A key purpose of church small groups (or discipleship groups) is to help members grow in the likeness of Christ in spirit, soul and body. These small groups can be beneficial to those struggling with mental illnesses in addition to professional counselling or other treatments, where necessary.
While small groups are not counselling support groups, they can serve as safe spaces to explore and learn the truth of God’s Word and character. This can provide hope, encouragement and support, not only to those who are mentally unwell but, to anyone who is journeying through life’s challenges as a disciple of Christ.
Beyond skimming the surface
A common pitfall of small groups in helping people struggling with mental health issues is this: using scripture as a form of positive psychology or band-aid without validating the struggling person’s emotions. This may unintentionally result in a person feeling bad for their lack of faith, especially if they are feeling much pain and hopelessness.
An example would be telling someone who is struggling with depression to “rejoice always” (1 These 5:16-18) and that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
While these may be encouraging truths, sensitivity and discernment is needed to speak the truth in love and at the right time. Sometimes what is needed is a safe space for grief where pain, anger and sadness can be expressed to the Lord in a raw and honest form.
This ensures that we do not use scripture merely as a band aid to cover surface wounds and fail to let God heal deeply but, instead, exacerbate the head-heart disconnect. When we give space to honour our authentic feelings, we are in touch with ourselves and, hence, able to connect deeply with God.
Being authentic with God
The Word has power to renew our minds. As we meditate on the Word, we also need to connect with God by expressing our emotions authentically. This includes both positive and, especially, painful and negative emotions.
We can learn from the authenticity of David who was called a man after God’s heart. In his psalms, he expressed anger, pain, disappointment and fear as openly and frequently as praise, trust and love for God.
This is the kind of authenticity that a discipler needs to model for his disciples, similarly for a small group leader to his/her members. Authenticity creates a safe space for discipling and an environment where God can heal and transform.
Jason*, a full-time Christian vocational worker whom I journeyed with, shares how God worked in the midst of his pain, “The grieving process, so often overlooked and undermined, has power in nursing the deepest hurts. The Lord taught me patience and vulnerability. Instead of hiding, I learnt to yield to His leading and allow the counselling process to catalyse grieving in my heart. I've struggled with resting in the identity of being God's beloved.
“I sought external achievements to define my identity and self-worth. As such, my personal life, ministry and relationship, had been affected by my hyper-sensitivity and defensiveness. While I had been praying earnestly to be fruitful in ministry, be it at work or church, the Lord revealed that the exemplifying the Fruit of the Spirit takes precedence.”
(*not his real name)
Power of prayer and the Word for members facing depression
When small group members are in touch with, rather than avoiding, repressing or numbing, their emotions, we can encourage them to turn to prayer and the Word to help them through depression. This has to be done in a discerning and timely manner as it would be counterproductive for someone unprepared. In the appropriate context, prayer and meditation on scripture and God’s truth is effective and helpful. There is power in God’s Word and presence to renew our minds and heal our emotions, heart and soul.
Being a safe community
I have seen how an authentic community can support a person powerfully. A client that I had counselled was tragically raped and dealing with post-traumatic stress. This client’s resilience moved me. She progressed very well in counselling and, at the same time, I saw how the safe and authentic community she was in contributed significantly to her healing and recovery.
Her friends from her discipleship group made themselves available to support her emotionally and in practical ways. I was touched by how different friends made themselves available to spend time with her as she went through her grief.
This client shared, “I think having a safe and authentic community helps me to know that I am not being judged for what I went through as I learnt to accept myself. They were willing to offer help when I needed, and accompany me when I was afraid of being alone many times during that period.”
Authentic Christ-like communities are the best vaccine against depression. As Paul exhorts, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). When we have safe communities to share our struggles and challenges, we receive support that provides hope and love against a spirit of despondency and feelings of isolation.
Some practical ways to create a safe community:
ThriveSg is a ministry that seeks to empower people to thrive significantly by promoting emotional wellness & resilience, through cultivating self-discovery, providing emotional healing and supporting personal growth.Find out more
Pamela Koh is passionate about teaching people how to manage their emotions, work through their past traumas, in order to reach one’s fullest potential and thrive significantly in life. She has been on staff with Cru Asia for more than 15 years. She also worked with university students in Nagoya, Japan for 6 years.
Upon returning to Singapore, she went on to do her Masters in Counselling and is currently a registered counsellor and clinical member with the Singapore Association of Counselling and a certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) Therapist.
She is the Lead Counsellor who started ThriveSg, the counselling arm of Cru with a mission of promoting emotional wellness & resilience among tertiary students. Pamela hopes to create a help-seeking culture & a growth perspective towards counselling to remove the stigma around mental health.
Pamela loves reading, traveling, nagomi art, going to the beach to chill & cycle. She also enjoys watching mental health, cooking, travel, beauty & health-related videos in her free time.
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