-awareness. Leaders with group-therapy training can encourage a Bible study group to use the great biblical insights as stimuli and guides to deeper explorations of their intrapersonal conflicts and interpersonal relationships. Because of its refreshing candor regarding big feelings -- for example guilt, fear, anger, sibling rivalry (Cain and Abel) -- the biblical record, when skillfully employed, is an ideal instrument for depth explorations.

Therapeutic Groups Versus Group Therapy

Should the typical church group be thought of as a form of group therapy? Definitely not! Group therapy is one form of psychotherapy. It is an effective instrument only in the hands of a well-trained group therapist. Any general attempt to convert church groups into therapy would produce widespread (and justified) resentment and would miss the broader educational, prophetic, and service goals of a church. Church groups in general cannot and should not be "therapy" groups, but they should be increasingly therapeutic in their effects. Every class, committee, society, circle, board, commission, and fellowship group should strive to become more and more healing and growth-stimulating. That this happen in the life of a church is vastly more important than that the church sponsor "group therapy," per se. However, the church leaders' (lay and professional) understanding of the principles of group dynamics and therapy can be immensely useful in helping groups realize their creative possibilities.

This comparison of two adult classes in the same midwestern church illustrates the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic groups:

Class X: The interpersonal climate is warm, accepting, enthusiastic. There is a strong sense of belonging among its members. Newcomers are attracted by the positive spirit of the class. It is unnecessary to promote attendance. People come regularly because attendance is a need-satisfying experience. Most of the members participate in the programs and the decisions of the class. Top leadership rotates regularly every six months. A variety of speakers is used in its programs which are planned by the members.

Class Y: The group climate is decidedly cool and there is little sense of cohesion. Except for a small clique at the center who make the decisions and plan. the programs, there is little sense of member involvement. In spite of strained efforts to promote "friendliness," the social distance separating individuals within the group is large. There is a constant and coercive effort on the part of the three officers to increase attendance and arouse enthusiasm. The programs are executed (in more ways than one) by the officers who complain that "people won't take responsibility." Most of the members of class Y are essentially spectators, attending sporadically and investing little of themselves in the experience.

Class Y mirrors the problems of our culture -- aloneness, manipulation, noninvolvement, and "spectatoritis." Class X effectively challenges these pathogenic patterns by providing experiences of warm, interpersonal relationships, participation, and belonging.

Rejuvenating a Church's Group Life

If a church's groups are to make their maximum contribution to the health of persons, the health of the groups needs to be checked periodically. One church did a self-study of its entire membership and program to ascertain the extent to which the program was meeting the basic needs of the congregation. It used as participation criteria four categories in which information was readily available -- church attendance, financial support, group membership, and leadership in the church's program. It found that an alarmingly high percentage of members was not involved in any group and that the leadership function was not broadly distributed. This self-study included a careful analysis of the church's group structure against the background of the obvious needs of the congregation. A study of the age distribution revealed that a higher percentage of the members was in the over-sixty category than had been generally recognized. In the light of this, several new groups for retired persons were launched, as well as a short-term group (repeated periodically) to help prepare persons for the stresses of retirement.

Each group within that church was encouraged to do a self-study of its own effectiveness. A "Group Vitality Check List" was distributed to the leaders to assist them in this process. It contained items such as group growth, major problems, degree of participation, attention to newcomers and absentees, rotation and distribution of leadership. One of the results of these group self-studies was a request from several group leaders for a leadership training course. This was set up on a small group, modified-therapy basis, recognizing that the most efficient way of acquiring depth understanding of group interaction is to experience such interaction under supervision. The church's minister of counseling led the group using a laboratory method. After discussing the influence on group morale of various types of leadership, the training group experimented by role-playing authoritarian, over-permissive, and group-centered leaders. The group was used as a lab to experiment with various group techniques including buzz groups, post-session evaluation techniques, opinionaires, brainstorming, and dialogue-stimulating methods. Leadership training is the key to rejuvenating a church's existing groups and preparing for the development of future groups.

