Sometimes small groups can be refreshing, transparent places of real encouragement and deep spiritual growth, and sometimes they can be frustrating, pride-filled places where everyone needs their two cents to be received and their thought to be heard. Then, of course, there are the majority of small groups that land somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
I am blessed to be a part of a small, women’s, group that has been characterized by the first, however, in the past few months we have started studying a book on marriage and have found it to be a particularly difficult and personal topic to discuss in a small group church setting. Therefore, I have recently had the opportunity to think through and share my thoughts on this topic of what makes a small group a safe place to share, particularly when discussing the sensitive but important area of marriage. I have been encouraged to share this piece on my blog and make it available to others, so feel free to pull from it or adapt it to fit your own small group setting (my suggestion would be to simply go through this or a version of it with your group before you start your study). While this is tailored to the topic of marriage, many of these principles can be adapted to other sensitive topics of discussion or could be used in assisting your group to think through and examine their general sharing habits and patterns. So…here you go!
Encouraging Transparent Sharing in a Small Group Setting
Marriage is an incredibly difficult topic to be transparent about, especially in a church group setting. Marriage sits very close to our identity, and in the church it sits very close to people’s perceptions of our spiritual maturity and qualifications/usefulness in ministry.
As I have thought about this difficulty I have been thinking through the dynamics of the group, and I just wanted to take a step back before we go any further to give some thoughts and principles that can make this a more comfortable place to share struggles and can help us each think through when we should share something and when we should remain silent and share in a different context.
So….what makes a small group a safer place to be real?
- Simply acknowledging together that everyone’s marriage is different and in a different place. Some are thriving in their marriage, some are struggling deeply, some feel like they are just coasting and in neutral.
- We also have to acknowledge that most, if not all, marriages on the face of the planet are going to hit rough waters. If your marriage is struggling let this give you HOPE that you are not alone; if your marriage hasn’t hit struggles yet or isn’t in that place right now, let this give you HUMILITY and ears to listen to those who are or have struggled, and prepare yourself for when your marriage hits the storm.
- Acknowledge and discuss what makes it particularly difficult to share personal marriage struggles in this setting. A few I have thought of are:
- Fear of being judged and looked down upon. Galatians 6:1-3 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” There is a priceless humility and tenderness that these verses portray in how we should respond to the sin of others. If we sense any pride in ourselves when we share and or when we are responding to another person we should keep silent. Humility is safe, pride is dangerous.
- Fear of being given a pat simplistic answer for a complex and painful situation. Groups like this tend to do that just by their nature. We all want to give our two cents of what works or worked in our marriage and it can be overwhelming for a person sharing things that are deeply personal and/or painful. My exhortation to all in the group would be to think very carefully before giving someone an answer. Maybe don’t answer at all at first beyond a, “that sounds really difficult or painful, I’m so sorry,” or let them know you have thoughts you would like to share but need to think them through more. Possibly, ask more questions before answering and always seek to understand a matter more fully. Consider writing out your response first and sending it in an email or sharing it the next week. And remember, what worked in your marriage might work in someone else’s and it can be a great blessing to share what you have learned, just be sure that when you are suggesting things from your experience that have worked for you, do so with utmost humility, and do so tentatively with the understanding that their marriage is made up of a different history, different people, different child dynamic and phase, and different sin struggles etc. (Prov 18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame).
Two other thing to keep in mind as we interact with our small group are that sometimes problems don’t always have a concrete, earthly answer and that we should never make promises to hurting people that the Scriptures do not make. For example, don’t ever tell a wife that if she will simply submit to her husband, her husband will start treating her better, or will become the spiritual leader she longs for him to be. Scripture never guarantees those sorts of results for obedience. Instead offer the ever present hope and joy found in the blessing of knowing Christ and obeying him, regardless of the outcome. Offer the hope of the final redemption when we see Christ and the hope of seeing and experiencing the sanctifying work of Spirit in our lives that inevitably happens when we accept suffering as from God’s loving hand and choose to lean into the process of change that he is seeking to work in the lives of his children.
In sum, when engaging those sharing their struggles in your small group, resist the common urge to jump to giving simplistic answers and take time to think deeply about what people are sharing before responding to them.
