You don’t have to attend many women’s Bible studies before you experience a group discussion gone spectacularly awry. Maybe you cringe in the back row while someone pontificates—again!—about her theological pet peeve. Maybe you ever-so-casually get up for a coffee refill while two participants chase each other down another doctrinal rabbit trail. Maybe you silently mouth an apology to the church visitor you innocently invited to join the rapidly deteriorating group.

These all-too-common scenarios may be awkward for participants, but they can be the stuff of nightmares for group leaders. No leader wants to alienate or shame someone in her group, but she also has to do her best to help every woman leave with a clear understanding of biblical truth. A participant can slink down in her chair. A leader has to lead.

To assist Bible study leaders when they encounter headache-inducing moments in group discussion, I (Megan Hill) asked three seasoned leaders to share their approach for neutralizing awkward moments and pointing to Christ—even when they’d rather crawl under the table. When you are leading a Bible study, what do you say or do in the following situations?

Someone’s comments veer way off the subject of the study: “Speaking of Jesus’s crucifixion week, what do you think about Christians practicing Lent? I mean, I have so many friends who do, and I just don’t know what I think about it. Who here gives up something for Lent?”

Karen Hodge: As a teacher, remember everything you say or do is teaching. A gentle answer will teach not only the person making the comment but the entire group. You can affirm that person’s desire to learn and their curiosity. You can also model that Bible study should be a safe place to bring your questions. I would say, “You know, I don’t think you are the only one who has questions about that topic. I know our goal in our study is to think biblically about all of life, so I would love to take some time one-on-one after class to talk about it.”

Vanessa Hawkins: I say, “Those are all great questions. Sometimes when I study, other interests get sparked that can lead to wonderful new places of interest and research. For the purposes of this lesson however, I’m going to ask that we do the hard work of getting all we can from our current topic: [restate the original question].”

Someone makes a dogmatic statement about something that may be a gray area: “I can’t understand all these people getting tattoos these days. Christians should never get tattoos!”

VH: At the beginning of a new Bible study, it’s helpful to set ground rules that set the tone for how the group will interact with both Scripture and each other. One such guideline might be, “Let’s work to point the gospel at our own hearts, which means we’ll do our best not to make broad, sweeping generalizations or judgments of others.” These ground rules are helpful to reference when dogmatic statements create awkwardness and stifle conversation, and they provide a way to say, “Pointing the gospel at our own hearts is so tough to do sometimes. I know it is for me. It’s easier to make observations and judgments, but I want to challenge us not to let ourselves off that easily. Let’s remember that we benefit most from the gospel when we point it at our own hearts.” Conclude by restating the original question to put the conversation back on topic.

Courtney Doctor: I might try to use it as an opportunity to explain to the whole group how our salvation isn’t dependent on what we “do” but that it’s dependent on what Christ has done, and to bring the conversation back to the topic at hand. Occasionally I might engage the actual comment if I think it would be helpful for the group.

KH: You might say, “You seem to feel very strongly about this topic. My guess is that there is a story behind your words. I look forward to hearing more about your story and getting to know you better.”

If an offense happens because a judgmental or critical comment is directed at a group member, then the leader should seek the peace and purity of the group by offering to bring women together to seek understanding and reconciliation.

Someone uses her personal experience to justify a theological point: “I had a woman pastor when I was a teenager, and she was a wonderful person who taught me so much about the Bible. I don’t understand how we can say that women shouldn’t be pastors!”

CD: I would remind the group that we don’t get to base our obedience on our experience but have to always base it on the Word of God.

VH: [Affirm them] Thank you for sharing that experience with us. [Acknowledge their experience] It sounds like this experience was helpful in your spiritual formation. [Relate] I’ve had circumstances like this in my own life. [Speak truth in love] No matter how compelling our experience is, Scripture is the final arbiter for how we are to operate in God’s world. Effectiveness and sincerity can never be the authority for what we do; it must be God’s Word. [Point them to God’s character.] I’m grateful that the Lord in his sovereign wisdom and kindness directs our spiritual formation for our good.

Someone makes comments too frequently or speaks for too long—taking up a huge amount of the discussion time.

KH: If the talker is to your left begin the next conversation by looking to your right and saying, “You know, Megan, I would love to hear your thoughts on this question.”

CD: If the problem is habitual, I typically start sitting next to the person. I like to remind the whole group that we want to hear from everyone: “If we haven’t heard much from you, please speak up! And if you’ve already answered several questions, hold off on a few so that everyone has a chance to speak.” I’ve told some groups that they should each plan on answering a certain number of questions each week, hopefully encouraging the quieter ones to speak up and the overtalkers to hold back. If the problem persists, I call the woman and explain that, while I value her participation, she is  preventing others from participating, and then I ask her to help me leave space for quieter ones to participate.

Someone directly challenges or questions your teaching in the middle of the session.

VH: Such challenges are often used to discredit the teacher and/or to show what the challenger thinks she knows. I’ve found it effective to not allow the person challenging me to put me on the spot with unrelated questions but to turn the question back to her and say, “You seem to have something you would like to contribute to this topic.” This answer gives the person the space to be heard and gives you the final word to make any necessary corrections before moving on with your lesson.

The most important part of the response in this situation is a posture of humility. Remember you’re still teaching when you engage a person who’s challenging you. It might be the most important lesson you teach in that session.

KH: You might say, “I really appreciate how you are seeking to interact with the text. I know we both sincerely desire to discern God’s truth. Would you have time after class for us to sit down and work through the text together so that we might better understand not only the text but one another’s hearts?”

Now, if you are in the wrong because you have misspoken or misquoted a verse, you have an opportunity to own up to it publicly. Everything is teaching, so a humble, winsome response will go a long way in cultivating an environment where errors can be corrected and women can truly be discipled.

Editors’ note: 

Vanessa Hawkins and Courtney Doctor will lead a microevent on “Shepherding Women in the Church” at TGC’s 2023 Conference, September 2527, in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon; price increases on May 11!