Why I love group work

When I first began my MSW program I had a practicum at a men’s addiction recovery program where I led many groups.  I found this is where I shone.  I loved to engage the variety of people, to come up with interesting questions to spark conversation, to observe the intergroup interactions and the roles people take on.  I loved the way profound insight from one person could impact another in the group. 

Group work takes many forms.  The most commonly led group today by therapists and social workers is the psycho-educational group, although peer-led self-help groups may be the most widely practiced within society.  Psychoeducational groups usually balance a mix of education on a particular disorder or method of coping with therapeutic processing.

People often wonder about the efficacy and therapeutic value of groups.  In many studies they have been found as useful as individual therapy for certain conditions.  I have read Irvin Yalom’s The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy http://www.yalom.com/pagemaker.php?nav=tap&subframe=summary and have found it fascinating.  It is a good book to start with if you are interested in developing a foundation in group work.  Some of what I say will be drawn from this book and social work courses I have taken on groups.

Group therapy can allow modelling and re-enacting of relationships in a safe environment that allows learning.  Take someone who is struggling with interpersonal dynamics with others – his negative thinking  or aggressive tendencies may be observed by himself and others and processed: new interaction patterns can be formed.

In groups people are not only being treated but are contributing to the treatment of others- there is a co-operation of sorts, mutual healing that doe snot come from a hallowed/wise person (a therapist) but comes from the collective insight and weaknesses of those in the group.

It provides engagement and social support to those who usually immediately withdrawn.

It is a purposeful social engagement different from being a group of people at a party-there is learning to be had even if a person does not speak up a lot in group.

It helps people get out of their shells and feeling as if they are the only person in the world to feel a certain way, there is comfort, as well as perhaps, disappointment that their symptoms are not what makes them unique that they have to rediscover that part of them.

There is encouragement as well as motivation in seeing others gain insight and becoming more engaged and more well.

No doubt there are challenges in groups such as : confidentiality, conflict, scapegoating, monopolizing, silence, tangential thoughts, etc.  But if you are person who loves groups these are part of the challenges.

What strikes me about groups is that meeting together in groups is an essential blueprint of church life.  Many churches, like my own, have small groups that meet together.  There is no doubt that these groups, too, have great power for healing although they are markedly different in their purpose from therapy groups.  I wonder what group therapy can learn from small groups and vice-versa?  What characteristics do they share?

I am not trying to imply that church is therapy nor should be therapy.  Our goal in small groups is mutually loving one another, and discipling one another rather than learning about how to cope better in life with a certain condition. 

However, as I’ve said in the past, in my church approximately half of our members struggle with mental illness and/or addiction.  Sometimes it happens that in order for growth in Christ to happen, we may need to learn how to cope with mental illness or addiction, often with the help of therapy. 

There are many christian resources that try to help people deal with the wounds of their past from a Christ-centred way.  One of these I’ve heard of is Redemption groups which are modelled after Biblical counselling. http://redemptiongroups.com/what-is-a-redemption-group/ and originate from Mars Hill church.  I have never been engaged in such a group but for some time I have wondered about having a kind of group that addresses such issues within our faith community.  It is an interesting example as it tends to borrow some therapeutic principles while being firmly planted in the church and thus separate from therapy.

What do you think?  Have you ever led group work?  What do you like or dislike about it?

Have you engaged in groups in your church or faith-based organization?  How do the principles or processes overlap?  How are they distinctly different?


7 thoughts on “Why I love group work

  1. I facilitate mandated groups for impaired drivers and love them. Of course, not everyone is thrilled to be there. That is part of the fun for me. Usually people end up saying the groups have been good, and even worthwhile.

    I’d like to see more group stuff in my church. I’m not sure what that would mean. We’ve had bible and book studies that went well. It is always a challenge to arrange because of people’s schedules. I did a course for the church last month. It was ten intense days, the group cohesion was amazing. It was a great spot to learn, reflect and grow spiritually. I’d like something like that in my home community. I’m thinking on that one. We were sort of cloistered in that course, so that helped the group develop. I am thinking about this, and am also working on a blog post on the topic. The post I’ve started writing might need to be turned into two posts the way things are going…..

  2. “What strikes me about groups is that meeting together in groups is an essential blueprint of church life. . . I wonder what group therapy can learn from small groups and vice-versa? What characteristics do they share?”

    I have belonged to a small group of men from my church for >7 years. This group comprises men who, like me, have been Christians for >35 years. All are highly accomplished professionals. Almost all are elders or former elders in the church. Make no mistake: I love these guys. But, my general observation is that the group exists, not to make spiritual progress, but to maintain the status quo with respect to our Christian lives. Conversations are generally aimed at justifying our current behavior and attitudes or minimizing the occasionally observed potential deviation from biblical expectations. This is not simply my own narrow view. Visitors to the group have made the same observation.

