Often we overlook the fact that a religious community passes through stages of development and many of the struggles of community living are better understood in the light of studies in group development. This article is based on the studies on the developmental processes that take place when people relate with one another in any human group for a significant period.
Have you even been part of a community that was fun, recreative, energizing and growth promoting? Can you identify a community experience that was draining, de-energizing, and stagnant? You can probably answer “yes” to both questions.
Every community experience has the potential to be life-giving or life-draining. The outcome depends on how well the members understand the very normal group dynamics that occur in any community. This knowledge can assist in the development of more life-giving communities.
Most people are familiar with the theory of stages as it applies to individuals: each person grows and develops through somewhat predictable stages, beginning with earliest childhood and proceeding through a number of stages into late adulthood. The dynamic of stages is observable in communities as well, proceeding through some fairly predictable patterns and usually in a developmental and sequential fashion. To the degree that superiors and animators understand these stages, they will be in a position to foster the healthier development of the community. Stages are artificial, but they provide a paradigm for understanding the inner workings of a community. While different members of the community can be experiencing different stages, at a given time there is usually a predominant stage that characterizes the group as a whole.
The following are the seven stages in the development of a community.
- Faith Sharing
The orientation stage is the initial stage in the life of every community. When a group is formed to begin a course or a new team is appointed to continue a ministry, the members enter the orientation stage of the group’s life. When a community adds a new member or loses a current member, it becomes, in fact, a new community. For continued growth to occur, the community must focus again on the tasks germane to the stage of orientation. The members experience anxiety, fear, or insecurity, coupled with the sense of excitement and hope at the new beginning. It is the feelings of insecurity, fear, and anxiety that have the most powerful, and potentially detrimental, influence on members during this early stage. It is important to respond to the need and not react to the behavior. Only when individuals feel safe and secure will they proceed to the next stage
The role of the leader at this stage is to create a climate in which the members can feel safe and secure. There are a number of ways to achieve this. The most successful way is to clarify the goals of the group, expectations from the group and the norms guiding the group life. The clearer the goals, mutual expectations and norms of life in the group, the more comfortable will be the members in the group.
Francis was sent to participate in a one year course for young religious. In the first few days he spent most of the time with another person from his own language group. He wanted to be more open, but he was not sure how others will react. He read the norms and rules of the institute carefully to understand its functioning. He was also curios about how the course is going to turn out for him
Second Stage—In/Out: Acceptance
As the group settles, there is a sense of belonging that bonds the members . Some members easily feel part of the group when they are familiar with the place or significant people in the group. some may feel not yet integrated into the group and may experience a sense of alienation. This basic need to belong, to experience a connection with others is important to feel at home in a group.
Often those belonging to the “in” group are not aware of the discomfort of those who are feeling “out” or “not yet in” in the group . When you experience a sense of belonging, you may tend to think that everyone feels that same sense of being at home in the group. Limitations in language, inferiority feelings, belongingness of socially marginalized groups such as minorities immigrants, discriminated race or caste etc., may add to the feelings of exclusion in a group.
The need to belong is a powerful drive in us. When this basic need is frustrated, the normal reactions are fight or flight. Reactions may be pronounced when excluded from a community where one has a strong need or desire for acceptance.
Some members who experience alienation may develop very aggressive responses and appear to be in constant battle with the community, disputing every suggestion, recommendation, and tradition. Others assume a flight mode, which usually results in passive aggression, indifference or even termination from the group. Unhappy members may seek acceptance by teaming with other unhappy members or seek consolation outside the community.
It is important to listen to the frustrations of those who experience a sense of alienation and help them to find a place “in” the group.
There are individuals who choose to remain on the periphery of the community. Every attempt to include them is met with resistance. These are individuals who often find satisfaction in being in the role of the alienated and rejected victim. Often such a stand auto feed their psychological complexes that thrive on a sense of self-righteousness and power to punish others indirectly . At some point a community must accept that they have done everything possible to incorporate these individuals and cease attempting to mollify them.
The first days in the institute was both exciting as well as difficult for Francis. He was good at typing. So he offered himself to help the director to type and photocopy some materials for the course. He was happy that he could be of help.
Third Stage—Up/Down: Competition
In the third stage the predominant need is for esteem, both self-esteem and the esteem of others. It is a stage of competition and striving to prove one’s worth and importance in the group. Unconsciously people tend to value the importance of others based on their qualities and performance. Based on this judgment members are seen in a continuum ranging from the most to the least important. Those, of course, who see themselves judged as least important feel devalued and react accordingly.
Each group has its own criteria to measure the importance of its members. It may be seniority, wealth, talents, qualities, race, education, status, roles, or relationship with authority figures.
It is relatively easy to identify the third stage because the predominant spirit is one of competition. members may experience Irritation and jealousy towards those who steal the stage and grab opportunities to exhibit their gifts and talents in the group. Who is more important is the central concern. Gossips and sarcastic comments about the competitor find ample space in conversations among members.
