How to Handle Emotions in Your Small Group

How to Handle Emotions in Your Small Group

When groups value authenticity, it’s only a matter of time before we face a highly emotional moment.
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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.

—Jon Noto is a Community Life Pastor and licensed clinical counselor at Willow Creek Community Church's North Shore campus.


  1. How do I naturally respond when we experience high emotion in our group? How healthy is this response?
  2. What are a few healthy ways to handle high emotion from group members?
  3. When you've expressed deeply and vulnerably with a group, what kind of response were you hoping for?
  4. What are your group expectations when it comes to helping one another? Would it be helpful to craft a specific agreement or covenant?
  5. What can your group do to create a safer environment for sharing?

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