by Scarlet Hiltibidal
I had just started taking brain medicine again for my hyperventilations. I’d grown up with anxiety—anxiety that was so crippling at times that it landed me in the hospital as a child and in urgent care as an adult. Anxiety that had led me, during one season, to step out of a small group leadership position because I didn’t feel capable of leading.
So, I was dealing with debilitating panic (again) in this particular season. I found myself (again) in an office with a sound machine, (again) picking up a prescription that would, as I knew from some experience, help me stop panicking. My response to all these anxiety-related agains was to become very hermit-like and refuse to tell people about my situation.
I felt ashamed. Leading a small group again was the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, I just attended one and mostly kept my mouth shut.
But, here’s the beautiful thing. When I finally opened my mouth and shared my struggle, I wasn’t mocked or shunned and kicked out of the group. I was given grace and love. A moment of vulnerability that could have caused yet another run of panic instead brought peace. It was special and powerful.
If you are a small group leader who struggles with anxiety or panic disorders, or if you lead people who do (chances are this is always the case), here are three things I’d encourage you to keep in mind as you lead your group.
Lead with Vulnerability
A former pastor of mine, Josh Howerton, spoke a lot about “going below the line of shame.” He would encourage our congregation, as they met together in small groups throughout the week, to share, not just surfacey or relateable struggles, but to go below that line we all have, the line that makes us question, If I share this, will I still be accepted? Will I still be loved?
The reason he encouraged this in our church body was because he knew the truth and beauty of a Biblical community centered around applying the gospel and living in the light.
“But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” — 1 John 1:7
This is completely transformational — believers exposing and turning from their sin in Biblical community. We should share our sins, our struggles and the “agains” that are trying to crush our hearts.
When I was walking through that season of medicating my panic and trying to hide it, I finally decided to share. It felt impossible to even let the words leave my mouth, because I assumed I was more broken than everyone else in the room.
But, my small group surprised me by not being surprised. Instead, they were kind and loving, and my willingness to share about this struggle that embarrassed me, prompted others to share theirs.
If you are the group leader and anxiety is an issue in your life, sharing it really sets the tone for your group to look to you, not as a “perfect” or “together” leader, but as a co-laborer who understands struggle, just like they do.
Lead with Hope
In the past, I’ve been part of unhealthy small groups that were basically clusters of people who would open in prayer, complain for fifteen minutes each, and say, “See you next week!”
It is so healthy to share struggles within the context of a small group, but it is vital that the tone of the group be one of gospel hope and encouragement. As a small group leader, you can be intentional about steering your group members away from negativity and toward hope.
If they battle anxiety, your group can spend some time sharing verses of comfort and hope. I would also encourage group leaders to make it a point to always end your time together reflecting on the finished work of Jesus..
This is what our lives are about and this is the way we should lead one another — to share our burdens, but look to the cross.
Lead by Listening
I think it’s really important for a group leader to be open and share struggles, as a way of encouraging other members of the group to do the same, but a group leader should definitely not be the only person talking.
Once you’ve shared your own struggles and how you apply the gospel to it, listen to the other members of your group. Let them process through their feelings and questions, but don’t just leave it there. Don’t simply wrap it up with a “Let’s pray.” In a small group setting, you have this beautiful opportunity to take sin and struggles of all kinds to the Bible. You have this guide that we hide in our hearts. Share the worries. Then, share the Word.
Don’t be afraid to confess your struggles, and always, always, always, point your own self and your people to the hope of the world, our Jesus, who died to defeat everything we’re afraid of.