How to Handle Emotions in Your Small Group

Would you opt into being a Bible study leader if you had absolutely no knowledge of the Bible? Your answer is likely "no." It's certain that any discussion would require some familiarity with the Bible, and you'd want to be prepared with at least a baseline level of knowledge.

In the same way, we need to be prepared—at least at a baseline level—to engage with people at a deep heart level if we desire authenticity in our small groups. When our groups hold the value of authenticity, it's only a matter of time before we'll encounter high emotions, including passion, pain, or fear.

Moments of high emotion can actually be great turning points for groups. But you'll need to plan proactively how you might handle these situations. As with most group dynamics questions, the answer involves a combination of three things: your leadership style, the maturity of the group, and the group's vision for the future (often described in the group agreement). Below you'll find six ways to minister to group members in the midst of emotional moments.

Ask Questions

A great way to honor a group member and give the group additional perspective of what that person is going through is to investigate and ask gentle, open-ended questions.

John, a small-group leader at our church, is masterful at this technique. When a person ventures into a vulnerable area in their life John maintains eye contact, leans in with a desire to understand, and says, "Tell me more." These three words are some of the safest, healthiest words a small-group leader can say. "Tell me more" sends the message that the subject is important and the surface details are not enough to honor the topic. It's also a non-directional statement. Instead of the group leader asking one specific question, it allows the group member to determine exactly what is most important to tell.

Leaders often fall into the trap of feeling like we have to immediately have an answer. Pay close attention to Jesus in his interaction with people during his ministry, though. He was a master question asker. It wasn't because he didn't know the answers! Jesus asked questions to serve those around him.

Encourage Sharing

If we're striving to create safe, authentic environments, we should not only welcome the presence of emotion but also encourage it. Encouraging someone after they've shared deeply does two things. First, it affirms the person who has taken the risk. That person realizes that they're okay just as they are. They get to experience God's grace through you as a leader. Second, it tells the group as a whole that it's a safe and healthy place to speak candidly and fully.

Encouragement comes in many forms. I've seen a small-group leader quote 1 Samuel 16:7, "The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." The leader then told the group member that he had given the group a gift by giving them a small glimpse into his heart.

Another powerful encouragement tool is thankfulness. Kyndra, one of our seasoned leaders, was recently leading a group session I attended. A couple shared something that was uncomfortable and painful but very heartfelt. After we had a chance to process what they'd said, Kyndra thanked the couple profusely for giving us an opportunity to talk about an important topic. We're called to carry one another's burdens, which "fulfills the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), and Kyndra brought attention to the fact that they were allowing us to do that for them. We talked about what that looked like in our group, and we all thanked them for their vulnerability and for giving us an opportunity to live out this specific command of Scripture.

Minister Through Touch

Some leaders don't feel comfortable reaching out and touching members of their group. Some leaders give everyone they meet the disclaimer that they're a "hugger." Neither is right or wrong, but appropriate physical touch is a very healthy way to respond to high emotion in a group.

I was at a ministry fair several months ago when a woman new to our church came in. She began telling me how she and her husband were in the process of divorce and that she was feeling lost and hopeless. The look in her eyes told me that the situation was still raw and new.

My friend Julie, who used to lead our divorce recovery ministry, happened to walk in. I flagged her down, and she joined us in the conversation. The woman began to tell her story to Julie and was only two sentences in when Julie simply said, "I am so, so sorry" and embraced her.

I was a little taken aback by the abruptness of the action as the woman started to cry hard into Julie's shoulder. I later realized that Julie, having been in this woman's shoes before, knew exactly what was needed. She knew in a way I might never know.

Intelligent words were not what the woman needed in that particular moment. She was not seeking counsel. She might not have used these specific words, but she had come to church seeking comfort and safety. Julie created that for her in a profound way.

Could someone be coming to your group in the same condition or with the same spiritual need? Could this be what is behind a display of emotion during one of your sessions? A hug may be appropriate, or you may simply put your hand on a person's shoulder. Consider, though, how touch might minister to your group members in the midst of high emotion.

Turn to God in Prayer

It should be no surprise that an intense moment in a group would lead to prayer. It especially makes sense in a time of high emotion. Emotion is the unedited expression of a person, and it makes sense to communicate these emotions to God through prayer.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" (Matthew 26:37). In this time of deep pain and sorrow, Jesus expresses his emotions to God the Father and humbly accepts God's response. What a great model to follow in our small groups.