At this stage it is important to help each member recognize his or her personal value to the community. There are many ways to accomplish this. The most effective way we have discovered is to utilize a group discernment process. Such a process encourages the group to value the unique gifts that each member brings to the community. Discerning the gifts of each member helps to heighten the esteem and minimize the competitive climate. Leaders should refrain from comparing the members or their performances.
Francis is uneasy with two of the participants who seem to him ill mannered and aggressive. He admires Sr. Clare, one of the women participants. She is beautiful and asks intelligent questions in the class. She also plays guitar. He shares freely with a few like-minded participants. They have the same feelings towards the “odd men” in the group.
Regardless of all the positive steps taken by the community, the group will still experience conflict. Conflict is an inevitable stage in the life of every community, and religious communities are no exception. Conflict naturally arises out of the manifold differences of attitudes, values, needs, expectations, perceptions, traditions, cultures, personality styles present among the individual members who constitute the group.
Conflict is, without doubt, the most difficult stage in the group process. The expectation that a religious community should be free from any conflict can hinder the growth of a community into mature stages of group living. It is through healthy negotiation of conflicts that members grow in deeper communion of life and collaboration in mission.
Conflict is normally painful, and most people will make every effort to avoid pain. However, there can no true community until the group is willing to confront and address it. The group deals with conflict in a healthy way when it can openly look into the differences and see them in the light of the values of the Gospel. Often it entails the practice of acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, compassion and value affirmation.
In order to build effective, life-giving communities there must be a willingness to grow through conflict. This choice demands a concrete act of the will, since the natural inclination is to avoid it. After the conflict, substantial energy will be directed toward fostering the process of forgiveness.
There are many things that Francis is now unhappy about in the group. He is annoyed at the way the director deals with some issues. The two uncouth members have become unbearable for the nuisance they create for others. Francis raised his voice in displeasure on two occasions. He feels that there are two or three groups within the group. Each one seems to live for himself/herself. He feels closer to Sr. Clare and enjoy spending time with her whenever possible. He is not sure she likes him.
A community achieves the spirit of unity, peace, and cohesion only after it has engaged in conflict. Avoidance of conflict preventsgenuine growth of the community. It is the very struggle withconflict that creates the condition where the community begins to sense togetherness and cohesion.
The stage of cohesion is a very productive time in the life of the community. The climate of trust allows community members to engage in common endeavors with generosity and to take greater risks with each other.
Coupled with these positive results are two areas of concern that can also arise within the community during this time. The first concern during this cohesiveness is a tendency to “nest.” The community can become self-absorbed, focusing more on self-maintenance than on the call to mission. The self-satisfied community may become blind to the signs of the times and fail to respond to the missionary challenges in front of them. At this point the role of the leader is to challenge the members to maintain a balance between a community that supports members and a community that focuses on mission.
The second danger at this stage is “group thinking” which silences individual differences that canemerge during this cohesive stage and can become an obstacle to growth. The contribution of healthy critical thinking and “opposition” may be drowned in the “group thinking”. “Group think” can take a number of forms. One of the more prevalent forms is decision-making based more on the preservation of the peace and harmony of the community than onresponding to gospel imperatives. We have seen this dynamic develop in previously productive communities with disastrous results. Groups that have a clear apostolic mission opt for the comfort of a nesting, “teddy-bear” community over the demands of the mission. The responsibility of leadership is to challenge the group to go beyond the comfort and security of cohesion to the less comfortable call to Christian ministry and service.
Given the dynamic of “group think,” the cohesive stage is the least effective time to use consensus as the primary vehicle for decision-making. Too frequently the group develops unspoken and unconscious criteria for decision-making based on maintaining the peace and unity of the community. Peace and unity take precedence over mission. The continued growth and life of the community can be threatened at this stage by the temptation to “nest,”
It was a blessing in disguise. During the joint meeting one member exploded in anger. Then it was a torrent of complaints. There was accumulated tension due to misunderstanding and cultural differences in the perception of certain events. It took time to address issues. There is now greater understanding among the members in the group. Francis is now sympathetic to the two “uncouth” students. He went out with them for ice-cream twice. They are fun to be with. There is greater generosity in members to help one another. Clare told Francis that she takes him to be a friend, but was not interested in any affective entanglement.
One of the major factors that distinguishes a Christian faith community from other communities is the sharing of faith. Many people enter Christian community with the explicit intent to share faith. Some communities even have this as their primary purpose.
Faith-sharing demands a climate of trust. The members have to believe they can trust others with the most personal, intimate, and sacred part of themselves, their faith life and experiences.
Faith-sharing that occurs prior to the time when there is a climate of trust, safety, and security is usually somewhat superficial. After the community has dealt successfully with conflict and achieved a sense of relative cohesion, there is both a desire and a readiness to share faith. This desire is mixed with a fear of sharing this most intimate part of oneself with others. Desire coupled with fear create the general ambivalence characteristic of this stage.
