Support Groups

Notes & Quotes by Colby

Support groups usually fall into the following categories (Wuthnow 1994, ix):

The main purpose of support groups is emotional support and the search for spirituality (Wuthnow 1994, ix).

Wuthnow's book (1994) is the result of a landmark study, covering three years, employing 15 scholars and interviewing 1,000 people in depth.

It was found that approximately 40% of the people in the United States are in at least one support group.

"Those who have joined these groups testify that their lives have been deeply enriched by the experience. They have found friends, received warm emotional support, and grown in their spirituality" (Wuthnow 1994, 4).

"Providing people with a stronger sense of community has been a key aim of the small-group movement from its inception... Small groups are doing a better job than many of their critics would like to think. The communities they create are seldom frail. People feel cared for. They help one another. They share their intimate problems. They identify with their groups and participate regularly over extended periods of time" (Wuthnow 1994, 5).

"But in another sense small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. Families would never survive by following these operating norms" (Wuthnow 1994, 6).

Families, neighborhoods, and communities require lifelong commitments. Small groups do not... Hence, small groups cannot serve as replacements for longer term groups.

Seeking Spirituality

Small groups "encourage people to pray and to think about spiritual truths... they calm anxiety and help one make it through the day. The deity of small groups is a God of love, comfort, order, and security. Gone is the God of judgment, wrath, justice, mystery, and punishment. Gone are concerns about the forces of evil... "Indeed, it does not overstate the case to suggest that the small-group movement is currently playing a major role in adopting American religion to the main currents of secular culture that have surfaced at the end of the twentieth century" (Wuthnow 1994, 7).

"It is an orientation that encourages a safe, domesticated version of the sacred. From a secular perspective, a divine being is one who is there for our own gratification, like a house pet, rather than one who demands obedience from us, is too powerful or mysterious for us to understand, or who challenges us to a life of service" (Wuthnow 1994, 7).

Unique Characteristics

These are the unique characteristics of support groups:

Where is the Sacred?

"...the group itself may function more as a place where each individual comes to think about himself or herself rather than where genuine concern about others triumphs over individual needs" (Wuthnow 1994, 15).

The signs of the sacred in the small group are pragmatic--it works. "It helps people get along better on the job, behave better with their families, and feel better about themselves... But pragmatism is also a way of escaping the difficulties of defining absolute truth in an age of relativism" (Wuthnow 1994, 18-19).

Effect on American People

"...the search for community and for the sacred will continue to characterize the American people" (Wuthnow 1994, 21).

"My argument about cultural change is that the small-group movement has been successful because it fits so well with trends already at work in American society, and that its success will, in turn, further these trends" (Wuthnow 1994, 21).

"If small groups are the glue holding American society (as some argue) together, they are then a social solvent as well. They provide a way out of the traditional attachments that formerly may have bound people tightly to their communities. Former Mennonites who have grown weary of church customs and moved to urban areas can have the fold more comfortably, not having to become pure securlarists or isolated individualists, by joining a prayer fellowship in their neighborhood. Adult children who have fled the dysfunctional families of their youth can get along without kin networks by spending time each week attending a twelve-step group. The solvent helps people slip away from prevous forms of social organization" (Wuthnow 1994, 25).

The Process

"Group members are, indeed, making a journey. And it helps to focus on the process itself. This is why technique, talk, storytelling, and group support become so important" (Wuthnow 1994, 25).

"The people with whom they relate form a primary means of identity. The fact that members are able to tell stories about their lives makes these groups far more significant to participants than the fact that they are a Republican or a Democrat. In the telling of personal stories, members gradually become a different people, individuals whose identities depend in subtle ways on the feedback given by other members" (Wuthnow 1994, 26).

"The [small-group] movement is a response both to the intense yearning for the sacred that characterizes the American people and to the breakdown of communities, neighborhoods, families, and other sources of personal support. As people try to rediscover the sacred, they are led to ask questions about community. And as they seek community, they are led to ask questions about the sacred. Both quests are propelling their interest in small, intimate groups" (Wuthnow 1994, 31).

How Small Groups Differ

How small groups differ from more traditional gatherings (Wuthnow 1994, 43-44):

Needs Being Met

Small groups meet the following needs (Wuthnow 1994, 53):

Group Memberships

(percentage of group members who said each description applied to their current group)
Discussion group 60 %
Support group 52 %
Special interest group 45 %
Prayer fellowship 44 %
Bible study group 44 %
Sunday School class 29 %
Women's group 28 %
Self-help group 26 %
Youth group 20 %
Men's group 18 %
Couples' group 17 %
House church 12 %
Therapy group 12 %
Singles group 11 %
Anonymous group 9 %
Covenant group 9 %

Typical Group Format

This is the typical pattern which Self-help groups follow (Wuthnow 1994, 72-73):

Why People Join

These are the reasons people become involved in small groups (Wuthnow 1994, 84):

The desire to grow as a person 73 %
Being invited by someone you know 60 %
Wanting to become more disciplined in your spiritual life 46 %
Hearing about it through your church or synagogue 33 %
Needing emotional support 28 %
Having problems in your personal life 18 %
Experiencing a crisis in your life 17 %
Feeling like you didn't know anyone in your community 11 %

How to Organize

"...small groups do not just happen... The following list summarizes... what some experts have identified as key ingredients to the successful functioning of any small group:

What's To Like

What members say most frequently that they like about small groups (Wuthnow, 139-140):

"To generalize... trust among group members, faithful attendance, and making newcomers feel welcome... Of all the factors members rated, these related most closely with overall levels of satisfaction" (Wuthnow, 153).


