Learning to Lead a Small Group - Lesson 5

Stages of Group Life

When forming a small group, the vision and process can be determined by leadership to individuals or determined by individuals to the leadership. In the first couple meetings of the group, you set expectations and orient people to the purpose of the group. The first meetings are critical in helping people reduce uncertainty about what it means to be a part of the group and giving them reasons to be attracted to the group. Each group determines what gives people interpersonal power in the group. An important trait of group success is for people to trust and value other members of the group. When the group concludes, take time to evaluate and celebrate. 

Ron Pyle
Learning to Lead a Small Group
Lesson 5
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Stages of Group Life

I. Introduction to Group Life Stages

A. The Importance of Understanding Group Development

B. The Necessity of Adapting Leadership Styles

II. The Five Stages of Group Life

A. Forming

1. Establishing Trust

2. Setting Goals and Expectations

B. Storming

1. Navigating Conflicts

2. Encouraging Open Communication

C. Norming

1. Establishing Group Norms

2. Developing a Supportive Environment

D. Performing

1. Encouraging Collaboration

2. Empowering Members to Take Ownership

E. Adjourning

1. Celebrating Success

2. Preparing for Future Groups

III. Practical Application

A. Tips for Leading Through Each Stage

B. Adapting to Changes in Group Dynamics

  • What are small groups? Why do we have them? What does a healthy small group look like? What does the Bible have to say about the importance of small groups and what participation should look like?

  • In this lesson, you will learn the importance of small group theology, and it starts with an understanding of God's role in community. Dr. Ron Pyle explains that all of history is essentially a history of God's communal activity with humankind, starting with creation. God is the author and perfector of community, and God establishes its boundaries, identity, and future establishment of a new Jerusalem where God's people will dwell in community with one another and with God.
  • In this lesson, you learn effective small group leadership, fostering spiritual growth and supportive relationships, handling challenges, and developing future leaders.
  • What are small groups? Why do we have them? What does a healthy small group look like? People support what they are part of creating. Plan your first meeting carefully. Different distances invite different types of communication. The behavior you want to sustain, make sure you enact the first time.

  • By studying this lesson, you learn how to effectively create and implement a small group contract to establish clear expectations, improve group dynamics, and foster a supportive and productive environment.
  • Gain insight into effectively leading small groups through the five stages of group life, while learning to adapt your leadership style and navigate changing group dynamics.
  • By promoting honest sharing in small groups, you foster trust, facilitate spiritual growth, and learn effective techniques to create a safe environment, ask open-ended questions, and practice active listening.
  • By leading effective small group discussions, you foster spiritual growth, encourage participation, and create a safe environment for open sharing and deeper connections.
  • You gain insight into power dynamics in relationships, specifically within small groups, and learn to foster healthy power dynamics, ensuring a balanced, inclusive, and constructive group environment.
  • By understanding conflict management in small group leadership, you develop the skills to foster a healthy group dynamic, resolve conflicts, and maintain a positive, collaborative environment.

What relationships are important to you? How do you develop trust? How can you share in a meaningful way with others? When you experience conflict in relationship, how can you manage it in a way that will grow your relationship? What does the Bible say about the importance and purpose of a small group?

Dr. Pyle leads you through the process from planning a small group, creating a contract, the beginning meetings, leading discussions, stages of group life and managing conflict. You will benefit from his training and experience as he gives you insights into the skills you will need and the commitments you can make to lead a group well. He will also give you insight into interpersonal communication dynamics in a group situation that will help you effectively guide and motivate the people in your group to share at a deep level.

Anytime there are people involved there are no guarantees, but there are few activities more rewarding than cultivating authentic relationships in a community of faith. This is class gives you the information and motivation you will need to get a good start and finish well. Don't miss this opportunity!

Dr. Ron Pyle
Learning to Lead a Small Group
Stages of Group Life
Lesson Transcript

[00:00:02] I'm going to give you a brief description of each of the stages of group life. So here's where we start. The first stage of group life is called the pre contract stage. Like the name suggests, this is what happens before your first official meeting, before the group is together. Yet what happens is people who have a vision for groups are getting together thinking maybe we ought to have a group. Who would we invite? What might the group look like when it comes to this stage? There are fundamentally two different ways of initiating groups. Once called top down, that's where leadership already in place gives vision to a group and then invites people and recruits people to come be part of it. Top down because leaders already have a vision for what you want the group to be. And then they're bringing that to a group of people that they invite. The other fundamentally different way of initiating a group is bottom up. This is where people who may not know yet even what kind of group we want, but they know that they want to be part of something. People get together and then form something. So top down is leaders are giving a vision to people. Bottom up is people are giving vision to leaders. Got it. Successful groups can be done both ways, but at the pre-contract stage that some of what's going on. Then you come to the orientation stage. This will happen in the first meeting or perhaps to the orientation stage is where you do the work of contracting. You establish a set of expectations about what we're trying to do, orient people to the purpose of your group. There's a theory in communication called uncertainty reduction theory, and the theory makes this claim early in relational life.

