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4 Boundaries for Emotionally Safe Groups

The most important job of a small group leader is to maintain healthy boundaries that keep the group emotionally safe for everyone. 

If the group is safe then people will confess their struggles, which opens the way for them to receive healing and strength from the Lord (James 5:16).

What is it like to be safe in a small group?

When you ask a question instead of feeling stupid you are respected as a fellow student of Jesus’ and everyone learns through discussion. 

When you share vulnerably nobody changes the subject or gives a “heady” response. Rather you feel listened to, understood, and cared for. When we love one another like this then God dwells deeply within us and we are shaped by the perfect love of Christ Jesus (1 John 4:11-12 MSG).

Let’s look at four group guidelines that foster emotional safety. (These are some of the guidelines for groups that we feature in the Leader Guide for Journey of the Soul.)

1. Keep confidentiality 
The most important group guideline is to protect people’s personal information by keeping it secret. This needs to be stated and re-stated to all the group members. Gossip destroys trust. 

2. Share personally
Often in small groups when it’s someone’s turn to share they give their opinion, teach their insights, or talk about other people. That shuts down vulnerability and trust. Instead, group members need to use “I statements” that invite others to understand how they’re feeling or what they’re praying about. 

In Twelve Step recovery groups, this is called sharing your experience, strength, and hope. 

Group leaders can set the tone of emotionally honest faith by going first and sharing their personal struggles and prayer need. Then others in the group can follow in those tracks. 

This is why we say the most important share in a small group meeting is the first one. 

3. It’s okay to pass
No one in a group should feel pressured to share. Some people are hesitant to jump in and need time to observe and get comfortable. They need explicit permission and blessing to listen and wait till a later time when they may be ready to share. 

4. Listen with empathy — don’t give advice
In past small groups, you may have experienced some people dominating, spouting opinions, or trying to fix problems with reassurance or Bible verses. To minimize these disruptions the group leader needs to set and re-set the boundary that members refrain from giving advice and be “quick to listen” with a soft heart (James 1:19).

Empathy facilitates group bonding, Scripture meditation, and experiences of care from God that change us to become more like Jesus.

Reading Journey of the Soul with some friends will help you and your friends to follow Jesus into greater health emotionally and spiritually. The companion Leader Guide walks you step-by-step in how to lead others through the book. 

Join with other small group leaders and soul friends in Bill and Kristi’s upcoming webinar on “Group Shepherding.” You’ll learn the keys to leading a healthy group or conversation, like offering prayerful empathy and guiding people according to their CHRIST stage of faith. 


Listen to this week’s SoulTalk episode: Kristi shares a story from early on in her and Bill’s relationship. She took courage from a wise counselor and friend, Dr. David Stoop, to act on a truth about herself that was difficult to believe. Bill and Kristi unpack the importance of processing thoughts and feelings with someone else in order to face fears and build confidence.


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