Women's Small Groups: a delicate balance between head and heart
It all began with a seemingly innocent question: "Does anyone have any prayer requests?" An hour later, the prayer requests were still going strong.
For many women's small groups, this is a common occurrence. Prayer requests and even Bible study time can often turn into long-running therapy sessions in which women unload the anxieties and worries of their weeks onto a sympathetic group of listening ears.
While this is certainly a healthy function of a body of Christian believers, it becomes problematic when it dominates the small group's time. I was once a part of a small group in which we tried multiple strategies for reining in the long-winded sharers. We tried shifting our prayer request time to the beginning of the meeting, and we put time limits on how long people could share. Neither of these strategies really worked, and they instead left us feeling altogether disingenuous. Cutting people off while they were crying didn't exactly foster openness and authentic fellowship. So the problem continued.
After awhile, this aspect of women's small groups has gotten under my skin. There's a part of me (the bad Christian, nothing-like-Jesus part) that wants to stop some of these women mid-sentence and say, "If you need this much time to vent each week, hire a therapist!" However there's actually a scientific reason why emotion runs so high at women's small groups-we have a physiological need for it.
Studies show that this type of female bonding affects women in measurable, physical ways. An article featured on Psychologytoday.com entitled "Grateful Girlfriends Are the Best Stress Relievers" explains,
When women are stressed, the hormone oxytocin [known as the "love" hormone] is released as part of the stress response; it buffers the typically male "fight or flight" stress response. Oxytocin production encourages women to gather and gab with other women-and when a woman does bond with her pals, studies indicate she'll release more oxytocin, which further alleviates stress and creates tranquility.
In other words, women need this kind of interaction in a deeply physical and emotional way. In fact, God created us this way! It is a natural and healthy way of de-stressing. And that is why prayer requests or discussions about the Bible can often stray off into a kind of spiritual support group.
However, as a result of feeding into this need for emotional catharsis, many women's small groups can easily get derailed. It's not that taking the time to care for one another is wrong, or that venting sessions are somehow unproductive. But, women must be wary of letting their emotions take the lead. Emotions are not always based on truth, so without an anchor to rein in the fears and worries being voiced they can consume the entire group's time and attention.
In light of the often high-running emotions of a women's small group, how do we hold them in check? How can a leader strike a balance between saturating women with the truth of God's Word, but also providing them with the emotional support they need? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be prepared. Don't wait until the day before to read the passage or book you are studying. To be a leader is to be ahead of the group, so take the time to study the passage, and read online commentaries and devotions. If you have questions about it, ask your pastor. As women go through their week battling fear and temptation, they need to be equipped with God's Word, and it is your responsibility to help them toward that end. The women you are leading need more than a hug-they need truth.
- Guide the discussion. As a leader, it is your responsibility to monitor the direction and tone of the group. If it begins to stray into gossip, complaining, or is completely off topic, gently intervene and remind the ladies of the topic at hand.
- Make time for sharing. While small group Bible studies need to be anchored in the study of Scripture, it is still important to provide women with a chance to share their feelings. This can happen somewhat organically as you discuss biblical passages and their application for our lives, but another possible option is to set aside one meeting each month that is strictly for prayer and accountability. I led a Bible study this year in which we assigned women to permanent accountability groups of 3 to 4 women that met once a month during our regular Bible study time. Some of these groups ended up meeting more frequently outside of our group time because they enjoyed it so much. In setting aside a time each month to focus solely on prayer and accountability, we took the pressure off our other meetings to be an environment of exhaustive prayer requests and feelings.
With all of this in mind, the most important question to consider in leading a women's small group is whether or not you are teaching women to love God with both their hearts and minds. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he highlighted this teaching as the first and greatest commandment. Many small groups focus on either one or the other. There is a middle ground. A Bible study devoid of the heart produces inauthentic Christians with little love for God and others; a Bible study devoid of the mind is like a fire without a fireplace-it becomes destructive outside its created boundaries. We must be women who hold these elements in careful tension, and teach others to do the same.