Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 02/24/2013

One of the things that’s so interesting about working in a church is that I get to know folks who have professions and expertise in fields that frankly I know nothing about and never otherwise interact with.  My adult work life has consisted of ministry, graduate school, sociology and parenting on sort of a rotating basis, so it’s always amazing to me to get to know scientists and doctors and computer geniuses the way I get to do now.  There aren’t many scientists or doctors or computer geniuses amongst us minister types.

Another pleasure is to work alongside people who have a great deal of experience with team building and working groups, because knowing about team building and how groups work together is pretty helpful when it comes to church life.  I’m always excited to learn some new philosophy about how to get a church system to interact in a better way, or learn a secret to why folks are behaving as they are.  In fact, I’m also always excited to learn an old philosophy about how teams work, and it’s an old team-building philosophy that we’ll be learning about today.

In the 1960s, an industrial psychologist named Bruce Tuckman published an article about the ways in which a small working group develops and proceeds.  Showing how important catchy names can be when one wants one’s idea to spread, his philosophy of group dynamics went by this catchphrase: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.  In other words, Tuckman purported that when a group comes together to get some work done, they go through a prescribed process involving these four phases. 

First, they form – they get together, learn each other’s names and backgrounds, find out what they can do for each other, and what role they may play within the group. 

Then, after a bit, the group storms.  They clash.  Personality differences arise.  Territories are staked out.  Differences of opinion rise to the surface.  Tuckman says it this way, in academia-speak:  “The second point in the sequence is characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues, with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere. These behaviors serve as resistance to group influence and task requirements and may be labeled as storming”.  We’ll come back to this in a minute.

The phase after this for the group is called the norming phase.  In this phase, the group starts to figure out their norms, or how they want to get along.  They begin to find their feet, their own way of being together. Tuckman says, “Resistance is overcome in the third stage,” and “in-group feeling and cohesiveness develop, new standards evolve, and new roles are adopted. In the task realm,” – the task realm is where things get done – Tuckman says, “intimate, personal opinions are expressed.”

Tuckman’s fourth phase is called the Performing stage, and this is where the group gets stuff done.  Tuckman writes that “Interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task. Structural issues have been resolved, and structure can now become supportive of task performance.”

Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.  Really, the names say it all.

My first thought upon hearing about this was – This is the Long Rangers!  The little group that started about two years ago with not much more than just the vague sense that there needed to be more attention paid to long term vision here at SCUU has certainly gone through these stages.  We formed, without much sense of what we were about or what we would do or who should be involved.  We definitely went through a period when personalities clashed and the group polarized over even mundane tasks.  Having gone through that, the Long Rangers found ways of working together that, well, work for us, and as a result we’ve been able to have the discussions and ask the questions and do the activities we’ve wanted to pretty effectively for the past few months.  That small group has formed, stormed, normed and performed.  We’re like a poster child for Bruce Tuckman.  I hope he is appreciating us, out there.

The second thought I had when I heard about this model was – This is Sugarloaf!  Sugarloaf formed, fifteen years ago.  Sugarloaf stormed, significantly and devastatingly, four years ago.  Sugarloaf norms, right now – more on that in a minute.  And it is my hope and also my intention that Sugarloaf will perform, even more effectively than it does now, as a force for good in the lives of its members and in the world.

But before I dive into the argument that Sugarloaf is itself following a Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing model, I have to mention that although Tuckman presents this model as a linear sequence, where it seems like one step follows another in a tidy, discrete sort of way, in real life, groups don’t experience this in a tidy, linear way, and they don’t experience it just once.  Subsequent researchers have pointed out – as have the group dynamic geniuses we have around here at Sugarloaf – that this process doesn’t just stop once you go through it once.  Also, the stages bleed into each other as they transition, they don’t just end abruptly and then transfer to the next.  You don’t just stop arguing one day, sing Spirit of Life or something, and then agree on some standards for behavior at the next meeting, and then get some stuff done at the one after that.  It’s a little messier in real life. 

Researchers tend to agree now that the pattern keeps going.  You’ve already formed, so that really happens just the once, but then the storm/norm/perform dynamic keeps rolling along.  I think the Long Rangers would agree that interpersonal tussle, norm establishing, and task accomplishment roll into each other for us over and over again. 

And so is the case at SCUU.  I would claim that we’ve gone through this full cycle at least once already in our history, and are in the midst of the cycle once again.  In fact, where we are poised now in the cycle is a particularly critical position, one that has a lot of ramifications for where we go from here as a church.

The first time we did the cycle as a congregation was before my time.  But my understanding from the stories I’ve heard – and I really encourage you to listen to these “old-timer” stories when you have a question about our past, because they really are so illuminating – my understanding from our past is this:  Sugarloaf was formed with the intention of meeting the spiritual needs of upper Montgomery County in a big way.  The church was formed out of a vision and was funded by visionaries from the UUA as well as individual visionaries around here who were willing to put a lot of their own money where their mouth was. 