Faltering groups frequently find new vitality in "renewal retreats" in which the officers or the entire group spend a weekend together at a remote spot. These retreats aim at rethinking the purposes of the group and searching for new resources for achieving them. During, such a retreat interpersonal barriers are lowered and bridges strengthened. This may have more to do with the success of such experiences than the plans they produce.

There are in many churches one or more groups which suffer from severe personality problems and are meeting only the neurotic needs of a few persons. If vested interests and emotional involvement in such groups are high on the part of a few, it may be necessary for those responsible for the overall adequacy of the church program simply to bypass the sick groups and create other groups to meet the needs of the congregation. This is usually more constructive than attempting to do away with the infected groups.

Creating New Groups to Fill Gaps

To meet the challenge of our society, a church should experiment with new patterns of group life. This is precisely what vital churches in many places are doing. In evaluating its group structure, a church's leaders should ask themselves these questions: Is it possible for persons of every age, with a wide range of interests, to find meaningful group experiences in our church? What are the unique needs of people in this community in the second half of the twentieth century? What are the gaps in our group structure? What new group approaches can help to meet the needs of our members and the needs of our community, beyond our congregation?

Every human being, whatever his age or social position, needs a small group to nurture his personal growth. Increasing numbers of persons are finding their nurture groups within a church. The goal toward which a church should strive is to encourage each of its members to participate in a significant small group relationship in which depth communication can occur. If this is to happen, churches must be imaginative and daring in their creation of new groups. The classic example of a church that has done this through the years is the First Community Church of Columbus, Ohio. Under the leadership of the late Roy Burkhart, that church took as its aim the guidance and spiritual enrichment of life "from birth through all the years of life in the tabernacle of the body." Long before the current surge of small groups, that church developed a wide and varied group structure to meet the growth needs of its members.

In a significant paper, "Theological Dimensions of Renewal through Small Groups," (Pastoral Psychology, XV (June, 1964), 23-32.) James B. Ashbrook holds that the vitality of church life depends on the presence of a number of "cellular units" which are discovering new life in the Spirit. He describes the way in which his church developed ten small groups paralleling the regular organizational structure but not formally a part of it. Their purpose was to seek the authentic life of the Spirit. Each group had its own life history. When a group had outlived its usefulness, it was allowed to die so that new life might come into being. The idea of creating vital parallel groups, as at the same time one works to energize existing "institutionalized" groups, has much to commend it.

Therapy and Modified Therapy Groups

Among the new groups which a church should create there ought to be one or more with explicit counseling goals such as growth in self-understanding, opportunity to deal openly with feelings and problems, and opportunity to grow in the health of one's interpersonal relationships. These could be group psychotherapy and/or modified therapy groups. Pure (unmodified) group psychotherapy has the following characteristics:

(1) It has an avowed therapeutic purpose which the members know in advance. (2) Its activities are limited to those which are directly psychotherapeutic There are no projects, agendas or instruction in the formal sense. (3) The basic concern of the group is the growth of its members in self-awareness, self-acceptance and in their relationships. (4) Free and honest expression of feelings is encouraged, including negative feelings about other members and the leader. (5) There is a continual focus on interaction within the group, on the assumption that this reflects the member's general interpersonal patterns. (6) Such groups are usually limited in size, six to eight being a common number. Many such groups continue to meet over considerable periods of time. (Adapted from G. R Bach, Intensive Group Psychotherapy (New York: Ronald Press, 1954).

The leader of such a group must be highly skilled in order to help the group per se become a therapeutic agent and to minimize the following dangers: (a) Transference distortions. Archaic feelings of intense love and hate inevitably come to the surface in such groups, attaching themselves to the leader and to group members. These feelings may disrupt relationships. Given sufficient time, they can be worked through in therapy groups providing the leader is well trained. If not well-handled, these transference feelings can produce difficult interpersonal problems. (b) Acting out. Because of the intimate communication over a long period of time, therapy group members tend to develop strong bonds which sometimes leads to sexual pairing. The acting out can also be of a hostile variety. Here again, skilled leadership is very important.

