Stages of Small Group Life
If you’ve been a member of a small group in a church for any length of time – a Bible study group, a staff team, a project group, or any other type of group – you’ll have noticed that groups change!
Why do groups change so much?
Is the change bad? Is it better to stay the same?
What leads to change? What hinders it?
The stages of group life described here are based on the group development model of Bruce Tuckman. Tuckman was a researcher in educational psychology who first published his work in a well-known 1965 article in Psychological Bulletin, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.” He re-visited the topic in a subsequent publication in 1977 and his stages have been the focus of much discussion and research since!
Small groups in churches involve many of the same interpersonal transitions as groups in other contexts; Group members grow in their knowledge of, and confidence in, each other leading to better group functioning and better outcomes. As such, the stages below, a variation of Tuckman’s original proposition, reflect he typical pattern of small groups in church contexts, and help us understand the changes in the groups we lead or of which we’re a part.
In the beginning of group life, lots of behaviour is driven by a desire to be accepted by the other members of the group, and to determine the accepted boundaries of behaviour, topic, degree of personal sharing, etc. Generally speaking controversial topics are avoided, there is less push-back when members disagree. In fact often members will remain silent even if they disagree quite strongly with what another group member is saying.
Issues of a serious nature and discussion of deep feelings rarely come up in conversation. People typically focus on being busy with routines; how the group will run, who will take what role, etc. This is a comfortable stage to be in, but the avoidance of conflict generally means that the goals of the group, Bible study, discipleship, or some ministry task, are not met very effectively. Neither does a group in which only surface, less important issues get dealt with reflect the reality of the lives of its members which are almost certainly very complex, with various conflicting and opposing values and beliefs.
Groups will return to the Forming stage in some ways and for a period of time when new members join, members leave, a change of leadership occurs, or even when there’s a change in the venue or time of meeting. Not all aspects of the group return to where they were at the beginning, nor to the same degree for each member. One member may flatly contradict everyone as he has become accustomed to doing! And this may appear incredibly rude to a new member of the group the first time they observe it. This highlights the challenge faced by new people joining existing groups, and demonstrates why groups with very long histories (I’ve known church small groups which have been meeting for 20+ years) usually struggle to incorporate new members.
In the Storming stage, different ideas and priorities compete for consideration. Group members open up to each other and progressively make themselves more vulnerable. There is an increase in conflict within the group as alternative and competing ideas are presented by different members and will be tested by the group.
The maturity of the group and the leaders will determine how (even if) the group ever leaves the Storming phase. If the group members (with their leaders’ leadership) are never able to leave behind the “safe” issues and trite answers of the Forming and Storming stages, and if real issues are never tackled in an open and honest way, then this stage is as far as a group will get. If leaders are content with a particular level of group dynamic and performance (perhaps because of their own insecurities or lack of confidence in their leadership abilities), then they may interfere with the growth of the group and hinder it moving towards a higher level of performance and relationship. For groups that are focussed around a particular task, ie planning an event, developing a ministry area, etc, the effectiveness of the outcome will be limited if the group can’t move past the levels of interaction in the Storming stage.
The Storming stage is difficult for those members of the group who dislike conflict. Leaders must welcome, (but not necessarily accept) all members’ contributions and ideas or else the group can become toxic. Group members need to feel safe to share their ideas and opinions, even if the group decides not to adopt or endorse them. The exposure of unhealthy patterns of leadership in many churches that have come to light in recent years demonstrates the importance of open discussion, godly disagreement, and a constant coming back to the Bible together to ensure we’re rightly hearing God speak to us.
As group members become more confident and familiar with each other, the group sets the “norms” for how it will function. This occurs in part by group members testing the boundaries of what is (or will be) acceptable behaviour, topics for discussion, etc. Statements about the group like: “Our group exists to …” or “In our group we …” are determined in this stage so that by the end of the Norming stage, every member can complete those statements for themselves in a way that the other members will agree with. These might not be every member’s individual preference for the group, but it is the group’s collective understanding.
