Small group Bible studies are a joy to lead. Any chance to study Scripture in community is a gift. But they can also be challenging to lead, particularly if you have a difficult group member.
Perhaps this person has a lot of strong opinions and she’s decided this group is the best place to air them all. Maybe she overshares personal information or always directs the conversation back to herself. She might gossip, revealing inappropriate information about others under the guise of a prayer request. Or perhaps she dominates the conversation, not leaving space for anyone else to speak. Am I making any leaders squirm yet?
As I’ve trained leaders to handle these challenging situations, I’ve found three principles helpful.
1. Set Firm Boundaries
Establishing standards and expectations from the beginning is loving. This gives something tangible to refer back to when boundaries are tested. And it creates an opportunity to clearly address problems like gossip, talking over one another, or disregarding Scripture.
Establishing standards and expectations from the beginning is loving.
Although boundaries are ideally established from the start, if you’re leading an existing small group, it’s never too late. Look for a natural place to introduce boundaries, like after a summer break, at the start of a new year, or when changing your topic of study.
One way to set boundaries is to create a written group agreement and have everyone sign it. Another option is to write it out in an email and ask all participants to reply to indicate they’ve read it. Or you might just have the conversation verbally. Consider the dynamics of your group and what would be most loving and effective in your situation.
2. Extend Grace
When you have a difficult member in your group, it can be easy to focus on the challenges he or she creates for you as the leader. Take a deep breath and ask God to help you see the bigger picture. Let’s think through a few reasons someone may be a difficult group member:
- She’s lonely, lacking other community, and expressing her desire for connection in unhealthy ways.
- She’s an immature Christian (or not a Christian at all), lacking the fruit of the Spirit.
- She’s struggling with a mental or emotional disorder which may inhibit her ability to function appropriately in the group.
- She’s been hurt by a community in the past.
What do all these situations have in common? They describe people who need the grace and kindness of God as much as you do. If you discover your difficult group member has one of these deeper concerns, let it inform how you approach her. Exercise wisdom based on her particular circumstances, and seek to extend the same compassion and grace you’ve received from the Lord.
3. Have a Conversation
Extending grace doesn’t mean allowing inappropriate behavior to continue unchecked. When a boundary has been repeatedly crossed, it’s time to speak with the person and address the issue clearly.
Extending grace doesn’t mean allowing inappropriate behavior to continue unchecked.
Confronting others makes my palms sweat. Perhaps it makes you uncomfortable too. But lovingly correcting a brother or sister is a biblical call we must take seriously, particularly as leaders (2 Tim. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:15).
Here’s how you might approach the conversation depending on the issue you need to address.
If someone constantly dominates the conversation, you have the freedom and responsibility as the leader to redirect the discussion during group time: “Hey ____, thanks for your thoughts. Let’s take a moment to hear from ____ about this topic.”
In a private conversation with the group member, specifically describe her negative behavior. Encourage her to hone her gifts by looking out for those who are shy or not engaging and to use her voice to cheer on others whose voices aren’t being heard.
Your group needs to be a refuge for sharing struggles, not a place for gossip to fester. Toxic Sharers may divulge too much information about themselves or others in the group, or they might share other members’ prayer requests with people outside the group. All of this must be snuffed out immediately. Don’t shy away from quickly redirecting the conversation during a group meeting, even if it feels awkward.
As with the Conversation Dominator, you should have a private conversation with the Toxic Sharer where you describe her negative behavior. Acknowledge her need to feel seen and heard, and give her examples of appropriate ways to handle sensitive information in the future.
One Who Needs to Leave
What if you’ve had multiple conversations with a difficult group member and brought another believer with you to confront her, yet she’s still unwilling to change? At this point, we’re talking about blatant disregard for the boundaries and well-being of the group. Set up a time to meet with the person in a public space, potentially with a mediator, and include the following in your conversation:
- A specific description of the unrepentant sinful behavior
- A clear request for the person to leave the group, effective immediately
- A sincere commitment to pray for her
It’s important to remember that we as imperfect humans will never adhere to standards and expectations perfectly, whether as group members or as leaders. But by God’s grace, we can seek to maintain a healthy, God-honoring atmosphere in our small groups.
When you encounter a difficult member in your group, I encourage you to pray through your approach, seek the wisdom of your pastor or ministry leader, and avoid the pitfalls of inaction or anger. May our good and merciful God be glorified in how we handle the difficult group members in our care.