    Does “healing” take place? If so, it’s rare and it’s an accident. Do we support each other? Definitely, but there are severe limits (I’ll spare the details). By “severe,” I mean that we don’t provide spiritual or psychological help for each other beyond the fact that we all get together every week as friends. (That’s not exactly trivial, but I don’t think it qualifies as discipling, either.) What’s most puzzling is that this group comprises well-trained, experienced leaders in the church. If discipling were going to occur anywhere, you would think that it would happen in this group. But, it doesn’t.

    Am I complicit in the group’s efforts to maintain the status quo? Yes. I have learned that upsetting the group’s equilibrium always generates kick-back, no matter how gentle my push. The group (including the occasional visitor) acknowledges that I have this role, but none (yes, none) of my questions, designed to promote self-reflection and potential change, ever gets traction. Self-justification is a highly practiced, well-honed skill amongst Christians, especially men my age. I do not exclude myself, as my last blog post testifies. You know that I am no psychologist, but I’d have to guess that in groups convened for the purpose of psychological healing, self-justification (self-defense) has to be the first thing that goes out the window, or else healing can’t happen. The fact that the singular message of the Bible is that we can’t save ourselves, justify ourselves, doesn’t seem to stop us from trying. Perhaps you have better results in a recovery group because the members are “ready.” As a crusty old nurse at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston told me, while my brother was dying of cirrhosis of the liver, “Alcoholics don’t get help until they’ve got a pitchfork up their ***.” Most of us, especially those of us with money and resources, have little sense that we live perpetually in that condition, a condition so severe that it required the death of Christ, and so we go merrily about our lives in near oblivion to the facts: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it.”

    Not to be entirely pessimistic, I’ll close by saying that, in contrast to my small group, your recovery groups are especially blessed by God. This is no sentimentality, but a pronouncement by the Lamb: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    • Hi Rick,
      I agree with you that for some reason discipleship remains sparse within the church and our small groups often serve more social purposes than true self-examination. I am also guilty of exactly what you observe. You are right when people are in therapy groups or specific groups designed for those facing a certain problem it is because it has become so bad for them that they admit that they cannot do it themselves and are willing to let down their defenses and admit destructive patterns in their lives. Being more wealthy and professional it is much easier to hide behind our accommplishments rather than admit our sinful ways that draw us away from God rather than towards God. In working with addicts I have found that there is something amazing in working with someone who has insight and humble awareness of their past, one of the honours of working in a therapeutic capacity.

  3. Here’s a reply by my friend RW that she wrote me by e-mail but I thought I would share:

    I am just reading about group work and, in particular, the role of the facilitator. It seems really valuable to have a facilitator, whether that’s someone outside the group, or someone within the group who is designated the role. It seems that the facilitator prods the participants into engaging, and making contributions to the group. Do you think a facilitator is, in fact, always needed? I haven’t given it enough thought but i was just mulling over the idea of whether Jesus could be called a facilitator and whether his qualities as both shepherd and friend to his group were what got the disciples involved and engaged? I wonder if his friendship meant that the disciples felt able to trust him, and therefore make themselves vulnerable (eventually) as a group? And if his shepherding, alongside this, girded them into action? Does their commitment to discipleship rely on Jesus being equally a friend and shepherd or do you think they saw him as one more than the other? Or perhaps neither?!!

    • There are a number of different ideas you pose. Is a facilitator truly needed? I imagine if there was not a facilitator the various group members would themselves take turns through out the meeting facilitating. In his book on group work Irvin Yalom talks about the leaderless meeting (more with already well-established groups)- I can see this working in which there is already cohesion and the members trust each other. Jesus before he left the earth clearly gave specific disciples roles: most notably Peter after he departed the earth, but also seemed to encourage in scripture meeting together in groups of two or more.

      I think Jesus was a sort of a facilitator in that although he clearly taught and lead the disciples he was also a servant and encouraged the questions of others and had a unique way of inviting those into a meeting with each other and forming “cohesion” (eg. how he called the disciples). I have an image of the disciples fireside in a circle just chatting with Jesus asking poignant questions.

      But I think you are right in that Jesus was much more than a facilitator as he offered friendship, love, and a real experience of the power and knowledge of God on earth. Facilitator would hardly start to describe who Jesus was, and maybe facilitator is not something we should strive towards in our work in discipleship as facilitation skills and style will never be enough but we need the other attributes that you mentioned.

      What is interesting though is how Jesus described the faith of those he healed as making them well (“your faith has made you well” Luke 18:24; Matthew 9:22, etc.). That their own understanding and belief impacted his offering healing is in line with group work as the healing that occurs in groups happens because of realizations, and movement towards change by the individual as they engage in the group and create new ways of being and acting (not just because it is run by a great facilitator) . So Jesus also includes the people in their own healing not because he has to but to engage a person in growing and learning (however as group facilitators unlike Jesus we do not have that power to heal independently- we have to rely on people doing it themselves). Rather than them being healed by Jesus, they are healed with Jesus.

      In history we can see too that God works through individuals for healing and salvation but also through groups of people. Which is good evidence for continuing to meet together as believers, and that living and facilitating groups can be a healing and growing experience for church and in the therapy office.

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