Shepherding Broken People

When your group shares their deepest hurts, how do you respond?

One of the small groups in my church has been together for a few months now. Some time ago, during one of the group gatherings this icebreaker question was asked: "What's your biggest battle in life right now?" The small group leader was expecting fairly benign responses, typical of other question responses he had received in recent weeks. But instead what happened was walls began to be knocked down and people began to share the most heart-wrenching battles of their souls—past and present addictions, struggles with guilt over past sins, and more.

As a group leader, what do you do with this type of information? I appreciate what professional counselor and author Larry Crabb says when recalling many counseling sessions he has been in and thinking, I don't have a clue what to tell them—they need professional help!

On those occasions, when your group of people who previously seemed to have it "all together" suddenly seems desperately in need of professional help, what is our natural reaction? Chances are, like Jesus, we feel their pain and at that moment we want to see them get out of that pain. Since we feel inadequate to help them get out of their pain, we sometimes say: "Have you considered seeing a counselor?" Or, "Maybe you should join a support group for people with these issues." Either one of those options could be a good path to take. But, consider this. Is our goal in the Christian life to figure out what to do so that people won't experience the pain of life? Or, is it our goal to walk with them through that pain so that above all else, Jesus becomes a greater influence in their life than their pain and suffering? "My grace is enough for you. When you are weak, my power is made perfect in you." (2 Corinthians 12:8)

That is precisely what Christian community is all about. Community is what happens when through our honest and transparent relationships with God and each other we see and desire God's presence and joy in our life more than we desire blessings or freedom from pain and suffering. Jesus said, "I told you these things so that you can have peace in me. In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world." John 16:35 "But now a better hope has been given to us, and with this hope WE can come near to God." Heb. 7:19 (Emphasis on WE added to show that we do this together as a community of Christ-followers.)

When we struggle we look for wise, caring people who will hear us and open us up with love rather than shut us down with rules or cliches. If we don't find any, we sometimes turn to professionals, to people trained in "therapeutic relating" who are available because they make a living being available.

C.G. Jung once observed that modern psychotherapy arose partly in response to the void in Christian community left by the Protestant insistence on "private confession." We no longer struggle together with our deepest concerns and our most internal battles. Religion, we often hear, is a personal matter between us and God, where we keep our distance from others and relate openly with God. One difficulty with that philosophy is that when we are less open and honest with people, we also end up being less than honest with God as well.

How can we care for and shepherd people in their brokenness? Author and professional counselor Larry Crabb suggests four key things that we can apply in our situations as group leaders:

  1. Encourage and model the value of being known.

    For the folks in the small group to have that time of transformational sharing described previously, someone had to model an open and honest response to the initial sharing question. James 5:16 – "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." As a group leader, you have the most influence on the level of open sharing in your group. And that influence comes from how you model when responding to a sharing question.

  2. Explore people's spiritual stories and heritage.

    In this day and age, many people don't live around their family of origin. So unless we ask about people's families and background, we may know very little of what has shaped an individual's life. Much of our joys and pain stem from memories of past experiences. I suggest selecting icebreaker questions during group meetings that allow people to share pieces of that story. Questions like: "Who was the center of warmth in your life when you were growing up?" Or, "Who are you most like, your mom or dad and why?"

  3. Discover how God is at work in people's lives.

    A great tool to help people discover God's work in their lives is to have people write out their testimonies. In our small group we take turns sharing our 3-5 minute testimony with the other people in the group. This exercise allows the testimony presenter and everyone else to discover the ways God has been at work even through difficult circumstances.

  4. Be willing to speak into people's lives so the "touch" of the Holy Spirit can happen.

    Hebrews 10:24-25 "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching." When we make ourselves available to people and are constantly considering how we can encourage one another, that human relational connection is powerful all by itself. But when you couple that relational connection with the Holy Spirit's work, that connection can be a source of supernatural healing.

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