Two things are necessary for the successful movement through this stage: sufficient trust to allow people to risk the sharing of their faith journey and the leaders’ willingness to model for the group by sharing their own faith story.
Communities living together, such as religious congregations, are usually hesitant about sharing faith. When the suggestion is made to share faith, it is often met with intense resistance. Probably numerous reasons exist for this reaction. Three obvious reasons are: a lack of trust, a fear of being perceived as hypocritical by those with whom one lives, and a concern that the poverty of one’s faith life will be revealed. The more perfectionism is a part of the personal or congregational history, the greater the degree of difficulty for members to share faith. The task of leadership is to create a climate where the members feel comfortable sharing this personal, intimate part of themselves.
Francis is happy about the growth of the group during the course. He had intimate conversations with some of the members about his vocation and convictions. Each person is unique and endowed with special gifts and talents. There is depth in the level of sharing. He looks forward to such deeper sharing.
Every community ultimately must deal with the question, “How close and intimate do I really want to become with these people?” The near/far stage is the stage when the community struggles with the issue of intimacy. Given the fact that many people enter communities to achieve intimacy, it may be a disappointment to find that intimacy in community is not achieved until many previous stages have been successfully navigated.
A community at this stage is like a carefully orchestrated dance. A patterned sequence of approach and withdrawal can be observed. Members are in search of a level of intimacy and sharing where they can feel comfortable. This dance is influenced by two key issues: (1) discovering a balance among the varying intimacy needs of the different members; and (2) whether or not the individual members have developed some capacity for personal intimacy outside the parameters of the community.
Usually, the more people have developed intimate relationships outside the community, the less need they have for strong bonds of intimacy among community members and the greater their capacity to contribute at this stage. The attempt to find a comfortable communal level is fraught with tension. The needs and expectations of the members can vary from wanting constant intimacy to not wanting any intimacy within the community. It becomes a real challenge to locate that satisfactory point where the members can, as one person has said, “find space in their togetherness.”
The second key issue is one that is often overlooked in evaluating communities, i.e., whether the members have acquired a level of individual maturity sufficient for establishing intimate relationships. There may be members who, while desiring a high level of intimacy in community, experience constant frustration. They are expecting community to meet intimacy needs that must first be met at a personal level.
Often, too, there is a reluctance in members at this stage to expend the energy required to build intimacy within the community because they are aware that termination is imminent. They engage in a mental dialogue that says, “Why bother getting close when soon we are going to say good-bye?” Aware of this tendency, leadership’s role is to challenge the community to deal with the process of termination.
The Director challenged the group about how they meet the purpose of coming for the course. Francis is not sure if he is too open with his friends and takes things for granted. Life is more than just happy existence. The challenge of the director is helpful to look for a healthy balance between relationships and work as well as personal boundaries.
While conflict is typically the most difficult stage, termination is the second most difficult. Termination, as we will be using the term, covers a wide range of experiences that are associated with endings, e.g., separation, transition, loss, and actual termination. Communities do not live in perpetuum; they exist for a limited time. Once membership changes, the community as it existed ceases and a new community comes into existence. Failure to accept this reality is a stumbling block to continued growth. The basic conviction regarding loss is, “You can’t say hello until you’ve learned to say good-bye.” Communities that avoid the reality of endings condemn themselves to stagnation. Unless a community proceeds through the process of termination (see chapter 13), it will not allow new life to be generated within the community. Communities that avoid termination generally resist the inclusion of new members.
Traditionally, we are a church that is rich in ritual for celebrating endings and loss. Yet what is missing from our tradition is a process of intentional grieving to accompany the celebration. Loss is an extremely painful experience, and the normal reaction is an avoidance of emotions that are evoked. An unconscious collusion to avoid the process of dealing with termination can dominate the community. All members, including the designated leaders, can be lured into the resistance. Unless leadership disengages from the resistance, there is increased possibility that the generative life of the community will be diminished. This stage, along with the stage of conflict, may be the one where outside re-sources are most needed.
The course is soon going to be over and the one year seems to have passed so fast. Francis notices mixed feelings in himself and in others. There is excitement to go back to his community, but there is also a deep sadness about not meeting many of the participants in future. He has collected the email addresses and Skype id of all companions. He hopes to be in touch with them often. He also thinks that he could have better profited from the course, had he been more aware and proactive from the beginning.
Process for Group Sharing
This article can be made use of individually or as a group to understand and improve your community life.Use the information you have about each stage to respond to the following questions.
Invite each person who wishes to share his or her responses to these questions. Then the group can engage in general dialogue. At the end of the discussion pose one final question: “Based on our perceptions, what do we need to do in this community to foster further growth?”
The above article is based on the stages and its characteristics presented in the chapter on “Stages of Group Development” in Loughlan Sofield, Rosine Hammet, Carrol Juliano, Building community, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, 1998. I have added my own reflections based on my experience.
– prepared by Mathew Vattamattam