And while we Jesus prays for himself, there is also value in praying for one another, what we call intercessory prayer. When someone is in a time of great need or pain they can benefit from being prayed with or prayed over. Sometimes a group member will not be capable of speaking the prayer that's most needed for their situation in the moment. Their mind might be wandering or they might be feeling overwhelmed. Interceding for another person in such a time is a chance to be "Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us" (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Follow Up

In Luke 15, Jesus shares three parables about lost items of increasing importance. These are rich stories that bring us closer to God's love for us. They demonstrate that God's love is not passive or waiting on us. Rather, he seeks us out and celebrates communion with us.

One leader I know named Jeff modeled this well in his group. He put it to me this way: "When one of the flock is wandering off, whether for a good reason or a bad one, it is my job as shepherd to go after them." This small-group leader went on to tell me how a member of his small group revealed something particularly vulnerable in a group setting. The group responded positively, but the member didn't return. No one knew why, and the group wondered what could be motivating him to stay away. Jeff called the man until he got a response and got coffee with him. His main purpose? Show the man God's love by seeking and finding him. This small-group leader got an opportunity to go above and beyond to show God's level of care and grace in such a situation and it powerfully impacted the small-group member.

Provide Additional Help

Finally, as a shepherd of a small group of individuals, it's important to be mindful of the limitations of the small group. Sometimes our group members need help and resources beyond the small group's ability, means, or mission. If a member, for instance, dominates the conversation to express high emotions every week without showing any movement toward healing, you need to assess whether it's a healthy pattern—both for the group member and the rest of the group. If a group member's expectations for how a group can serve them don't match how the group is intended to operate, it can create challenges for everyone.

In this case, group members may need to seek out a counselor to work with alongside their engagement in the group. If they're in a particularly rough season, group Bible study might not be the best use of their time right now. People find God in deep, meaningful ways through recovery programs, Christian counseling, grief support, and divorce recovery programs when they need this kind of focused work. Check with your coach or small-group pastor to see if they have a list of recommended counselors, programs, and resources.

On the other hand, you and your group may simply need to establish clear boundaries so that the needs of one group member don't burn out the rest of the group members. If you sense this may be the case, reach out to your coach or small-group pastor sooner rather than later. Establishing healthy boundaries takes time and care.

This post was originally written for on May 2, 2016. 


Three Game-Changers for People-Pleasing Leaders

As Christ-followers we have an others-focused attitude. This can be good or bad depending on your motivation. Paul wrestled with this in Galatians 1:10, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

When putting others first comes from a God-centered motivation, it’s a beautiful outflow of the sacrificial love we receive from God. It’s selfless and tempered by an equal desire to see ourselves and others respect and live by the will of God. This leads us and our small groups toward greater security in God’s love, and allows us to love others in a healthy way.

When putting others first comes from a people-pleasing motivation, however, it’s ultimately an outflow of insecurity. People-pleasing can be motivated by fear of rejection, low self-image, or even a mentality of unworthiness. These take your leadership off the rails because we try to earn people’s love and respect. Insecurity based in these false perceptions of ourselves propels us into unhealthy patterns of relationship.

Christian artist Lecrae once said, “If you live for people’s acceptance, you will die from their rejection.” Small groups are intentional places where we try our best to live out our Christian values. We’re called not to live by each other’s acceptance, but by God’s acceptance. Are you a people-pleasing small-group leader? Below you’ll find three ways to move into a healthy way of leading others:

Make Decisions

One of the most common challenges that people-pleasing group leaders face is the non-unanimous decision. Every group makes decisions, and as a leader you will need to leadyour group through the decision-making process. When everyone is in agreement, this is a breeze, but that doesn’t always happen.

If you have any people-pleasing tendencies, it can feel as if you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do you move forward without disappointing someone—or multiple people—in your group? There are several ways to move forward in a situation like this.

First, rest in God’s leadership. Before your thoughts run away, remember Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” Regardless of the relative success of any given decision, the overall fruit of the small group is utterly dependent on God. A great verse to remember if planning makes you worry is Proverbs 16:9: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” It’s the group’s job to make a decision and plan a course, but the steps and actual growth that occurs is far more directed by God than by our plans.

Second, don’t feel limited by arbitrary constraints. Is your group stressing about figuring out childcare? Concerned about a future study? Unsure about letting a new person in? There’s no written rule that the decision has to be made by the end of the night, that the study has to be completed in the number of nights indicated on the packaging, or that some creative solution can’t be found along the way. When stress kicks in, we’re far more likely to think inside the box. When you sense yourself going inside the box, free yourself from the constraints and allow yourself—and your group—to think creatively about a solution.

