How to lead a group worth belonging to

Groups need to be welcoming and inclusive.Noreg

If you have been a Christian for a while you have probably been in your fair share of teams or groups at church – prayer groups, welcome teams, Alpha or evangelism groups, home groups, ministry teams, outreach teams, committees, serving teams or leadership groups, to name just a few.

Did those groups leave you feeling supported, welcomed, included, inspired, needed, equipped and motivated? Or was your experience a negative one? Did you come away feeling you were unheard, misunderstood, hurt, taken for granted, controlled, directionless, disempowered or judged?

When it comes to groups and teams, most of us will have experienced the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly of group dynamics at some stage in our Christian walk. I know I certainly have. And that is a challenge for any of us who find ourselves in positions of leadership. How do we create a group or team that works effectively? How do we facilitate a group that creates a positive impact on our members and not a negative one?

Recently, I attended a fantastic training course on facilitating groups run by the charity Care for the Family. As part of the training we looked at Bruce Tuckman's model of group development. I found it really useful to understand the different stages a group will go through in its life cycle. It made me think about groups in a church context and how those leading can help each stage to be as positive as possible.

If you are currently running or involved in a group, why not see if you can identify where in the cycle you currently are and reflect on what you can do to make sure the group's experience is and continues to be a positive one? It is worth mentioning that not all groups will go through every stage or in the order I've mentioned below.

1. Forming

This is often when the group is created or could also occur when new members join. In these initial stages members are asking themselves the question "What have I come to?" Everyone will arrive with their own – often unspoken – expectations of what it will be like. Depending on their personalities and past experiences of groups they might be feeling ambivalent, excited, uncomfortable, nervous, hopeful or defensive. They'll be looking to work out who is who and also their own roles and responsibilities within the group.

As a leader in this initial stage we can help by creating a warm welcome, making sure that everyone has refreshments and knows about practicalities such as the location of the loos and by introducing people to each other. Icebreakers can help people to get to know each other and can sometimes help to break any tension. Just make sure it doesn't involve anything that will make people feel uncomfortable.

It helps to address people's expectations by being clear about the purpose or goals of the group and this is a good time to go through any ground rules (you might want to create these together). Whatever you would like to see in the group, make sure you are modelling it yourself. If you want people to be open and authentic, start by sharing something about yourself and lead by example. If you want people to serve others, start by serving them. Be the first to pour the coffee or clear the empty plates.

Finally, it is worth creating an opportunity for people to ask questions and voice any concerns.

2. Storming

This can be the testing phase of a group when authority and boundaries might be challenged. It can in some groups be a time of conflict with the leadership and/or other members.

This stage provides opportunities for you as a leader to model resolving disagreements effectively and also how to maintain boundaries. Try not to take every challenge or conflict personally. Be open to constructive feedback, but also be aware that some people's anger or criticism will be more about them than it is anything to do with you.

If your group is experiencing any storming then it is worth taking time to identify what is going on. You could try having a group discussion to find out what is causing the issue or if it is obviously a problem with only one person it would probably be better to have a private conversation to address the issue.

It is also worth reminding the group of any ground rules you made together. It will help to have thought ahead of time – what will be the consequences if someone breaks the rules or continues to disrupt or cause conflict in the group? The next step will be to enforce those boundaries if for any reason they are crossed.

I find it helpful to remember that there are often underlying reasons why someone is tricky or difficult in a group. It is always worth praying for God's wisdom on how to react to or reach a specific individual. It is also worth talking the issue through with a co-leader or trusted person in authority if you are unsure how to proceed.

3. Norming

This is the stage when the group settles down and people are clear about their roles and responsibilities. By this stage the group focuses less on their differences and starts to find commonality. This phase is often marked by increased support and co-operation.

As leaders at this stage we can make sure that everyone feels included by mixing people around and pairing people up with different people so that everyone has a chance to work or get to know everybody in the team. This also helps to prevent cliques. It can also help to give people tasks and responsibilities (or encourage them to come up with themselves) so that everyone has a purpose and a role. Hosting socials or doing activities together can help build a greater sense of unity in the group.

4. Performing

If all is going well, then by this stage your group will be flourishing and will be at its most productive. By the time you get to this phase, the members of the group will hopefully have developed a high level of trust, co-operation and participation. People will be really engaging with each other and also with the purpose and activities of the group.

As the leader you can keep encouraging the group and also offer help and support to individuals within the team. Show your appreciation and gratitude, especially if your remit is about serving and volunteering. Get to know the areas of strengths and also the areas of growth for each member. How could you help and support each one to be more of who God created them to be? It could be useful to spend some time receiving and giving feedback to the group and individuals. Don't forget to keep reviewing the goals and purposes of the group and setting new ones if and when needed.

5. Mourning

There comes a time within every group when people start to leave or the group needs to disband. There maybe sadness, anger, and denial if certain members don't want to leave or the group to end.

As leaders we can help create positive closure for the group. We can do this by affirming what the group has achieved in its time together and encouraging the members in their next steps. It is a good time to offer appreciation and thanks to each member and to allow others to do the same. It can help to have a celebration of some kind – whether it is homemade cupcakes or a meal out – make an occasion of it.

It is important to give times for goodbyes and to be clear about what opportunities are open to members after the end. It could be that the members decide to keep in touch through a Facebook page or email group or to arrange meet-ups occasionally.

A final thought

Perhaps you've heard about these stages before and this article was just a reminder, or perhaps they were new for you. My personal challenge going forward is to be intentional about how I lead or facilitate in the future so that I can lead a group worth belonging to. Imagine if every group in the church was like that – what a difference we could make!

Sarah Abell is the founder of and her passion is helping people to live, love and lead more authentically.