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.
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.
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.