Finally, one of the best strategies available for people-pleasing leaders is to lean into the power of the “provisional decision.” Whether deciding on a babysitter, different night of the week, or book to study, you can label it an experiment and encourage everyone to evaluate the pros and cons along the way. Identify a length of time you’ll try out the decision before reconvening to decide if you want to continue. Not only will this give you, the leader, an easy out if things don’t go well, it also invites every small group member into the process.

Disagree Well

There will always be different opinions in small groups. The discussion exists for each person to talk about what they’re thinking or feeling and digest it as a group. What do you do, though, when there’s a particularly pointed disagreement or when someone violates your small-group covenant?

A small-group leader in our church recently had two group members escalate into a full out argument. It started as one member sharing an opinion about politics. Another member shared their opposing opinion. This evolved into an intense political conflict, which turned into an intense personal conflict. What would you do as the leader?

If you tend toward people-pleasing, you might be tempted to hurry past the incident. The path of least resistance would be to move on or change the subject. It would be scary to risk offending one or both of the small-group members by wading into their escalating conflict. You might worry about what the other members were thinking and what they might think of you as a leader if you got involved.

On the other hand, if we step back and try to see the group through God’s eyes, we might see something different. We would see that these small-group members were identifying more with their political parties than they were identifying by their faith. We would notice that a silent small-group leader on this subject would imply acceptance of conflict being handled in this way, and you’d likely see a repeat offense sometime in the near future.

We are called to action in situations like this. Second Timothy 1:7 reminds us that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Conflict should be handled with God’s spirit and not our own desire for affirmation.

We are called to speak the truth (not just our opinions) within the context of God’s love and our mutual love. Paul said, “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). As a small-group leader, even if you tend toward people-pleasing, we are called first to speak the truth—but in love. We’re not mandated to be the cop in our small group. We are, however, invited to be Christ’s ambassadors to one another, and in this way we will “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is head, that is, Christ.”

Empower Others to Lead

Some years ago our church decided to launch a new ministry aimed at young adults. We held an initial small group on a Sunday morning after service and it was heavily attended. We were very excited to help this underserved population at our church.

As the Sunday small group continued, we noticed an unexpected dynamic. Each week the same number of people showed up, but there was no consistency in who showed up. We continued on, trusting that things would stabilize. Our pastor warned me that continuing to lead by myself was unhealthy and could end up harming the group as a whole. I felt like I had no choice, though. I was one of the only people who actually attended every week!

After a campaign of social events and logistical changes to try to appease people into more frequent attendance, circumstances were much the same—but I wasn’t. I was frustrated with the group, and I found myself resenting people’s halfhearted commitment rather than leading them by the example of Christian love. I walked into our meetings with a bad attitude, and even though I tried to mask it and keep at it, my pastor was right: It was not healthy for the group. Rather than empower other people to lead and take responsibility of the group, bringing their own wisdom and gifts to the table, I was trying to appeal to everyone with only my strengths. Yes, our ministry had a problem with consistency, but more importantly, we had an early leadership problem that was never addressed.

A similar dynamic was at play in Exodus 18. After escaping Egypt, Moses got into a rhythm of settling disputes between the people. He quickly found, however, that given the opportunity, the people “waited before him from morning till evening” (Exodus 18:13). Jethro wisely stepped in to give a priceless piece of wisdom: “What are you reallyaccomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all this alone while everyone stands around you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:14, emphasis added).

There is no better question to answer when we’re taking on all the responsibilities and tasks of a small group. What are you really accomplishing? Because of our insecurity, we often want to prove that we can do it all. Sure, sometimes doing everything on our own means we can ensure that everything will get done. On top of that, you know exactly when and howit will get done. But is anyone else getting to be part of God’s work in the group? Are any other group members using their spiritual gifts? Are you missing the opportunity of benefiting from different perspectives and creative visions for the group?

Passages like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 remind us that as the church, we are all different parts of one body. Consider the coordination and joint effort required to do the simple task of throwing a football to a friend. Your ears need to hear his call to you, your eyes need to see where he is, your brain needs to calculate where he’s going to be, your legs and trunk need to plant and pivot, and your arm and shoulder need to throw the ball. A healthy small group will operate the same way. We should all take on very different, yet equally important tasks. When we do, we’ll all benefit.

If you’re a people-pleasing leader, you need not fear. You’re not alone, and your desire comes from positive intentions. With a little bit of intentionality and support, you can channel your desire to serve into a healthy and powerful tool for God’s kingdom.

This post was originally written for on May 2, 2016.