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 about marital problems or their sick Aunt Melba didn't exactly foster openness and authentic fellowship. So the problem continued.
After a while, 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 at Psychologytoday.com titled "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. Women are emotional creatures, so we need an environment to let those emotions out. Women's small groups provide such an environment.
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. On the contrary, women need female friends to support them and encourage them when times are hard. 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.
A friend of mine recently shared with me her own small group's struggle with bitterness. They were studying 1 Corinthians, but each week the conversation somehow deteriorated into complaining about their church. After awhile, this complaining became a kind of default mode, a rut in which the Bible study was lodged. The women fed on one another, the complaining continued, and they didn't learn from it or grow out of it.
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?
Next week I'll offer some suggestions of my own, but before then, I'd love to hear yours!