It is obvious from the above that a minister (or anyone else) with only limited training in counseling should avoid attempting anything resembling group psychotherapy. Even if he has the necessary training, the pastor of a church who attempts to do group therapy is probably investing more time in a few people than he can afford. Fortunately, whatever training a minister has in the principles of group therapy need not be wasted since these principles can be applied in modified therapy groups designed to help "normal" people raise their levels of effectiveness in living. Psychiatrist Jerome D. Frank points out that "intimate sharing of feelings, ideas and experiences in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding enhances self-respect, deepens self-understanding, and helps a person live with others. Such an experience can be helpful to persons at any level of illness or health. ("Group Methods in Therapy'' (Public Affairs Pamphlet #284), pp. 3-4.)

Unless a church has a minister of counseling with advanced training in group therapy (or a member of one of the mental health professions with such training), it should concentrate on modified therapy groups for relatively healthy (or mildly disturbed) persons. Such persons can often profit greatly from growth groups. If a church has a well-trained person on its staff there is no reason why it should not consider sponsoring group therapy for more disturbed persons as an expression of its ministry of healing.

The pure group therapy approach can be modified in several ways to make it applicable to church groups with less highly trained leadership and designed to help relatively normal people. The therapeutic process will ordinarily be less intense (and therefore more easily used constructively) if one or more of the following changes are made: (a) The size of the group is increased. (b) The purposes are broadened to include educational or inspirational goals. (c) The frequency of meetings is reduced (therapy groups usually meet weekly for 11/2 hours) . (d) The length of the group's existence is limited in advance. (e) The leader functions as a teacher. (f) The leader focuses away from expressions of feelings concerning other group members.

Robert C. Leslie suggests these simple ground rules which he believes make it possible for church groups to focus on relationships without excesses such as emotional explosions and unwholesome confessions:

1. The situation of the moment, the here and now in this room and around this table, is never lost sight of . . . investigation into past behavior is inappropriate.... 2. Attention is centered on the first person, on my feelings, my reactions, my associations.... 3. There is no place for personal criticism. That is, instead of saying: "You have a very annoying way of interrupting me," the feeling of annoyance is expressed as my problem rather than as yours: "I find myself getting very annoyed when I am interrupted." . . . 4. Investigation of motives has no place in the group, but reactions to behavior are always relevant.... 5. The creation of an atmosphere in which personal feelings can be discussed at the moment that they are aroused by characteristic behavior patterns is a major concern, so that the group gains increasing freedom in dealing with its own habitual operations.( "The Uniqueness of Small Groups in the Church'' pp. 35-36.)

These ground rules represent a practical way of modifying orthodox group psychotherapy rendering it less hazardous without losing the therapeutic values of honest discussion of personal feelings.

Within the church setting, modified therapy approaches can be applied to meet many types of needs. For example, Edgar N. Jackson has experimented with short-term parent groups involving four to six couples. In his pastoral work, he frequently encountered a strong sense of need among parents of sixth grade preadolescents. So, he invited several couples to meet for eight to ten sessions to explore their mutual concerns related to their roles as parents of soon-to-be adolescents. Each session was opened with a brief statement by Jackson on such matters as the psychology of sixth graders and of parent-child relationships. This statement, a seed-planting operation, produced a lively discussion which quickly moved to the level of the parents, feelings, problems, and self-images. This approach has applicability to a wide range of problems which normal church members encounter during the "common ventures of life."

A modified therapy approach was employed by a west-coast church in its teacher-training program. The minister discovered that several of his children's division teachers felt grossly inadequate as teachers, were baffled by problems of doubt, and felt shaken by parents' criticism. Fortunately, he had had training in group counseling. His suggestion that they have a series of informal meetings to deal with some of these problems was eagerly accepted. The minister met weekly with a dozen or so of the teachers for a period of two months. They felt this experience to be of substantial help in clarifying and working through the feelings which were inhibiting their effectiveness.

A Long Island church of which I was pastor used a modified therapy group approach in its continuing program of child-study for mothers of preschoolers. After preliminary discussion of the need for such a group, the nursery superintendent and the minister invited all the mothers of preschool children to an exploratory meeting. Those who responded decided to start a "Child-study Nursery Group" which would meet one morning a week throughout the school year. They elected a steering committee with a rotating chairmanship. This committee planned the child-study program in consultation with the minister and the superintendent after circulating an "Interest Finder" questionnaire among the entire group. He is a sampling of their programs: systematic study of Dorothy Baruch New Ways in Discipline, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1949) a mental health film entitled "Angry Boy," a talk by a pediatrician, a trip with their children to a zoo, a talk by the minister on "Handling a Child's Fear of Death," an a panel of members on "Sex Education of Young Children."

