Caring for Your Group Members - Emotional Crisis

It is important to know that hard times, if not crisis, are a normal part of life.  Jesus tells us this in Scripture.  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).  We can expect that the road of life will have bumps and potholes...sometimes even a crater that is difficult to overcome without the help of others.  It is at that time we can be “God with skin on” to one another.

Emotional crisis can take many forms.  The sudden accidental death of a family member.  The news that an teenaged child is unexpectedly pregnant out of marriage.  The news that one’s spouse has been unfaithful.  Someone in the family has taken their own life.  These are a few of the possibilities.

And yet while the variety of crises are large, the response of you and your group can be generalized to a number of basic steps that can apply in many circumstances.

NOTE: A very good resource about how groups can minister to a member in crisis is Extended Tip #3 on the ReGroup DVD disk #2.  This 22 minute video does a great job of explaining...and demonstrating...how a group is able to support those who are undergoing situations such as those described in this article.  The DVD is available for you to borrow by contacting Tavia or Roger.

Here is an outline of a process by which you and your group can provide practical help in times such as these.

Prayer.  As with any crisis, the first and best thing you can do is to intercede with God for the person in trouble.  Take a moment when you first learn the news to step back, find a quiet place, and ask God’s help for your friend in their time of great need.  Pray also for yourself!  Don’t neglect to ask God to give you wisdom and discernment as to how best to be involved with the person in crisis.

Depending on how you learn of the crisis (self-disclosure vs. grapevine), you will either already be talking to the individual, or will need to contact them.  In either event, when you are speaking to the person in crisis, allow them to just tell their story of what has happened.  Don’t feel the need to ask probing questions, but rather allow them to unwrap the story at their own pace.  (To inquire about details may put them on the defensive and increase rather than alleviate the anxiety they are feeling.)  Remember that this is their experience and they need to control what is revealed, when it is revealed, and to whom it is revealed.  Some crises may raise feelings of shame and the person may need additional time before they are ready to talk about it.

The main thing at this early stage is the ministry of presence.  Just being there.  Allowing them to open up to you, a safe person.  To rage.  To cry.  To do whatever is needed at that point in time.  Realize that you are on sacred ground at that point...this is a person at their most vulnerable time in life.  Treat it with the highest degree of importance and discretion.  You may be God’s agent at that point in time, so listen carefully for how the Holy Spirit will guide you.  Don’t feel the need to “fix things” or give platitudes (“everything’s going to be alright”) or Bible verses (“all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose”).  This article gives some thoughts on what else not to say. Your role at this point is just to listen, to pray (with them, if they would like you to), and to begin to assess for yourself what the next steps might be that would help them out. 

If the person is in a desperate frame of mind and you are alarmed that they may hurt themselves, you need to know that it is important to refer them to an expert that can do professional crisis counseling.  Your role at this point is to help them get connected to someone else who has skills that you may not possess.  Referring someone does not mean you have failed in your role...it may be the wisest thing you can do at that point in time.  Click here for some resources that you may want to keep easily available for making referrals.

Your small group coach is also a person to whom you can go to seek help for your group member.  While your coach is not a crisis counselor to refer your member to and is not replacement for the counselor, he or she may be able to work with you to come up with ideas that would address specific needs that the situation is presenting.

As the immediate crisis moves on and the member has begun to get a handle on their emotions, you need to know that you are proceeding from the initial intensive phase of this situation to a phase that may be protracted over a long period of time.  Caregiving throughout the extended season of crisis will be important and will vary depending on the specific nature of the situation.  During this time your group as a whole will be able to minister to the individual.  The first thing you want to be aware of is possibility that the person may want to withdraw from community.  Be a gentle encourager for that not to happen.  As the leader of your group, you will want to be sure that your group is “safe space” for the person to come and share as they desire to do so.  Making the group safe will entail reviewing aspects of your group covenant such as confidentiality.  Do this verbally in your group meeting so that there are no misunderstandings, and so that the person in crisis is reassured.  As before, allow them to reveal as much of their story as they are comfortable with, and keep your group members from trying to fix things, belittle their struggle, or paper it over with triteness.

You want to allow time for personal ministry to the person during group time, without letting their situation totally dominate the group over weeks or months.  This may take some godly discernment as to how much group time is appropriate to give the person for their crisis.  Initially, their situation might take up the whole group session.  As things progress, you will want to allow some group time for them but also maintain the focus of your time together on the other important aspects of group life.  If you are not careful, the primary focus of your group’s time can default each week to the one individual’s situation, which will debilitate the health of your group.  Balance is the key.  Remember to consult with your coach if you have concerns about how best to negotiate this situation in your group.

McLane Church has stories of how groups have “been there” for their members during times of crisis and have experienced true life transformation.  God has been at work in the person who underwent the crisis as well as in the lives of each group member who supported them.  When your group has successfully navigated these waters under the leadership and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you will have a heightened appreciation for the power of God within the ministry of small groups to help people through the storms of life.  Thank you for your part in helping this miracle of healing to take place within your own small group!