- Being the first one to share the difficult thing or failure when it feels that all that is being shared so far is positive marital experiences. This is what naturally happens in this type of group as well. It’s easy to share the good and very difficult to share the failures or sins; therefore the good will naturally be shared more quickly and more frequently. We want to rejoice with those whose marriages are going well and we want to have opportunity to mourn with and bear the burdens of those who are struggling. Just keep in mind that if your marriage is going great that it’s naturally going to be the easiest for you to jump in and answer and talk about your marriage and others might find it hard to find a place to jump in and share how their marriage feels like it’s falling apart or how they struggle with God’s design for them in marriage and need help seeing the good in it etc.. So be sensitive and wary of this dynamic and seek to be selective and discerning in when and how quickly you jump in to share, giving others the opportunity to muster the courage to share something difficult.
- Confusion as to when and what is appropriate to share in this setting regarding your marriage. When we are vulnerable about our marriages we must keep in mind that because our husbands are part of our marriages we are by default making them vulnerable along with us. We are told not to slander our husbands so we need to have an understanding as to what slander is, as opposed to sharing struggles. This can be hard to discern. Here are levels of sharing and generally their appropriate setting to help us think through wisely what sharing should look like in this context in order to constructively build our marriages and husbands up instead of tearing them down.
§ Small group appropriate (in my humble opinion):
-General sharing that there is struggle there and asking for general prayer.
-Sharing our OWN sin or personality issues in the marriage- I struggle with anger, discontentment, lust, being open in my marriage etc.
-Sharing with permission: If your husband gives you the go ahead to be an open book about the marriage then by all means be an open book.
-Sharing struggles that are more personality based than sin based with the aim to focus on your part of the struggle, not how to fix your husband to get him to be what you want him to be: for example “My husband is quiet and I struggle with feeling like he doesn’t care to talk with me.”. Being quiet is not a sin or even in and of itself negative, it’s just a common difficulty within marriage.
§ Types of sharing that takes discerning knowledge of your own marriage and spouse. (NOTE: If you feel your spouse would not like you to be sharing certain struggles in such a public context then I would suggest finding a trusted godly counselor and/or friend to talk through things. Please do this! Or feel free to share in the group that you are having struggles and need to find someone to talk with one-on-one. One of the leaders or elders’ wives will approach you with the aim to help, or get you connected with someone who can.)
-Unhealthy dynamics in the marriage in which both have sin that contributed to the unhealth of the marriage.
-Issues or dynamics in your marriage that you are emotionally confused or distressed about.
-Issues of physical or sexual abuse.
With all this in mind there are 3 Questions to ask oneself before sharing in a group setting:
- Is my motive one of pride or showing off my marriage in order to glorify myself?
- If my marriage is going well, will my sharing be encouraging and helpful to those who are struggling, paving the way for them to struggle openly as opposed to setting up the illusion that the norm for marriages is one that lacks struggle or difficulties? (NOTE: understand that there IS a time and way to share victories and the blessings of marriage. My point is to be diligent to search your heart and motives, and to think through carefully how you share those things so that they will open the way for further more difficult sharing). Ephesians 4:29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.
- Is my motive one of anger or bitterness with the desire to tear down my husband or do I have a genuine desire to see my husband repent and be forgiven? Piggy back question: Do I have a genuine desire to see my OWN wrong in the marriage and repent and be forgiven? (NOTE: If you DO have anger because of real pain, share THAT fact instead of the sins of your husband. Share you are hurting and angry in your marriage and in need of healing and repentance. The details of that should probably be worked through in a one-on-one counselor setting. Those listening, keep in mind that there are always two sides to a story and do not jump to conclusions or try to discern fault. Just pray for healing and sanctification. Proverbs 18:17 The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.)
One Last Question
After going through this with your group I would encourage you to ask “what makes sharing transparently particularly difficult for you?” Sometimes just talking about how hard it can be to talk about hard things can break the ice and open the door for this to actually happen.
Scripture to Ponder
A few passages that were in mind as I wrote this piece, along with the verse’s dispersed throughout, are: Roman’s 12:3-15 and Colossians 3:12-17. These passages both speak of how the body is supposed to relate to one another and what we are to do for each other. May our small groups reflect and live out these passages.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.