At the United Methodist Church one recent Tuesday night, a dozen people from town and nearby farms met with the ministers of the Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic churches here and worked through a series of exercises aimed at building their self-esteem and self-confidence.

Once a month, the Odebolt Future Growth Commission, including an auto dealer, the president of one of the two banks, an insurance agent and the publisher of the Odebolt Chronicle, meet to work out ways to attract new business to this town of 1,300 in the corn, cattle, hog and soybean country about 125 miles northwest of Des Moines.

About six miles northeast of town, James A. Meyer, who farms about 850 acres and is the County Extension Service Farm Aid representative, sits down at his computer with another farmer to dissect and analyze the farmer's operation to see how he can maximize its productivity and profitability.

In the back of the minds of all these people are a few grim facts.

There were three bank failures here in Sac County this year, including one in Odebolt.

At least 40 farmers have gone bankrupt in Sac County this year and there are more to come, with an estimated 120 more farmers in deep financial trouble in a winter that promises to be even grimmer than the last one.

The town has lost nearly a dozen businesses, including two major implement dealers in the past two years.

There has been a decline in Odebolt's church enrollments and collections, and a pulling back from civic and volunteer activities by beleaguered farmers and business people.

School enrollment has declined by about 7 percent the last four years as bankrupt families have been forced to move away.

There were unsuccessful suicide attempts a couple of years ago by two girls, one in high school, the other in seventh grade. There are instances of child abuse and family breakup. A message on the public telephone in the main school building reads, "Suicide is not the answer! 1-800-638-HELP. Suicide Help Line of Iowa."

Iowa farms and small towns are experiencing their hardest times since the Great Depression.

But here, as all over the state, the people of Odebolt are banding together to help each other through the dark times. The phrase that is heard time after time is "support group."

Church support groups, women support groups, teen-age support groups, business and professional support groups, the more the better. Just don't try to go it alone or the bad times may break you -- or kill you.

A host of organizations have sprung up in Iowa and other hard-hit farm states -- the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, Rural America, Prairie Fire -- whose purpose is to generate mutual support.

The Rev. Tom Hotle, pastor of the Methodist church, initiated church-led support groups here after the Peoples Bank in Odebolt closed in April, sending shock waves through the community. A husky, graying man of 51 who was a farmer and mechanic before entering the ministry, he leans back in his chair in his church office and reflects on it.

"My son at Iowa State University told me that he could feel the pain every time he drove into town," he said. "I decided that we needed something and we had a meeting of about 40 or 50 people in July. Then I called the County Cooperative Extension Service and they were eager to hear from us because we'd be dealing with people they couldn't reach."

The extension service, run by Iowa State University, has been extraordinarily compassionate and aggressive in trying to devise ways to help the farmers. Its "Neighbor to Neighbor" program has provided materials to people like Hotle for group sessions on fighting depression and loss of self-esteem, on forming personal support groups, examining attitudes toward money and other symbols of success, psychosomatic illnesses and helping others cope with crisis and loss. It also held training sessions for area clergymen in September. Hotle's group of about 15, the first in town, has held five sessions and will have three more, on such topics as understanding loss, depression, community, family, self-esteem and stress.

"Most go through the standard depression curve," Hotle said. "The first step is that it can't happen to me because I've been told that if I work hard and am honest I'll make it. Then comes the thought that I haven't been working hard enough and so I try to work harder. Then comes anger. Then the loss of self-esteem, the feeling of no self-worth."

The idea is to bring people together to share their frustrations, although some, including two retired people who live in town, are participating primarily because they want to help the others and learn how to form their own groups. Some are undergoing genuine financial crises and severe stress, while some feel stress because they feel others in the community are threatened.

"They feel threatened because their way of life is threatened and that's what we're trying to preserve," Hotle says.

Rebuilding self-esteem is a major aim of the support group.

"We tell them they're the same person, that they shouldn't tie their self-esteem to their economic circumstances," Hotle said. "You're okay; you know who you are . . . .

"We urge them to make a plan, then do it, maybe working or making something with their hands, since some of them are going to have to relocate off the farm and will have to look for jobs."

Those who definitely must leave farming are urged to accept it.

"We have to do what we can with what we have," Hotle said. "It's like Walt Disney's Dumbo with the big ears. He learned not to be ashamed of them but to fly with them."

When the bank failed in Odebolt, the first reaction was that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would step in and take care of things. It did, for depositors, but farmers with operating loans found that the debts were due immediately, and if they brought a load of corn to town for sale the check went directly to the bank.

"I can't get money to feed the livestock, I can't borrow money for fuel so I can harvest the corn, and if you can sell some for operating capital without the check going to the bank you lose a dollar a bushel because you haven't put it in the price support program," one farmer lamented.

"What am I supposed to do to even feed my family? Cheat? Steal? My family's been farming this land for three generations."

At this point, Hotle said, "some start thinking of their insurance policy and their shotgun."

The possibility of suicide is always in people's minds because three Iowa suicides this year have been related to farm failure and the teen-age suicide rate is one of the highest in the country.

After the two suicide attempts, the town held a public meeting primarily for parents to hear a psychologist, school principal and clergymen from eastern Iowa and people from the nearby town of Storm Lake, which had just had a rash of teen suicides. They described symptoms and, later, information packets were distributed in town and the surrounding farms.

"I think our two attempts may have just been overdoses of aspirin by children who may have had some family conflicts and were trying to get attention," said Carl Matte, the school superintendent.

The incidents prompted school officials to draw up emergency procedures for dealing with such attempts -- whom to call and what to do. They also obtained video tapes from Iowa State on teen-age stress.

The businessmen in the Future Growth Commission said they feel that a reversal of mental attitude is the key to the town's prosperity.

"It gets to be a depression mentality and it snowballs," said Larry Beckman, who has a combination Ford-Chrysler agency. "But people touch their checkbooks and themselves and see they're still here. It's a case of 95 percent realizing that it's 5 percent who have the trouble."

In addition to the closing of the bank, which opened under new ownership just a few days later, Odebolt this year has lost its John Deere and International Harvester implement dealers, the Rexall drug store, a clothing store, a grocery, a service station, two restaurants and a processor of hog intestines for encasing sausages and hot dogs. Some local businessmen grumble that the John Deere dealer was done in by corporate policy that saddled him with a $400,000 building that provided first-rate display and service facilities -- and a fatal financial burden.

The growth commission, which was formed after the bank failure, works primarily through Odebolt high school alumni all over the country, including Arlo Paul, the retired president of a national consulting firm. They are confident that a small drug store chain based in Des Moines will come in to replace the Rexall and that another food processor will move in.

"One of our alums played golf with a guy in the drug store chain," Beckman said. "Another in Kansas City knows someone in a food processing firm and some are working with the Iowa Development Corp."

They already have attracted another clothing store -- from the nearby town of Early, even more hard hit than Odebolt -- which they hope will move in shortly.

This may prove to be symbolic. There is a feeling that Odebolt's morale problem bottomed out after the bank closing and that people are coming to grips with the business of living.

Jim Meyer, the Farm Aid representative, said he thinks that bringing farmers back into a positive state of mind after their operations have been rigorously analyzed is a crucial part of counseling.

He also is cheered that a number who were analyzed a year ago are coming in for follow-up studies to see how things are working and what needs to be changed.

"I'm not nearly as nervous about farming as I was a year ago," he said. "You have to be frugal, but I see a future in agriculture."