The Ministry of Lisa Copen

Lisa Copen, Founder of Rest Ministries which serves the chronically ill, shares about mothering, illness, ministry and more.

ARTICLE: 4 Challenges to Expect When Leading an Illness Support Group


4 Issues You Will Encounter 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.

Shandso, you’re meeting is sure to run perfectly, Right? Unfortunately, all the plans in the world cannot cancel out a few unforeseen situations. Below are four of the aggravations you may experience during those first few meetings. Knowing what hurdles you may encounter can help you be prepared in advance.

(1) Only a couple of people come.

How it feels: Disheartening. After putting in so much of your personal time (despite your own illness), it can be very disappointing to feel like dozens of people aren’t benefiting from all of your hard work and passion.

Recognize that a low turnout is typical and not something to be taken personally. It can be extremely difficult to organize people who are ill to show up at the same place at the same time. One obvious reason is that when they feel ill, they are less likely to leave their home and go socialize with others. Just talking can be physically draining. And when they feel well, the last thing they may want to do is sit around and talk about the days they are in physical pain.

What to do: Hope for the best and 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 and she admitted that she was extremely shy and likely would not have even spoken if other people had attended the meeting.”

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: Allow some flexibility at first and then add in more structure as the group meets. The truth is that most people are probably excited and even relieved to have other people who understand what they are going through. Simply gathering people together in one room and can open the floodgates of emotions that people have held back for years.

It’s hard to hold up a book and a lesson plan and 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 complains! About relationships, medical professionals, their illness-everything!

How it feels: Like you are expected to fix the entire world in an hour or at least listen to every complaint they may have. You will find that people have years of emotions buried in their hearts that have wounded them deeply. Hearing cruel words, having wounded feelings, facing unjust consequences, and even coping with severe medical errors are all normal parts of living with illness. For the group leader you can be left wondering what to do if you can’t fix the problem. You want to show compassion, but need to keep this group on the path of encouragement and support, and not a downward spiral.

What to do: Write up some guidelines, before your first meeting if possible, and include the “venting guidelines.” Read “10 Ways to Make Your Illness Support Group Uplifting.” One practical tool is to set a timer and allow everyone to have 60 seconds to share their most frustrating experience of the week.

Brainstorm about a contest your group could have that would bring some humor to the venting. For example, the person who handled their irksome situation the best or most creatively could win the “Aggravated the Alligator (a rubber alligator) Award” to take home for the week.

Allow people the freedom to share their concerns and frustrations, but include others in the discussion. Say, “Jane, we can relate with what you are sharing. Can someone else tell us how she or he has dealt with these emotions?” If you are doing a study you can say, “Since we have limited time, lets go ahead and move on to the next question. If anyone has some encouragement for Jane, they can share that with her after our meeting.”

(4) One person continually dominates the conversation; she takes over the meetings and completely disregards your plans or people who are trying to talk.

How it feels: Annoying! After all your preparation it can be exasperating to have someone else taking over the dominant role and leading the meeting down a path that you see will lack encouragement for others. You may also be worried that this person’s actions will scare away newcomers.

What to do: Set boundaries at the beginning. While it’s vital that people are allowed to communicate their disappointments, it’s important that they also respect group members. They must watch their language, be aware of the amount of time they are talking, be respectful in the decisions others make about their medical treatments and more.

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 understand 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 and supports one another, and 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 and sometimes diffuse anger. As conditions arise, look to other leaders for ideas and support and perhaps even mentoring. And don’t ever forget that there are no leaders that feel one-hundred percent proficient. Having a willingness to learn and listen is one of the best ways you can become a leader blessed with a group where lives are changed.

Be prepared for the hurdles. Read Lisa’s book, ‘So You Want to Start a Chronic Illness Pain Ministry: 10 Essentials to Make it Work” at The Comfort Zone Bookstore or

Get a free download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from “Beyond Casseroles” by Lisa Copen when you subscribe to HopeNotes ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the coordinator of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and host of Hope Endures Radio Podcast.

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