Truth: You probably already know how emotionally safe your small group is. (Or isn’t.)
Maybe you’ve had moments like I did, where you decided to take the plunge of emotional vulnerability. Some people asked me to tell them more and prayed with me. Others couldn’t hear the question I was army crawling through internally, and instead trumpeted theology over a bleeding wound.
Perhaps you’ve walked away from a small group knowing more of God’s Word but not knowing others or being known. Not allowing the body of Christ access to your sacred, uncomfortable spaces; deciding you don’t need them anyway (see 1 Corinthians 12:21).
But transparent, safe small groups are one of the ways we express Jesus to a weary world: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It’s one way we glimpse a God who restores our souls (Psalm 23:3).
As leaders, how do we create a safe space in small groups?
Some ground rules to create a safe space
Rule 1: We will banish our own defensiveness.
Take ownership for the log in your eye (or your church’s). Hear the concern beneath what’s said rather than getting hung up on how it’s said.
Rule 2: We will put down our masks and welcome each other into what’s really going on in our lives.
Judgment begets judgment; vulnerability begets vulnerability.
As a leader, allow a real picture of your messy self, marriage, and family. Model the kind of transparency that sets our groups free and allows transformation and community at the heart level. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).
Reality is, I have not always treated other Christians as if they are members of my own body, communicating like my own body does with itself. I am not always as open with friends as I would like them to be with me. I am not intentionally lying, but for the sake of “kindness” or my own security, I am not always intentionally truthful.
As the authors write in The Cure: What If God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You?, “No one told me when I wear a mask, only my mask receives love.”
So ask questions encouraging each other to lay down your masks: What’s hard in your life right now? In what areas of your life is it hard to see God working? What’s one reason you’re struggling with fear, doubt, sadness, guilt, or anger?
And remember: What happens in a small group stays in a small group. Trust makes vulnerability possible.
Rule 3: We will avoid pat answers.
The offense of platitudes: You are a problem to be solved. I didn’t hear your heart and what you truly needed. But I would like to fix it.
More than leaping to the solution, a safe group stops and absorbs some of the weight.
(When someone offers a plug-and-play answer, try, “I think there are times that’s true. But mostly we just hear this is really painful. Can you tell us more about what this is like for you?” Or, “Before we jump into solutions, we can all imagine what this would feel like. Let’s take some time and just pray for __.”)
Rule 4: When someone discloses something vulnerable, wait at least three seconds before responding.
Healthy small groups don’t just talk—they listen. Proverbs encourages us to let our words be fewer and more aptly spoken (10:19, 25:11).
Rather than rushing in with encouragement or solutions, push open a window for the person to say more. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
Rule 5: We will work to lift each others’ shame.
It’s helpful to differentiate between appropriate guilt (which is healthy) and shame (which communicates superiority and unworthiness of connecting with others). Shame leaves us hiding and even dangerous (leading to blame, aggression, addiction, perfectionism, control, anxiety, superiority, image management, and worse).
The Bible speaks of confession that leads to healing (James 5:16), shared burden-bearing, and restoration (Galatians 6:1-2). Your group can and should commit to calling each other on sin issues! But we don’t do that with scorn, superiority, or disconnection.
God demonstrated His love by closing the distance between us when we were unworthy enemies (Romans 5:8). And we are to “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7 NIV).
What else can you do to help create a safe space?
1. Meet in smaller groups.
Consider meeting with group members one-on-one for coffee or periodically splitting into smaller groups (perhaps taking a week for each couple to have dinner with one other couple they don’t know well). Smaller groups and non-serious, rapport-building gatherings encourage the space, trust, and privacy needed to connect.
2. Create habitual time for connecting.
More than just through Bible study, your group grows with plenty of time to talk about life.
About the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-15), Ruth Barton writes,
They were not having a formal quiet time. They were discussing the stuff of their lives—all the things that had happened that were having such an impact on them spiritually and every other way—and something about the nature and quality of their conversation opened up space for Jesus to draw near. And the encounter that took place among them was completely reorienting and life changing … it becomes a transforming community.
3. Listen for clues.
Sometimes a group member will drop verbal breadcrumbs about something hard. Those soul-disclosing moments can equal holy ground in someone’s life.
Though finishing a Bible study can feel important, it can be even more critical to create space for those places in group members’ lives. Drop your voice a little, and lean forward. “I want to continue our study, but first I’d love to pause, because what you said sounded important.”
Then, ask permission: “May I ask you a follow-up question?”
(Not the right time? One on one, ask if they’d be willing to grab coffee or go for a walk so you can understand more.)
Great listeners can carry the power to help us walk away with a deeper knowledge of ourselves. Emotionally safe groups often provide a home to unpack our junk–and help us do it.
And when someone comes to their own conclusions for themselves, those conclusions are 100% more effective than our own spiel.
So ask questions that gently, respectfully help isolate the real issues with which their hearts are colliding:
- What was that like?
- Are there any other reasons that __?
- What are you afraid will happen?
- What do you want most to protect or avoid?
- That sounds incredibly tough. How do you think God wants you to respond?
- What do you feel like doing?
- What do you think you need?
- I’m hearing ___ is really important to you. Do you think it’s become too important?
- What do you wish you could say?
- What do you wish that person would understand?
When in doubt, start with “three degrees of why.” For example, if a group member is wrestling with discontent at their job:
- Why do they suspect they’re discontent?
- Maybe it’s because their boss is constantly discontent. Why does this bother your friend so much?
- Say your friend is bothered because they love pleasing people. Why is failing to please someone so scary?
4. Practice your unshocked face.
When a group member reveals something tough, shameful, or embarrassing, don’t let your reactions add to their stress or compromise their sense of acceptability.
This isn’t just to create a safe group. This models the gospel, where God welcomes us exactly as we are.
5. Sympathy ≠ drama.
All you empaths out there—it’s possible to occasionally feel something so much with someone that we actually don’t help restore or repair.
If a group member’s marriage is on the rocks, for example, you want to talk to her in a way that helps her to go home and still be married. Your sympathy could either divide her further from her husband, or alternatively, help her return to her problems with renewed strength, vision, and courage.
6. Repeat back.
Reiterate what you think your group member is saying: “Are you saying that…” “So I hear you saying…” “Am I getting you?” “Is that what you’re trying to say?”
To a dying, hopeless single mother in the desert—Hagar—God describes Himself as “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13, NIV). This theme reverberates throughout the Bible (see 2 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 139:1-24, 147:5, Hebrews 4:16).
In loving others when they’re vulnerable, we reflect God’s image in the flesh to the world-weary friend in front of us. Transparent, safe small groups say, “God so loves you as an individual. And this is what that might look like, right here, right now.”
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.