Facing Shame Issues in a Small Group

Why some group members don't want to open up, and how to help
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It is easy for people caught in shame to commit to rules and systems of accountability. As long as they can perform, they can feel good about themselves. It might just be doable to earn your acceptance if you work hard enough! Shame-based people can be some of the busiest, hardest workers in Christian service. But, ultimately, unaddressed shame shuts God out, keeps inner lives secret, and results in more shame-producing behavior. It also becomes a way to hide addictions.

The way some groups think of "accountability" contributes to the problem. If accountability is reduced to reporting your failures and having others hold your feet to the fire, it is an incubator for guilt and shame. Some think that the shame of confession is what produces godly discipline. Far from it.Rather than produce self control, it actually drives negative behavior underground.

Goodsmall-group accountability will look deeper at what is driving the behavior—what beliefs you have formed from your interpretation of life experiences.Group members will want to know your whole story, not just your current struggles. They will want to get involved not only in hearing confessions of failure, butin looking at the wound that makes it so difficult to walk in the first place. In this way, we can truly "strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees (and) make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed" (Hebrews 12:12–13).

The Value of Love

So what can a small group do for people like Joe and Jane? There is no greater antidote to shame than pursuing people in love—even when exposing sinful strategies. After Adam and Eve's sin was exposed, God covered them with garments from the skins of animals he sacrificed. People in shame need someone to offer grace and re-clothe them with the dignity that God has provided.

The group can stand in as advocates for both grace and truth. Their compassion can make it safe for Joe and Jane to come out of darkness, because they are not deceived about their own sin. "Joe, it took a lot of courage for you as a young boy to come back to class after being made fun of. I would give that boy a purple heart!" "Jane, your father missed your soft, tender heart. His teasing drove you away and kept you from having a safe place to go when you needed to share what had happened."

But the group must also be eager to encourage one another to walk in the light. "Joe, your withholding does not honor all that God has created in you and that you are capable of offering." "Jane, I notice that you share deeply with the women, but with the men you give less. What needs to happen so that we do not miss out?"

Group leaders need to guard against allowing group members to respond to stories by rescuing people from their feelings. Some find it difficult to weep with those who weep. But many formative experiences have contained losses that need to be grieved. Not only were these experiences damaging, but they resulted in damaging ways of living for which the individual now needs to take responsibility. If he or she chooses to trust the group, they can find great help. The group can help them recognize and name the shame.

The group can observe them isolating in shame—or, as others sometimes do, overcompensating by dominating—and give gracious feedback. "Joe, can you tell us where you've been? We've missed hearing from you." "Jane, we'd like to take five minutes to talk about what you've brought up. Is it okay if we hold it to five minutes by giving you a signal when you have one minute left?" Or maybe, "I've noticed that when you share, something takes over and it becomes hard to contain what is going on inside. Do you have any idea what that might be?"

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