4 Challenges to Expect When Leading an Illness Support Group
by Lisa Copen
After planning for your new illness support group for weeks, or perhaps even months, it's finally time to have your first meeting. You've gone through the steps of preparing a proposal to start up a support group. It's been approved by whoever is in charge, such as an organization or church. And you've put together a welcome folder for all the people who will attend. You have topics to discuss, speakers scheduled, and perhaps even a study planned.
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 and being prepared for in advance.
(1) Few people attend.
How it feels: Although it can be disappointing to put so much work into the meeting and have just one or two people come (or maybe none at all!) realize that this can be typical. Don't take it personally. You are fighting an uphill battle in getting people to attend. When they feel ill, they don't especially want to go and socialize with others. When they feel well, they'd rather do something much more fun then sit around and talk about the times they are in pain.
What to do: A good motto to remember is, "Hope for the best and prepare for the few." The founder of HopeKeepers, which is a Christian support group program for the chronically ill, agrees. "It can be such a disappointment when you feel God leading you to start a group and then only one person shows up. But from personal experience I can say that God knows what He is doing and may have planned it that way! The first time I had only one woman come to a HopeKeepers meeting, we ended up having an amazing conversation. Later she disclosed that she was extremely leery about attending and probably wouldn't have spoken at all if other people had been there."
Also, keep an outline of your lesson, and even include what kinds of topics people shared. This way you can easily "repeat" the meeting with little preparation as a follow up. You may want to call people and, without pressuring them, ask if there is anything that you can do to make it easier for them to attend. Do they need a ride? What is typically a good time of day for a meeting?
(2) No one wants to follow your lesson plan.
How it feels: You may be quick to assume that your ideas are just not interesting or helpful enough for people's circumstances. You may even feel a touch of anger that people don't appreciate the time you spent preparing.
What to do: Allocate more than usual flexibility in your timeline at first and then add in more structure as the group meets and you begin to see how it flows. It's most likely that people are so excited to meet one another who understand what they experience living with daily chronic pain, that they just want to talk. You've provided a forum where the floodgates of pent up emotions are sure to spill over as soon as they realize they are allowed to be honest and vulnerable. It's impossible to hold up a book and point people back toward your lesson plan when one of the members is sobbing over her daughter who has told her mom her illness is "all in your head" and until she gets over it they are done. This type of situation can occur at any meeting, but it 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 complains about relationships, the medical professionals, their illness-everything.
How it feels: Sometimes, like you are surviving a small mutiny. You will find many emotions that have not been expressed until now. People have deep wounds about things people have said to them or how they've treated them; unjust consequences due to their illness; perhaps even medical errors. It may feel like they want you to fix the chaos or else they will talk incessantly about it until you do.
What to do: Set up some basic guidelines before your first meeting if possible, and include the "venting guidelines." Read "10 Ways to Make Your Illness Support Group Uplifting." Set a timer and allow everyone to have 60 seconds to share their most frustrating experience of the week. Start a contest with a prize for who handled their situation the best or most creatively. Or be silly and 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 and 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 and 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 and to have someone come in and 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, and how they comment on people's treatments or decisions.
Put together some simple guidelines at the beginning that you hand out to new members in a welcome folder. Then if the person dominating the meetings doesn't get your hints, speak with her privately. You may also want to put her in charge of a certain part of the meeting so she can have a designated time to talk and be in a leadership position. When situations like this occur, people can be gently reminded of the guidelines they received when they first joined the group. It won't feel quite as personal as you correcting their 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 and supports one another, and not personality conflicts arrive. That is impossible.
It takes a special person who can communicate with others effectively. One who can gently guide people in the direction you wish them to go, so that the group grows rather than becomes a complaint session. A leader must be able to offer compassion, but also set boundaries and even diffuse anger. As situations arise, talk to other leaders for ideas and support. Keep in mind that no leader ever feels one-hundred percent capable. A willingness to learn and listen is at the top of the list of leadership qualities.
If you lead a support group or are considering it, don't miss Lisa Copen's new book, http://StartAnIllnessSupportGroup.com for your ministry needs. Over 300 pages with step-by-step instructions on how to write a vision statement, promotion and attendance and much more!
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