You can already see that our very DNA would be different, given this history, right, than that of a church founded by, I don’t know, bankers who were the pillars of their communities and wanted an edifice to prove it.  That’s not us.  We came at this project saying we could definitely make a spiritual and communal difference in this particular location, and we were willing to take risks and leaps to do it.

There were lots of different ways in which church members conflicted in the early days, LOTS, but out of all of that an interesting norm, a common understanding, eventually emerged: We need to find a permanent church home, not keep renting spaces that don’t really fit us.  And once those visionaries got everyone in the church on board with the notion that we were now going to have a permanent home, once that goal became everyone’s goal, the place went gangbusters on getting that home.  Really.  Given the small number of people, and the lack of money, and the fact that this was a residential property and not a commercial property, and needed a lot of very hands on work to become what it is…it is an absolute miracle that we are worshipping here today.  A miracle.  And it was a miracle born out of the hard work and the money and the vision of the people who decided that the norm for this place would be that we would have a place, and they dove into making it happen.

Can you see how we formed, stormed, normed and performed there?

What happens once your performance succeeds?  Sugarloaf worked hard to get a permanent home, and we succeeded in getting onto a beautiful site.  Tuckman’s theory suggests that the cycle might start over at this point, and indeed it did. 

You could say, and we usually do, that our congregation had a big fight in 2009 because a pillar of our community got arrested for something terrible and the congregation divided over it.  But, you could also say that given where we were in Tuckman’s cycle, we were ripe for some sort of conflict like that, and any number of events could have triggered it. 

Remember, Tuckman says that the Storming phase is “characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues.”  And, he says in complicated language, Storming comes “with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere”.  That means that Storming comes not only with conflict, and polarization, but that when the group tries to get something done during this phase, their conflict and polarization seeps into the tasks they try to do.  That sounds just like Sugarloaf in 2009 to me. 

Even so, you all managed to call a minister during this time and also deal with an extraordinary financial crisis without losing the property you worked so hard for.  So it wasn’t all bad.  You were ripe, at that point, for your next phase, establishing new norms, a new way of doing things, a new set of goals.  And we’ve been doing that, together, ever since 2009, ever since I got here.

Norming is the phase we are currently in as a congregation, again.  In recent years, we’ve solidified our sense that every person has a voice that needs a place to be heard clearly, and also that the loudest voice doesn’t get to dominate the conversation, and also that if you want to be a part of the conversation, you have to do it in here with us, not outside with just your particular group of friends.  We routinely hold congregational conversations nowadays when we think there’s something that needs discussing.  We try to lead transparently, with lots of involvement from those who are interested in being involved.  We act as if each of us has a piece of the truth to add to the whole, and we’ve found that usually, that’s true.  And all of that is a fairly new way of doing things here at SCUU.

There are other norms still trying to be born with us.  One norm we need to establish is a more practical and comprehensive attitude towards our finances.  Those visionaries that made up our DNA worked magic, but they were always on the edge financially.  Nowadays, members of Sugarloaf have expressed the desire to feel more financially secure.  But truth be told, we don’t bring in enough money to afford the true costs of running this place and having the staff that we do.  We have been faking it for a few years by putting off major expenses, failing to pay our fair-share contributions to our own denomination - which largely funded our ability to be here in the first place -  and disregarding cost of living increases for our staff. 

Is this who we want to be as a congregation?  We show up each week to a piece of property that we can’t take care of?  We are irresponsible employers to the staff that we claim to so appreciate?  We allow our own denomination to go without? 

I don’t think this is how we want to be.  It’s Norming time, folks, and we’re already doing a great job of establishing interpersonal norms that will serve us well in our future.  One of the norms that we also need to birth is that of greater financial responsibility.  One way or the other, we need to pay the bills that we owe.  All the bills.  Or else we need to find a way to not have so many bills.  It’s all up to us.

The entire reason to establish new norms is not so that you can pat yourself on the back for all the great new ways of being that you’ve created.  According to Tuckman, you Norm so that you can then Perform.  And Performing, for a church, is the fun part.  It’s the part that makes it all worthwhile. 

It’s the part where the congregation works all together to encourage real spiritual connection and deepening, for example.  Plans are already afoot for this congregation to integrate its worship life with its small group ministry life, for example, which will allow folks to hear sermons and then explore them more richly in a small group.  Plans are already afoot to make both worship services and our religious education classes more powerful, more integrated, and simpler to produce.  Plans are already afoot to direct congregational attention through the summer to worship and religious education events that have the most impact, so that our energies and our work is corralled and expressed to the people who need it most.  Stay tuned for more on all of that through the spring.

Which is why I encourage you, dear Sugarloafers, as you go through this Stewardship season where we talk quite a bit about responsible financing and your own contribution to the congregation’s financial health, to keep your eyes on the next phase, where we’ll get to Perform all the amazing things we’ve decided we want to do.  Congregational transparency, effective communication and financial health aren’t just neat goals to tick off of a sheet of planned accomplishments.  They’re a launching pad – and they’re the fuel, really - for the next great vision for SCUU. 

What is the miraculous thing we’ll be doing next, together?  I can’t wait to find out.