[00:02:06] The single most important reason that people are communicating is to reduce uncertainty early in relational life. And this goes for 1 to 1 relationships or group relationships as well. Early in relational life, the fundamental reason that people are communicating is to reduce uncertainty. Those uncertainties come in two forms. There's something called behavioral uncertainty, which is how do I act? The first group meeting, the people who are there have behavioral uncertainty. How am I supposed to act here in this group? The second kind of uncertainty is called cognitive uncertainty. It means how am I supposed to think? What kind of people are these? Do I fit here? All this stuff, all those questions that you labeled fear is a product of the uncertainty that is so much a part of this stage orientation stage in the orientation stage, the fundamental dynamic that's happening is attraction and repelling. The fundamental dynamic that's happening is attraction and repelling. So what is it about my experience here that's attracting me to this group attraction? When I say attraction, you know, I'm not talking about physical attraction is any force that causes people to come together. So one of the fundamental questions and group members minds in the orientation stage is, is this group attractive? What is it that that would draw me to this group or repel me from it? People are trying to figure out, is this something I want to be part of? Got it. Those are dominant thoughts that are going on in members minds. The first couple of sessions is, Is this a place where I belong? Is there attraction here? What would keep me coming back? Is there something I'm repelled by? Okay, now, what about leaders? Now that you know all the uncertainty that's happening for group members, one of your main jobs as the leader is to reduce the uncertainty in ways that honor God and encourage one another.

[00:04:31] So if you know that people are asking, Do I fit here, you ought to do something to assure them that you belong here. The warm greeting helps do that. The inclusive language helps do. It helps to do that. But you're trying to address the uncertainty that the that the members have. Stage three is called power and Control. At this stage, people are trying to decide what counts in this group, what gives someone power. Interpersonal power is possessing a currency that other people value and or need to get their needs met. I'll say it again Interpersonal power is possessing a currency, and I'll talk about different currencies in just a second, possessing a currency that other people value. And or need in order to have their needs met. Interpersonal power is possessing a currency that other people value and or need in order in order to get their needs met. Now, did you get that? You caught me on a rare day in which I actually have $20 in my pocket. I know this doesn't have trust me, it doesn't happen all the time. Does this give me power? The answer is yes. The answer is it depends. It depends on whether you value this currency or not and whether you need it. If I'm standing here with Bill Gates, my holding $20 does not really give me a lot of power with him. Okay. Now, here's another thing. There are places on Earth where I can go that this is a meaningless piece of paper. It doesn't have inherent value. It has value only to the extent that other people value it and or need it. Got it. Okay. So I asked my students at school, do I have power with you? And they usually say, Well, yeah.

[00:06:50] And I say, What kind of power? They go grades. Right. And then I say, Have you ever been in class with a student who didn't care about grades? Yeah, I have. And in fact, sometimes those students learn more than the students who are all freaked out about grades. But if I'm dealing with a student who doesn't care about grades so they don't turn in homework. So I go, I'm really sorry you didn't turn in the homework, and you're going to have to get a zero on that assignment. What's she say? Okay. Because I don't really value grades. Now, the best example of this kind of power is the life of Jesus, who comes into a social structure that values things like status and prestige. So Jesus meets with the religious officials and essentially says, You don't have power with me because you don't have a currency that I value. Got it. Now, this is a really, really important moment in group life. Your group's at this stage, and this happens usually sort of third to seventh meeting. Your groups are trying to figure out what gives somebody power in this group. What's the currency that people value? If you have a Bible study group, a currency that people value might be biblical knowledge. So what you'll see at this stage when people are vying for different kinds of power, what you'll see is people demonstrating biblical knowledge. The biblical not hear this clearly. The biblical knowledge does not necessarily give them power. It only gives them power if the people with them value it. Early in group life members are trying to figure out what kind of power currencies do I have that I can bring to this group and that other people value? What kind of power currencies do other people have that might enrich my experience? Got it goes both ways.