Don’t be alarmed if the group seems to be working and relating well, then all of a sudden, someone complains about an aspect of group life or asks a question like, “Why can’t we do … ?” This simply reflects that fact that a norm has been determined, and one member is suggesting an alternative, because they’re confident and open enough to express their true opinions and feelings!
The questions of “Who does what?” are settled in the Norming stage as relational “rules” and group patterns are worked out, either by volunteering, direction, coercion or trial and error! Who leads the study? Who makes the coffee? Who answers the questions first? Who has the last word? These group norms are set during this stage. You will see that some of these sorts of questions are likely decided by the leader, others by group choice, and others by default pattern!
By the end of the Norming phase all members have taken on board some level of personal responsibility for the goals and success of the group.
Performing is when the group just gets on and does what it is supposed to do! The combined energies o group members are focussed well on the task at hand. The Bible study or task work happens according to the norms established in the previous stage. Differing or conflicting viewpoints are voiced, sometimes even encouraged, and the methods of resolution decided on and expected by the group are employed. In this stage, roles often become more flexible; eg the person who previously wanted to keep the “giving the final answer to the question” role for themselves is now comfortable and secure enough to allow others to take on that role.
The responsibility for maintaining group life is usually shared by all members (to differing degrees) during the Performing stage. For most of our groups, the majority of the time together (ie calendar year, project term, etc) will be spent in the Performing stage.
Challenges faced by groups in the Performing stage are those caused by boredom, familiarity with process and routine, unresolved conflicts between group members and agreed norms that are ambiguous, or that, with time, have become unhelpful or unnecessary.
Joe used to fulfil his role as host by making people coffee when they arrived at Bible Study. 6 months in, everyone knows how to operate the coffee machine and makes their own. Joe no longer has an identifiable role in the group and so is suggesting all kinds of change, to feel that he is making a contribution. The other group members don’t want those changes and they start to resent Joe’s suggestions.
This is a case of a difference among group members around the flexibility of roles. Some have embraced flexibility, and one has not! Groups must be prepared for some “Re-Norming” to cater for these challenges and disagreements as they arise.
Groups need to finish well for the benefit of the leaders, the members, and for the groups that the leaders and members will be in the following year. Unresolved issues from one group in one year can poison a whole other group the following year.
Although Mourning suggests a mostly negative or difficult time, hopefully most of this stage is a positive time. Group leaders are key in making sure that the Mourning stage is still used to work towards the goal of the group, whether that be growth and maturity through Bible study, the delivery of an event, growth of a ministry area, etc. Groups that reflect on questions like; What are the joys and sorrows that have been shared in the group? What prayers have been prayed? What answers to prayer have we seen? What did we learn together? “Do you remember when …” are much more likely to maintain effectiveness during the mourning phase. Mourning doesn’t just happen in the very last group meeting, but depending on the age of the group, can take place over weeks or even months.
A particular element of Mourning may be the sending off of group members who will be leaving the group at the end of the year (ie youth group members moving into the next age group, or group members who will be starting a new group), or acknowledging those who will be serving as leaders in new groups in the future.
These stages of group life are one of the reasons why groups with irregular attendance struggle to be effective. If one member is only present one meeting out of three, they will be a lot further behind in adopting group norms, and might constantly be wondering (or asking) “Why are we doing that? Could we do this? Do we really think that?” to the frustration of the other members!
Since group members’ behaviour is shaped by the group, when attendance changes and other members are either present or absent, the behaviour, openness, and vulnerability of the more consistent members also changes. This sets up a constant pattern of re-forming from which the group might never escape as long as attendance is irregular.
Some reflections on starting groups well:
1. What do the Scriptures say about how this group should relate and interact?
2. What will do you do in the first meetings of your group to ensure that the group begins to form well?
3. What are people’s expectations of this small group?
4. What will/won’t happen in your group (every/nearly every week?)
5. What are some group building activities that you will use?