While the mothers met in the church parlor their children attended nursery school in the basement under the supervision of trained volunteers. Each mother contributed fifty cents a week to cover costs of nursery school equipment as well as coffee and juice. Occasional evening meetings were scheduled so that the fathers could share in choice programs. In the evaluation session at the close of the first year, comments such as these were voiced: "This group has given me self-confidence as a mother, I don't feel so pushed around by what others on my street think." "Our family is spending more time together and liking it! We went on our first picnic in the country last week."

This group continued for a number of years. Some dropped out as their children reached school age. Other mothers joined, keeping the group at about twenty-five. This group was effective because it met real needs of mothers and children. It allowed the mothers an opportunity to deal with their feelings and attitudes as well as acquire useful information. It was self-directed so that it stayed close to the needs and interests of the participants. The group association helped to overcome the loneliness often felt by mothers whose activities are confined by small children.

Modified therapy groups have been used extensively with adolescents (who respond especially well to such approaches). After a satisfying yearlong confirmation class with the minister of a Michigan church, several highschool youth expressed a desire to continue the group. The minister inquired if they would like a group on "Solving Personal Problems" which would meet weekly for twelve weeks. Six of the young people responded and they continued on a group counseling basis.

The minister of counseling in a downtown church in Southern California takes the initiative in inviting teen-agers whom he feels could benefit to join small (seven or eight members at the maximum) "self-discovery" groups which meet with him weekly throughout the school year. The aims of these groups are to help the youth learn to relate more meaningfully, to bring their hidden fears and feelings out into the light, to handle their problems more adequately, and to grow toward a mature faith.

Group counseling (another label for modified therapy[Words like "therapy" and "counseling" have negative overtones for many people. In setting up such groups it is usually best to employ a less threatening label such as "sharing group," "personal group," or simply, "group. "] groups) has also been used productively in premarital couple counseling. It is noteworthy that couples often move more rapidly to a significant level of discussion in groups of three to five couples than when they meet separately with the minister. The less inhibited couples tend to open up delicate areas of discussion and encourage the more restrained to participate. What is more, the couples have an opportunity to learn from the experiences of one another as well as from the minister.( See "Group Premarital Counseling," by Lena Levine and Jeanne Brodsky. Available from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 501 Madison Ave., New York 22, New York.)

In summary, the possibilities of using modified therapy groups constructively in the church program are almost unlimited. Such groups are particularly helpful for those facing a common crisis or period of stress. They are ideally suited as instruments of depth education. A modified therapy group retains certain features of group psychotherapy the goal of growth in self-awareness, the encouragement of honest discussion of those feelings which are "off limits" in most social groups, and the focus on the personal concerns of the members. These features of group psychotherapy are combined with educational and/or inspirational elements within the frame-work of limited duration and specific goals such as increasing the individuals' adequacy in handling a particular relationship or problem. Modified therapy groups do not aim at radical personality changes and avoid dealing with transference feelings or other products of the unconscious.

A recovered alcoholic who is also a devoted churchman declared, "Tragically many people find so much more acceptance in A.A. than in the church that they make A.A. their church." This need not be true if we are willing not just to belong to the church but to be the church -- a community of forgiven sinners striving to become transmitters of that unearned love which brought us to life spiritually. A.A. is a refreshing example of the power of dynamic, spiritual groups. Fortunately many churches are discovering within their own life that small groups of many kinds can become channels of the healing, empowering, reconciling Spirit of God.



Casteel, John L., ed. Spiritual Renewal Through Personal Groups. New York: Association Press, 1957.

Douglass, Paul F. The Group Workshop Way in the Church. New York: Association Press, 1956.

Knowles, Joseph W. Group Counseling. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Leslie, Robert C. "Small Groups in the Church." Pastoral Psychology (June, l964).

Raines, Robert A. New Life in the Church. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.