After planning for your support group for weeks, or even months, it’s time for your first meeting. You feel rather organized. You’ve prepared a proposal to start up a support group which was approved by an organization or church. You’ve put together a welcome folder for new members & you have scheduled your topic or speakers for coming months.
Does all of this mean that your meetings will run perfectly? Despite your best plans, the chances are unlikely. Here are a few frustrations that you may encounter during those first meetings s they are worth acknowledging & being prepared for in advance.
(1) Only a couple of people come.
How it feels: Disappointing. After all the work you put into it, not to mention the passion you feel about doing this, it seems like such a wasted to just have one or two people show up. Underst& that this can be typical, especially at first, when everyone feels a bit intimidated. Try not to take it personally. To be honest, you are fighting an uphill battle in getting people to attend a chronic illness support group, because when people feel ill, they usually want to stay home, not go out & socialist. But when they are feeling well, they’d prefer to do something more fun then sit around & talk about their illness.
What to do: Hope for the best & prepare for the few. As a Christian organization, the HopeKeepers small group program founder says, “Although it’s disheartening when just a couple of people show up, I know that God created that appointment. When I led a group once, just one person came, but we had the best conversation & she admitted that she was extremely shy & likely would not have even spoken if other people had attended the meeting.”
Keep a summary of your lesson plan, even including the topics that were discussed. This way you can easily “replicate” the meeting another time with little preparation. Lastly, consider calling people &, without adding undo pressure, ask them what challenges are preventing them from coming? Is it transportation? Is it the time of day? How could you make it easier for more people to come?
(2) Your lesson plan is completely ignored.
How it feels: It’s easy to feel as though your lesson isn’t interesting or brilliant enough. It can feel like people don’t like your ideas or that they just don’t care about the time you spent preparing.
What to do: Allow some flexibility at first & then add in more structure as the group meets. The truth is that most people are probably excited & even relieved to have other people who underst& what they are going through. Simply gathering people together in one room & can open the floodgates of emotions that people have held back for years. It’s hard to hold up a book & a lesson plan & force people to remain focused when a member is in tears over the ending of her marriage, for which she blames her illness. This situation can occur at any meeting, but may be more frequent during the first month.
Talk openly with the group about your desire to have plenty of time available for people to share, but that you also want everyone to leave the meeting feeling refreshed. Regardless of what occurs during the meeting, you will be ending the time together with an inspiring article, scripture, poem, prayer, devotional, etc.
(3) Everyone just complains about everything! Their relationships, the medical professionals, their illness-the list is never ending.
How it feels: Like you are expected to manage a small riot. There are many built up emotions where people have experienced deeply wounded feelings, unjust consequences, & even medical errors. It can seem they want you to fix the situation or else they will talk incessantly about it to everyone.
What to do: Set up some basic guidelines before your first meeting if possible, & include the “venting guidelines.” Read “10 Ways to Make Your Illness Support Group Uplifting.” Set a timer & allow everyone to have 60 seconds to share their most frustrating experience of the week. Start a contest with a prize for who h&led their situation the best or most creatively. Or be silly & give an award for someone to take home for the week, like “Aggravated the Alligator Award” (a rubber alligator)
Group members should have a sense of freedom in sharing their concerns & annoyances, but be sure to include others in the conversation. If Jane can’t seem to let go of a situation, add, “Jane, I know some of us can identify with what you are sharing. Can someone else tell us how she or he has dealt with the emotions that accompany a situation that was similar?” If you are doing a study you can say, “Since we want to have plenty of time at the end to share something uplifting, let’s move on to question five. Jane, would it be okay if people could offer their encouragement after the meeting or maybe later this week with a phone call or email?”
(4) One person dominates the conversation & seems to take over the meetings, disregarding any plans you have or other’s need to talk.
How it feels: Aggravating! You’ve spent a lot of time preparing for this special time & to have someone come in & take on an overbearing leadership role can be exasperating. When you can see the person leading your group down a path of negativity, you may also be worried about how many people she is scaring away. Will others think this is what your group is all about?
What to do: Set firm boundaries from the beginning. While it’s vital that people are encouraged to communicate their frustrations, they are also responsible for respecting others in the group. They need to watch their language, the quantity of time they dominate a conversation, & how they comment on people’s treatments or decisions.
One of the best ways to approach this is to include guidelines about how the group will function that are given to all new members. If the person who dominates the conversations doesn’t underst& your simple comments of “Let’s see how other people feel” then talk to her one-on-one. Politely go over the guidelines. You may want to put her in charge of a part of the meeting where she can have a leadership role. Having the guidelines to refer to will make it feel less of a personal attack than if you are simply correcting her behavior.
Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. You will learn as you go. Facilitating a support group is often assumed to be a simple undertaking. It’s a myth that all one does is announce a meeting, lots of people attend, everyone shares & supports one another, & not personality conflicts arrive. That is impossible.
It takes a extraordinary person to lead a group; one who can effectively communicate. One who has a gift in gently guiding people in the direction you wish them to go, so that the group is a place to lay down one’s burdens, not pick up more arms. A leader should be able offer compassion, but also set boundaries & sometimes diffuse anger. As conditions arise, look to other leaders for ideas & support & perhaps even mentoring. And don’t ever forget that there are no leaders that feel one-hundred percent proficient. Having a willingness to learn & listen is one of the best ways you can become a leader blessed with a group where lives are changed.
Get a free download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from “Beyond Casseroles” by Lisa Copen when you signup for HopeNotes invisible illness ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the coordinator of Invisible Illness Awareness
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- Gr& Rounds is at Invisible Illness Week (medicine&technology.com)