Church Therapy

Church Therapy: Middletown, U.S.A.

"COULD you tell us about case studies of pastors who have found the interactions of people within groups successful in their parishes?"

Harold H. Zietlow is professor of contemporary theology, Capital University Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

COULD you tell us about case studies of pastors who have found the interactions of people within groups successful in their parishes?" I asked Dr. Clyde Reid, author of the popular book, Groups Alive---Church Alive.

He turned to his large audience of pas tors and asked, "Will those who have found group work helpful in your parish please raise your hands?"

One of those who responded was Tim Hepner, pastor of a mission congregation in a northwest suburb of Muncie, Indiana. His use of group techniques to bring the healing acceptance of love to his people becomes doubly significant for us when we remember that Muncie has been called "Middletown, U.S.A.," since 1929-1930, when sociologists found it representative of the whole country. In 1939-1940 sociologists published Middletown Revisited to indicate how the U.S. had changed. Is Muncie still representative of the U.S.? In 1969- 1970 television coverage of Muncie on a series of NBC's prime time newscasts re affirmed that all of the problems that weary the nation also erode Muncie.

How can a pastor reach the people in "Middletown, U.S.A.," which is being disintegrated by eroding secularism? Pastor Hepner discovered that he could get through to his people's needs with methods of group interaction that bring together the different kinds of people that make up his mission church. He brings together professional people, truck drivers, janitors, waitresses, and all of the types that one would find in a cross section of suburban life. His varied application of group methods has helped his church grow during a period when most congregations find it difficult to keep from losing members.

What creative genius enables him to set the pace in this symbolic center of the country? Most basic in his training in psychology were the four quarters he spent as a resident chaplain at Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, Illinois, before he went to serve the mission in Muncie.

Group Therapy at Work

He recalls one dramatic incident of group therapy at Park Ridge, which he relates to show how a person can be healed when the group he is in accepts him. One patient, undergoing counseling with a psychiatrist, was introduced into a therapy group that Pastor Hepner was studying. This particular patient experienced irrational reactions whenever he saw a girl wearing boots or one having noticeable hair on her arms. A girl fitting both of these descriptions was introduced into the therapy group and seated across from him. In the context of the healing acceptance that he experienced in the group, he could now relate to her in a normal manner, overcoming his former abnormal reactions, which could be traced to his childhood.

"How do you interpret the dynamics that changed this young man?" I asked Pastor Hepner, who had been cotherapist in the group that had been meeting weekly for a year.

"Not only was the therapy of the psy chiatrist essential but also an essential part of his healing came through being accepted and understood by the group. They made themselves known to him as human beings who understood them selves as imperfect. They reached out toward him as a fellow imperfect human," said Pastor Hepner.

"What needs does the group method of ministry satisfy?" I asked.

He explained, "Nourishment of spiritual hunger that mere busyness in congregational life does not satisfy, comes first in my parish. My parishioners demand this enrichment."

One could add to his observation that if these spiritual needs are not satisfied, people turn away from the congregation and form their own groups. This occurred in Rochester, New York, where, in October, 1962, the Ekklesia movement was begun by a small group seeking redemptive fellowship. This small group, described in C. Loren Graham's chapter, "Ekklesia" (in The Church Creative: A Reader on the Renewal of the Church, ed. by M. Clark, W. Malcomson, and W. Molton, Abingdon, Nashville, 1967, pp. 61-71), soon found the renewed conviction and strength to develop a mission to help others with housing, scholarship funds, and welfare. The constant source of redemptive strength that they experienced came through their group inter changes where families came together, studied the Bible and theology, shared experiences, and listened to one another. The Sunday meeting involved breaking down the larger assembly into smaller groups where families exchanged contributions on the topic and shared a mutual understanding that matured each one participating. A seventeen-year-old girl accounted for her winning a foreign exchange student award by the benefits of spiritual and intellectual maturity in communicating with adults, which she put into practice when meeting with the examining board.

Testimonies such as this soon awaken us to the potential helpfulness of small group interaction in our parishes. We share the goal of the spiritual and intellectual maturity of our people. We want to help them mature in their interpersonal relations so that they progress creatively in productive lives.

What Preparation?

How does one prepare himself to be come a qualified leader in establishing groups in his parish? We have already noted the intense specialized training that Pastor Hepner undertook so that he could introduce the use of groups in a way that would have positive results.

He recommended five qualifications for a group leader:

1. Self-awareness of one's feelings in the presence of the group.

2. Awareness of the needs of those in the group.

3. Sensitivity to problems in the group such as the loner or domineering one.

4. Sense of the dynamic development of the group process in each situation.

5. Knowledge of the subject matter that the group discusses when study is one of its goals.

He concluded his list of qualifications of a leader of a group by saying, "Those leaders responsible for groups should have the continuous understanding of the dynamics that take place in group interaction, so that human beings will not be hurt but rather be creatively helped by the small group process within the church."