"The main factor that generates trust, however, is whether or not members feel they have a chance to share their problems with one another in the group. In addition, groups that meet every week seem to cultivate trust better than those that meet less often, and trust is higher in groups where nearly everyone attends faithfuly than in groups where many of the members do not come every time. The data also show that smaller groups score higher on trust than larger groups" (Wuthnow, 154).

"The important point is that groups develop implicit norms about reciprocity... trust necessitates structuring the discussion in a way that allows most [not just one or two] members a chance to speak" (Wuthnow, 156).


"Because most peoples' lives are so pressured, there has to be more than simply a "come if I please" attitude if a small group is going to function effectively" (Wuthnow 1994, 156).

"...faithful attendance is one of the most important correlates of group satisfaction. Why?" (Wuthnow 1994, 156).

"Even faithful participants feel something is not quite right if others do not take the group seriously. Members are sincere when they say in meetings that they miss certain people who are not there" (Wuthnow 1994, 157).

"As it turns out, faithful attendance is not easy to manipulate, however. According to our survey, attendance does not vary much by type of group: self-help group members rather their groups a little above average, but that is the only noticeable difference... One thing that does make a difference is how long the group has been in existence: newer groups do better than older groups... less frequent meetings may be the key to better attendance" (Wuthnow 1994, 157).


"Groups that meet often do better... homogeneous groups seem to do a little better than more diverse groups. So do larger groups--lending some credence to the view that small groups can become so ingrown that it is hard for new members to feel at home. The other factor that contributes positively is being invited to the group by a friend" (Wuthnow 1994, 158).

The Paradox

To be successful a group "involves a relatively high degree of formal organization--leaders, goals, and agendas in most groups; lessons to study, business meetings, and elected officers in many others" (Wuthnow 1994, 158).

At the same time, success requires "a high degree of informality--warmth, encouragement, acceptance, and the privelege of talking openly about one's personal problems and interests" (Wuthnow 1994, 158).

"...the informality of small groups depends on having formal structure, and the formal structure is tolerated only because of the informality it encourages" (Wuthnow 1994, 158).

"...the reasons why structured informality is conducive to successful group functioning... These structures solve some of the ordinary housekeeping tasks that all groups face: knowing when to meet, having a place, welcoming newcomers. They also resolve more difficult issues that may arise, such as telling a disruptive member to keep quiet or healing a conflict in the group. But they work best when they are understood to be means rather than ends--that is, when their purpose is to foster informal interaction" (Wuthnow 1994, 158-159).

Families also depend on a combination of formal structure and informality. "Spouses take for granted that they are married and will be for awhile, and thus they are free to behave more openly and spontaneously with each other.

Small groups differ, however, from families in that "their fundamental reason for existence is quite often to provide deep, intimate interpersonal support--period" (Wuthnow 1994, 159).

"This is not true of families. Intimacy and support have, of course, become much more important in the modern family, but children, rearing children, passing on values, and gaining a sense of intergenerational immortality still remain the stated ideals of most people, and sexual pleasure, maintaining a material household, and providing for utual physical care would rank high among family goals as well" (Wuthnow 1994, 159).

"Small groups have to encourage informality, sharing, acceptance, and trust; otherwise members begin to feel manipulated. But this focus also means that such groups may not be very effective at accomplishing other tasks, such as delving deeply into a topic or formulating a new policy, at least if these tasks require strong, intrusive leadership" (Wuthnow 1994, 160).

Primary Groups

"Primary Groups" were "so named almost a century ago by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley because eh believed them to be the basic building blocks of society. Unlike the task group, primary groups are valued in their own right. They involve their members as whole persons and generally do so over a long period of time. They become an important source of the individual's personal identity and provide emotional support, standards of personal behavior to live up to, and significant others to emulate" (Wuthnow 1994, 168-9).

"Throughout most of history, the support necessary to create a stable, secure personal identity has come from the family" (Wuthnow 1994, 169).


Wuthnow, Robert. Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community. NY: Free Press (Macmillan), 1994. ISBN 0-02-935625-3.

Note: The following are notes from the above book. I found the book seminal, eye-opening, life-changing. I recommend that you buy and read the entire book. Only by reading the entire book will you get the whole picture. The following quotes, I hope, will whet your appetite. --Colby Glass

by Colby Glass, MLIS