The Stages of a Group: How to build group cohesion
How many of us when we start to meet with a group of people, we experience either a great connection or a flop? Often, we begin to look at ourselves and wonder what if this was really what we were supposed to do. Don’t worry, don’t get stressed. What we have found is that groups experience a natural outworking of how much they desire to stick together. The term is called group cohesion, which is basically how sticky they are. Larry Osborne has a book called “Sticky Church” and the process that Osborne promotes the most as to how sticky a church will be is through their small groups. Osborne says, “Anytime a group of friends commit to gather together to share their lives, pray, and discuss the biblical text and life application…good stuff happens.” The gathering together is how a group becomes cohesive with one another. What is interesting though is that this just doesn’t automatically happen. There are times when groups stick and times when they don’t. I believe though that we have false expectations about when stickiness occurs, and this can help us to take the pressure off of ourselves and have real conversations about how to navigate groups.
Tuckman and Jensen (presented in Baron and Kerr’s Group Process, Group Decision, and Group Action) have a staged process that they share that a group experiences over a period of time that shows how they become cohesive. I want to share their process points and give practical application for how this works within groups.
1. Forming Stage. During this stage, Tuckman and Jensen says that group members are most concerned about how they are accepted, and it is a time of information-seeking of the group members. Think about this when you are starting a group or adding new people into your group, they are determining how they will like the group and how they will feel accepted into the group. This is important for how we welcome new people into groups. We don’t embarrass them by any means, but we encourage them to build connections with people in the groups. For new groups that just started, many times this can be a frustrating stage as everyone is getting to know each other. We can also take this time very personally if someone doesn’t return to a group after their first few tries. Here’s the reality, not everyone is going to gel with you or with everyone in the group. Yes, we are bound together by the Holy Spirit as believers, but there are times when personalities clash, even within the first meeting. The best thing you can do is spend some time in evaluation: did we do something to embarrass them? Is there something that is noticeably different in who we are as a group? Did we do anything to make them feel unwanted? If you can answer those questions in full assurance that you did all you could do, then don’t worry. Do offer to help them to find another group where they may connect.
2. Storming Stage. Tuckman and Jensen say that during this stage, that as members begin to feel more secure, there can be conflicts to arise as people vie for power or confront their differences. As your group continues to meet, there are going to be times when personalities or opinions begin to clash. It may be that someone begins to dominate the conversation in the group that makes everyone uncomfortable. Or it may be that someone is experiencing an issue with what is being taught and rather than submit to the Scripture, they try to have everyone agree with their personal interpretation to justify their actions. This is where the group can experience, to bluntly state it, awkward conversations. I know that we all want to sit around the circle singing kumbaya, but the reality is that there can be some group defining moments here that can either ostracize group members or help them to become even stickier. In fact, I believe that a group that goes through conflict actually grows the most together during their stickiness. One expert on group dynamics states that groups of people band together the most around a purpose or around a mission to fight. How true this is within groups! When we have these moments of conflict, the best action to take is to rally around our purpose: The Great Commission as we are making disciples through even conflict and to help people understand that our group is going to fight for one another, especially through conflict. Now I wish I could tell you that everyone makes the journey in this stage, but the reality is that there will be some that will run away when conflict arises, or they will look for another group to justify their personality or problems. But those that make it through the storm, they truly begin to grow with one another and see the group as a place for their growth through any more storms that arise. It won’t be the last storm of the group, but the group begins to learn how to lock arms together even more.
3. Norming Stage. From the storming stage, the next two stages are intertwined. Tuckman and Jensen present that the next stage is the norming stage, which is when a group develops roles and procedures, basically social norms for how the group is going to operate. Baron and Kerr affirm that when a group reaches this stage, hostility and conflict is deescalated and cohesion increases even more. Therefore, group members begin to take up roles within the group as active participants and see their lives more dependent upon the group and its members. I like to think of this and the next stage as the sweet times for a group. They are building life-long friendships that have weathered storms together and their lives are interacting more on a daily basis. I think about the early church in Acts 2 as they demonstrated this norming period of roles and how the people were interacting with one another. Now when new people come to the group, they are learning the group norms and see now just how they are accepted into the group, but they learn the norms of the group. They are learning their roles within the group beyond just being an attendee.
4. Performing Stage. Tuckman and Jensen say that in this stage the group can begin to address more effectively its various group goals. The purpose of the group is clear and even challenged among each other for its embodiment. The reason that this is intertwined so much with the third stage of norming is that as the group has formed roles, the roles are designed to execute the purpose of the group. For our purposes, this statement means that a group learns together how to live out The Great Commission. They learn how to care for one another, how to serve one another, how to share the gospel, and how to live consistently in biblical community.
5. Adjournment (Deforming) Stage. The final stage that Tuckman and Jensen presents is the adjournment stage that occurs when the group is ready to disband. In this time, the group is emotionally prepared to separate or has reached its goal. While we can look at this stage and get depressed, there is a positive perspective to have at this time. First, if a group has done its mission of living out the Great Commission, it will send more people than it gathers. In fact, a healthy group will walk through all of these stages and then be at a place where they are ready to form again with new people. This is the call of the church to grow in perpetuity. We are to constantly learn together how to live out our mission and then to go and express our faith in a way that people desire to join biblical community as well. Yes, there are times when groups disband. Yet, once again, if we are doing our role as helping to connect biblical community, it doesn’t have to be a disbanding to stop being in groups, rather it becomes a sending to be on mission. This is why starting groups, not with the purpose of dividing a group, rather to start to form new groups, is essential to growing a body of believers spiritually and numerically.
While this is a model and a theory of group stages, meaning that it is not the final word on groups, seeing where your group is can be a definite help to understand expectations and experiences. The reality is that your group can move beyond stages and will even work through some quicker than others. There can even be groups that get stuck in one stage versus another. Seeing what may be happening can give an indication of where your group needs to work on to take the next step!
Enjoy and grow together!