Once one has confidence that he knows enough about group process so that he can help his people with the method, what kinds of groups can he implement in his parish? Pastor Hepner describes four types of groups that he sees helpful in the parish setting:

1. Ingroups learning the "art of Christian relationships." He began with these groups, which had as their aim the mutual fulfillment of the spiritual and psychological needs of those participating. He credits much of his confidence in group methods through his experience in these groups.

2. He uses the group process in church member ship instruction. He explained, "One of my goals for this class is that it share in a group experience as a growing microcosm of the church.

a. We share with one another our past experiences at the first meeting.

b. We cover the teaching materials in the following seven sessions.

c. We prepare for the Lord's Supper at the last session, which points them to the larger group the church."

3. We apply group methods to our regular organizations in the church, youth, women, and men. He uses the book, Church Meetings That Matter, by Anderson (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minn.), for training group leaders in these regular organizational procedures. While some pastors have given up on the fruitfulness of the old parish organizations, Pastor Hepner has revitalized the old structure and extended the effectiveness of his ministry through the application of group dynamics in them.

4. Spontaneous groups are created by Pastor Hepner for a better understanding of evangelism, stewardship, and the profound personal implications of the Christian faith. He describes how these are formed: "I select a couple of strong, mature families who are willing to assume leadership. They decide whom they will invite into a seven-month session group process. At their first meeting they decide on their agenda, goals, and commit themselves to the process of sharing. Eight to twelve comprise the group. Once they have gotten under way, meeting alternately in each other's homes, I need not attend."

What Are the Benefits?

In response to the question, What advantage do you see in these groups? Pastor Hepner said, "Much of the healing, maturing help of God's grace is ministered from one person to another through the group interaction. They come out more mature, stronger Christians. The carefully planned group meetings accomplish more than I could in time-consuming one-to-one calling and counseling. The groups extend my ministry, enabling the parish to contribute more to the lives of the members than I could ever accomplish alone."

The spontaneous groups apply what I have called the ingroup, outgroup process, which Pastor Hepner applies when he says, "I select two strong families, a couple of new members who have recently been baptized, and some who have not been in church."

"What really happens in these groups?" I asked.

"The families that are not connected with the congregation learn something about the Christian gospel without having to go through the church door. They learn and experience it in the presence of people who are committed to the Christian faith," he said.

He dramatized the function of the group process by telling of a young man who began coming to church for an unusual motive he wanted to date the organist. The young man joined one of the groups.

"I'm interested in psychology. I enjoy this group experience," the young man said initially.

"Good, then you can make an effective contribution to the group," Pastor Hepner responded.

The young man became so involved in the religious growth of the group that he testified at the last of the thirteen sessions: "In no other time in my life have I experienced what the New Testament meant, as 1 have in this group."

Pastor Hepner interpreted this change in the young man to me saying: "For the first time in his life he was a fuller person than he had ever been. He experienced healing in Christian fellowship and participates in the worship of the congregation."

Oh, incidentally, he also made plans to be married. He grew in his ability to re late to his fiancee, a very important need for the socializing human psyche.

You Can't Solve Them All, But——

Croup experiences are not panaceas for everyone's personal problems. "Did you ever fail with your work with persons in groups?" I asked.

Pastor Hepner answered:

In one instance a lady demanded so much of my time and the group's patience that we had to confront her with what I call "the reality factor." She resisted this and we could not give her all of the time she demanded. She left our church, and found what she called "a pastor who had a true relationship to God and really loved his people." But that didn't last either, and it was discovered that she had more serious problems than any of us could help her with, and she had to be hospitalized. She had a number of maladies, including a neurological disease that was worsening and causing her to lose muscular control.

Then Pastor Hepner reflected further on this case, and added, "1 wouldn't call this a failure. Our group gave her all they could. They simply could not meet all of her demands. It just simply was not humanly possible."

With this case he warned that we can not solve all of the people's problems with groups. There are still those who have to be referred for professional medical and psychiatric care. The complexity of group work motivates Pastor Hepner to continue to read books on the subject, adding to the skills that he acquired in his advanced training.

The mounting needs that confront the pastor demand that he develop all of the skills available, including improved methods of group processes for therapy and spiritual fulfillment. Pastor Hepner's successful use of groups in his mission parish encourages us that not only does Middletown, U.S.A., have all of the problems that we have throughout the land, but it also has some of the answers.

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Harold H. Zietlow is professor of contemporary theology, Capital University Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

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