[00:08:58] Biblical knowledge is only one kind of power. It's a very specific kind of power. Here's another relational skill. If you're in a group that has a relational component to it and you've got a person in your group who's really good at listening and drawing people out and leaving people feeling affirmed and significant and valuable, that's a currency a lot of people value that gives that person a kind of power in your group. Now, if I had more time, I would tell you all about membership rules and how membership rules develop. But here's the truth. Early in group life, there's a fantastic, interesting process called bidding that goes on, and it's not literal bidding on a roll. But what people do is try out different power currencies to see, does this matter here? So you'll see things like this early in the second or third meeting. Somebody comes in and is the jokester. They make jokes. And if other people laugh and seem to appreciate that they've successfully bid on a roll. That said, I'm the Joker. Because joking is valued in this group. Being witty is a currency that people recognize when that happens. What you can expect next is other people will also do that currency or that person will repeat that currency over and over. Because here's a rule that they have now. See how it goes. Now, you should not assume that all power currency is power is positive. What you'll tend to see early in group life is some people playing the role of the isolate. This is the person who sits in the back won't really get involved. Well, what they're doing is trying to see what will people do if I do that? If you have an isolate a person who doesn't demonstrate much integration and the rest of the group falls all over themselves trying to get this person involved, what you've told them is you have a currency that we value.

[00:11:02] If you isolate yourself, we're going to come after you like crazy. Oh, won't you please share your insight with the group? I know. And and you get all this attention. Well, there's a currency that your group has said counts. This matters. So one of the things as a leader you can do is have your eyes open to the kinds of occurrences that matter to this group. The currencies that you want to maintain a firm them like crazy. Your group next might enter the trust stage. Here's your key. Healthy small groups that survive for any length of time must reach this stage. The power control stage will tend to happen. You know, about the third or fourth, maybe up to the sixth week. After that, your group will reach the trust stage, or you won't. And if you don't ever reach the trust stage, the chance that your group is going to survive is not very good. So here's a stage at which the issue ceases to be so much me and my power and what I can get, and it becomes us. What can we together experience? Because we've come to trust one another. Now, let's have a quick word from you about behaviors or experiences that build trust. What have you experienced in group life that helps you trust the people in your group? Somebody else. Yeah. Where somebody dares to be honest. You remember that Sunday school class I was telling you about? The one about relationships. One of the principles that we enacted was 5 minutes sharing. So before each session, we asked somebody in the group to spend 5 minutes sharing whatever you want about your life, your path, your journey, what God's doing with you now, Completely up to you.

[00:13:05] Well, what happened was people started telling the truth to each other right there in church, which for a lot of us is like the least likely place for that to happen. So. So one day this woman is doing five minute sharing and she goes, You know what? I've been struggling with depression for a long time. I felt so guilty thinking if I was a better Christian, I wouldn't be depressed. And then, you know what? I saw a doctor and discovered there was a chemical reason behind my depression. And I got on these antidepressants. And you know what? The world kind of looked better when she told the truth about her depression. After that session, there were a whole group of people around her saying, thank God somebody finally told the truth about depression in the church when she risked to tell the truth. It built all kinds of trust for people now who all of a sudden had the courage. Maybe I can tell the truth, too. When you're in the trust stage, one of the most important things that happens is called validating. Validating. You validate another's experience by honoring it as their experience. You validate another by honoring their experience as being real and powerful to them. Here, this clearly validation does not mean you agree with them. It's saying I respect what you have going on in your thoughts and feelings and recognize it as real to you. It goes like this. You know, a 14 year old girl who had her first romance and this precious child got her heart broken. So she risks enough to tell you what happened. And she's crying about this romance that is now gone. One thing you could say is shape up year 14, for goodness sakes, get over it.

