How to Respond to Pain as a Group Leader

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Pain is a natural part of living in a fallen world. Even those who live in relative comfort have been touched by some form of suffering or loss. As such, if a small group doesn’t discuss pain, it is often because we don’t know how to address it. As leaders, we have the opportunity and responsibility to normalize the experience of suffering in our groups and to offer hope.

It’s okay to not be okay

Is this true in your group? If so, does every member know it? Often, the answer depends on your willingness to be real and vulnerable. If you are honest about when you’re not okay, it gives permission to the rest of the group to take down defenses and share their pain as well. It is also helpful to remind the group often that you intend for your group to be a safe space to share what is really going on.

Listen and practice empathy

When someone shares a painful experience for the first time, there is rarely a better response than simply listening and validating. To practice true empathy, we must allow space for people to share their hurts without making assumptions, offering solutions, or trying to take the pain away. I’ve often heard from counselors that Job’s friends were doing everything right until they opened their mouths. When we give a response right away, we often respond out of our own discomfort. As Rachel Held Evans wrote, “To sit in that pain together is to put ourselves in an extremely vulnerable position…and I know what it’s like to want desperately to try and ease the tension and make it easier by quoting Philippians 4:13 or urging everyone to look on ‘the bright side.’” The video below from Brené Brown does an excellent job of explaining the importance of an empathetic response:

Pray

Many small groups develop their own liturgy of a group, and typically prayer is reserved for the end. When pain or loss is shared, though, we must be willing to pause, listen, and pray. Even in prayer, it is important to reflect what the group member shared rather than make your own assumptions about their situation or next steps.

Respond

When we hear someone’s story of pain, our tendency is to try to dosomething. To saysomething. To do anything we can to be helpful. This is a good response, but only after we listen and afterwe pray. In the days and weeks that follow, it is essential for the group and leader to follow up and offer support. Send a text message or a card. Offer meals or babysitting. Also, instead of asking “What do you need?”, ask “Can we ____?”. For the person in pain, the thought of a warm meal or someone to accompany them to appointments may not even cross their mind until it is offered. 

If your church offers additional resources like counseling or support/recovery groups, familiarize yourself with them and have contact information ready. It may even be helpful to offer to go with them to apply or attend their first meeting.

It is important to be prepared to respond to those who are suffering, especially in a small group setting. Crises like divorce, death, job loss, and severe medical diagnoses occur in our churches on a regular basis, and when they come, a small group should be a place of refuge for the broken. According to Steve Gladen, “We need to expect suffering not only in our own lives but also in the lives of others. As a leader, be patient and faithful in both circumstances.”

For more on supporting those experiencing suffering or needing extra care, read chapter 15 of Leading Small Groupswith Purpose by Steve Gladen. Other concepts shared in this article are from Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised.