Understanding the phases in group life is important for group facilitators. "Small groups go through stages as they begin, continue and end their life together. Just as an individual moves through stages in his life from infancy to old age, so groups, too, move through cycles" (Hestenes, 31). Although these phases may vary based on the personalities and experiences of the group members, certain phases are common with people who are dealing with life-controlling problems.
Trust building. In this initial phase, group participants are building trust in the group and in the leaders. Since group members may not know what to expect, they will be checking the integrity of the group experience. They will have concerns about confidentiality. They will usually discuss surface issues versus their real needs.
During this phase, the group facilitators' task is to develop an atmosphere of acceptance and love. In all go-arounds (a time of sharing for each group member) or exercises, they should first share themselves which will make group members more comfortable. Group members should be encouraged to share within their own comfort level. Participants will need help in seeing each group session as a part of the whole group life. They should be encouraged to be patient in their expectations. Although the entire group life involves trust building, the first three to four sessions will focus on trust.
Mutuality. In this second phase, emotional involvement deepens among group participants. As bonding among the participants develops, the group begins to take form. Individuals feel more free to express their feelings concerning their personal needs or concerns. Group members begin to share the leadership in the group process.
In this phase, the facilitators' task is to give more attention to the group process. The role begins to change as a leader to that of a facilitator. Being an active listener, the facilitator will need to clarify, reflect, and paraphrase responses from group participants. Since there may be those who will sidetrack the appropriate subject, the facilitators will tactfully need to keep the group on the subject.
Facilitators should also be aware of "unholy bonding." For example, if a person in the group is dealing with a sexual addiction, the leader should caution the person against sharing too much detail. Encourage the participant to say he or she is dealing with a personal sin or impurity. Further detailed sexual information could create lustful thinking among group members.
Affirmation. Group participants will begin to care-front each other with respect and sensitivity in this phase. They will support each other by pointing out the strengths of others and help with one another's struggles. Conflicts that surface should be viewed as a win-win versus a win-lose situation. There must be commitment to prayer throughout the group life because unresolved conflict can destroy a group. Group members should understand that commitment to each other means they should disagree agreeably.
Group participants will level within their comfort zones which will have significantly increased by this time. Seeing themselves more clearly with the help of others, they will begin to recognize the need to make changes that would please the Lord. Conversation will move from the casual to personal needs. Feeling less threatened, timid members will become more talkative. As the feeling of Christian community intensifies among the group members, participants will begin to value their time together.
Group facilitators need to help the participants focus on the Lord's work in their lives. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). With the focus on the healing rather than the hurt, facilitators should encourage group members to support each other in love. Those who overtalk in the group should be tactfully discouraged by the helpers.
Accountability. In this final phase, group members learn to hold each other accountable. Although the group becomes very close, participants begin to develop more individual goals. As spiritual disciplines are developed, identity in Christ arises. They feel better about themselves. New ideas are offered, and some individuals may become preachy. If the group discontinues its meetings, the members will feel the pain of losing close friends. Termination may cause some to feel abandoned, or they may grieve over the loss of group acceptance and love.
In this phase the facilitators' task is to let go of the need to be the primary help. Participants should be encouraged to be committed to their local church. When the group terminates, leaders should offer encouragement and urge them to remain accountable to others in the body of Christ. Group facilitators should always encourage group participants to keep Christ as the center of their accountability.