[00:15:11] Boys are like busses. Another one will come along in 10 minutes. Probably get you farther than the first one can. You could do that. That will not tend to build a lot of trust. But here this. You might even be true. You might even tell the truth. But it's not going to build much trust. To validate her experience is to say, Oh my gosh, that sounds painful. That's something you want to talk about. Now, you don't have to agree with her assessment of the devastation of her life, but to validate her experience is something that tends to build trust. So a theory of relationship development. That's called social penetration theory. The fundamental assumption of social penetration theory is people are kind of like onions we have outside easily accessed. Aspects of our life. Those aren't very risky to share. I live in the North End is an example. Didn't take a tremendous amount of risk for me to share that. When it comes to trust. I'm fairly sure that's a safe topic. But when I saw this is the level of sharing about facts. Now some facts are risky. I was abused when I was a child is a risky fact. So hear that. But lots of facts aren't that risky to share. They're relatively safe. When I come to opinions, those can be a little riskier because now it's not some objective fact. This is how I feel about something or how I think about something. The next level in is about feelings. How I feel about something is riskier than the opinion. My dear wife is the one who taught me this. So I told you I was a youth pastor before I was a college professor. I was 22 years old, directing a big, big youth ministry in Seattle.

[00:17:38] I didn't know what I was doing, and I wasn't very good at it either. But we went to this meeting where the adult support Committee behind me was shooting down ideas. It felt to me like everything I thought of to help this ministry advance. People were critical of We're driving home. And my wife goes, Hey, how did you feel about what Tom said tonight? Do you notice? Her question was, How do you feel about it? She was asking me to go to this level. What I said was, I think Tom's an idiot. Now that's. What's that? It's an opinion. It's an opinion about Tom came to mind my. It might have been effective. My wife said, How did you feel about it? And I answered with an opinion. That's pretty typical for a lot of us, especially those of us who maybe not so in touch with our feelings. So Julie goes, I'm interested in your opinion. The question I asked you, though, is how you felt about it. And honestly, I went like this felt. How I felt about it. And it took me a while to get to how I felt. Eventually, I could say, you know, it felt embarrassing. It felt discouraging. Right now, I'm getting to the feeling part of it. Now, here's the thing about the trust stage and what social penetration theory tells us. It tells us if you get if you get punished, if you incur too many relational costs for sharing at the fact level, you probably won't even go there. But if you get rewarded for it, if you experience relational rewards for sharing facts, you might begin to share opinions. If you get punished for sharing opinions, then you're going to back up and stay with facts because they're more safe.

[00:19:53] But if you get rewarded for sharing the opinions, you might go to feelings. That happens in Christian small groups a lot. Let me teach you a really important idea. That word says next thing. Next thing is a word you might not be familiar with. Next thing is a communication principle that says the most important move you make in any relationship is the next one. The most important move you make in any relationship is the next one. There is no relationship that is so far gone and so far damaged that it can't be helped with a good next move. And there's no relationship that is so solid and secure it can't be damaged by a bad next move. The most important thing you do in any relationship is the next thing. Okay, So somebody says, you know, I know the Bible says pray without ceasing, but I do a really lousy job of that. Now, what's the group say? The next thing they say will either be a reward or a cost for that disclosure. If they get judged and condemned for telling the truth about their prayer life, you should not expect them to share at that level again, because what you've told them is it's not safe to tell the truth. This stage can last for a long, long time, can last for years. If that's the reality you create together. So healthy groups will get to this stage and stay there for a long time. If you continue to enact health, your group eventually might come to a stage that we call differentiation. Here, the key issue is change. This is what happens when group members feel like I need to change my role in the group, or the group as a whole believes we need to change the direction of our group.

[00:22:01] It's kind of like parenting. The differentiation stage is when your kids are moving out and becoming independent of you. That doesn't mean they hate you. That doesn't mean you are a bad parent. It means your relationship needs to change. They're becoming adults and you're smart. If you can come alongside and treat them more like adults now. That's differentiation in families, in small groups. Differentiation is a normal stage. So when people express dissatisfaction with where the group is, this isn't working so well for me anymore. You it's not because you failed necessarily. You might have done something that wasn't very helpful, but it's not because you failed necessarily. It's a natural stage in group life, so don't freak out when it happens. What you can do is some of the things that this group said Be smart in how you usher your group through this process. Be honest. Don't assume that you failed. And that's why the group is that differentiation. It may simply be that we need something new, something different. Okay. And finally, the conclusion or new beginning stage. Two things I want to suggest to you that smart leaders do at the concluding new beginning stage. One is help your group celebrate. Help your group celebrate. The last meeting you have should be a celebration of what happened during this group. Even if there were struggles, get together and celebrate what God did in your midst. That probably is your last meeting. The second to last meeting is where you evaluate. Now, I was telling this group about two different kinds of evaluations. We have process evaluations that happen in the middle of group life to help you assess what's going on. And we have summative evaluations that happen at the end of a group's contract period to help you reflect on what happened.

[00:24:08] You need both kinds.