When new people join a group, any group, it takes time to fit in. And that is true of new people joining a church. I bring this up to point out a few things as we work on our hospitality as a welcoming and inclusive faith community.
First, new people shouldn't be expected to simply "blend in." For one thing, expecting new people to adopt all of the ways of the established people puts all of the burden on the new people, and is not welcoming.
For another, it doesn't really work that way. If new people find the circle so tight they can't enter, they will simply leave. And that deprives everyone of their gifts and talents.
It might help to know a little about group dynamic theory: Every healthy group goes through at least four stages of group life (different theorists have different words for this, but it is the same theory). Healthy groups are (1) Forming (2) Storming (3) Norming and (4) Performing.
Forming occurs each time someone new joins a group, or someone leaves the group. The group becomes a new group when the membership changes. In a church, whenever new people come into the community, or leave (or die) the church is a new church in big ways or small. Each time a new person arrives, the church is in a state of forming once again.
If you think about, St. Paul's is very accustomed to forming and re-forming. Every Fall new students, faculty and staff arrive at the University of Virginia and many land in our parish. Every Spring many move away. This annual cycle of forming has repeated itself now 100 times at St. Paul's.
Forming creates a certain degree of tension, or storming. In this stage, the group members work out who fits where and how the group will operate. Unhealthy storming manifests as a struggle for control, or defensiveness about "we've always done it this way" or "we tried that, it will never work here." The circle closes, and if the storm is fierce enough it will keep out anyone new. Unhealthy storming will lead eventually to the death of the group, either through attrition as the old members die off and are not replaced, or through a certain atrophy of the group's soul because the group forgets why it exists.
But there can be healthy storming: Healthy storming is creative, and brings new energy, new ways of looking at the group, and sees new people as seeds of growth, bringers of new energy and new perspective. The existing group members begin to adjust to the new members, and the new members begin to adjust as they learn about the richness of the old group.
Storming, done well, leads to the next stage. The group is new, and it creates itself in a new way, leading to norming, or a new normal. The group looks both the same and differently, and acts both the same and differently, sometimes subtly. And that brings the group to the next stage: performing.
The group is thriving, productive and everyone in the group is working together in ways that are new but echo the old. The new seeds have sprouted and everyone benefits from the growth, and the group is performing like an orchestra, each member playing their individual instrument yet in harmony with the whole.
These categories are a bit simplistic. Truthfully, every group of people can be in each of those stages at different times of the day sometimes. Most groups are in one stage more than in another, and may slip back and forth between stages. Churches have many subsets of groups, and those groups are in various stages at any given time. The larger church can be seen as working through those stages over and over, and in a macro sense, it can take years to get from one stage to the next.
Yet, I also find these categories helpful; as we grow in our life together as a faith community, it helps me to recognize these cycles so that I understand what we are going through. If we all recognize the stages, we might be better equipped to surf our way through each stage.
And that brings me to a point made by Lyle Schaller, one of the more perceptive analysts of church dynamics of the last few decades. In his book, Create Your Own Future, he notes that good church leaders (lay and clergy) work together in understanding the group dynamics in the church, and then use their understanding for building of God's Kingdom:
These are the leaders who are convinced God has given to them the freedom to plan, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the future of that particular worshiping community. They can study, reflect, plan, articulate their dreams, formulate goals, and implement those plans. With God's help all things are possible.
Cartoon by Dave Walker