Much attention has been given to small group life cycles and many models have been developed, refined, defended and taught. These models typically bring out correlations between group dynamics and the phases of individual life, emphasizing maturity stages for levels of trust, interaction, and group goals. The most crucial and practical point to remember is that small groups must be carefully cultivated to live abundantly and allowed to die gracefully.
Both small group program coordinators and small group leaders should remember:
- Life begins at conception, not birth.
Plan ahead. Establish a clear understanding of the group’s purpose well ahead of time. Most potential members will not commit to the first meeting if the purpose is not clear. If determining the purpose is left to the group then the group will struggle in its first weeks, spending time on a mutual agreement process. Typically this process chooses a purpose based on the lowest common denominator, not the one most conducive to discipleship and Christian formation.
Leaders should be identified and trained before the group starts. Curriculum and meeting formats are also best planned ahead. Information sessions, pulpit announcements, and/or other contextual communications about the group need to be carefully considered and enacted. Small groups merely listed but not described in a church bulletin or on a webpage rarely even attract questions, let alone new members. Energy put into incubation and labor of a small group that includes prayer and listening for the Spirit’s lead, leads to a greater probability of success.
- Babies need special care.
The words used to describe the behavior of new small groups by researchers include discovery, testing, ambiguity, sizing up and reservation. Questions related to inclusion and group expectations typically influence thinking and interactivity: Will I be accepted? Who else is in the group? What’s expected of me? What are the rules? What are we going to do? As a result, some members may talk a lot, others may be hesitant to speak at all.
The initial group goal should be relationship-building. The leader should clarify the purpose of the group, set the tone and pace of self-disclosure and provide encouragement for participation. Leaders can facilitate by helping members share their stories, reduce their anxiety, and build trust. Icebreaker activities, informal fellowship and light, thoughtful self-disclosure by the leader increases comfort levels. Prayers should be kept simple or evens silent, with no one forced to participate verbally.
At the end of this stage, member’s feelings of anxiety and reservation have faded and excitement and joy about the relationship shine brightly. Comfort levels will be high enough for members to voice disagreements.
- Don’t stifle life, continue to unleash it.
Small groups will go through growing pains as new levels of discovery and bonding become possible. Group values, purposes and perhaps even authority may become questioned. Members will experience and deal with growing awareness of one another’s abilities and faults. Lasting friendships will develop. Character will develop within the group and so will commitment. Leaders will develop and offspring will leave the nest to spread their wings elsewhere. Original leaders may move on to different callings.
The leader should function more as a coach as the group takes on more and more responsibility for itself. The good leader encourages and provides opportunities for others to reflect upon, identify and use their own knowledge, experience and spiritual gifts. Leaders who hold the meeting reigns tightly or try to dominate the theological component squelch the Holy Spirit’s work. As the group matures everyone’s faith and trust will grow.
- Death is a natural part of life.
Recognize and celebrate when a group has achieved its goal. Groups that have reached this point tend to want to hold onto the experience and stay together. A critical part of transformation is disengagement. Ending well helps the group envision future possibilities.
Groups that never take root or falter beyond resuscitation can be painful if not handled well. Sometimes they can be resurrected but usually they just need to be buried. A group that is buried can be the seeds that produce new groups as leaders celebrate and apply lessons learned in the future.