Large community, small group dynamics

Photo by <a href = "">Eastop</a> @ Stock.xchng
Photo by Eastop @ Stock.xchng
Sometimes smaller is better

During my high school and early college years, I attended Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, WI. At that time, the church community was ~200-300 people. I thought that was a fairly large congregation. A couple of years later, I transitioned to attending Elmbrook, its sister-church that was closer to my house.

Elmbrook is a "mega-church". The main worship hall could comfortably seat over 4,000 people. The building was the size of a small college campus. Youth-focused sessions ("Sunday school") had classes of 30-40 people per age group. Police were stationed at the driveway crossing on Sundays out in order to help control the flow of traffic from people coming and going. Again, I thought I was part of a fairly large group.

When I visited my one of my online friends in Colorado Springs I was introduced to New Life Church, a community that made Elmbrook look tiny. Their amphitheater/worship center was the size of a concert hall.

My initial reactions of surprise, awe, and shock led to feelings of confusion and concern. I had difficulty understanding how members of the church were able to receive the support that they needed when they were one among a sea of people.  I also wondered if such a large group could actually become a cohesive community.

This leads to one thing we can learn from mega-churches: the ability to build cohesiveness through "cell groups".

The concept of a "cell group"
In a small church setting, the pastor is the guiding force of the church. Not only does he serve as teacher through his sermons, but also as spiritual counselor when parishioners need advice and support. In medium sized churches, the main/senior pastor is usually assisted by other pastors in tending to the needs of the congregation (he's still the one doing most of the Sunday speaking).

In much larger churches, the senior pastor still does the sermons. He and his associate pastors tend to the immediate needs of parishioners (direct counseling, officiating weddings, hospital visits, etc.). However, they are not in a position to personally connect with each and every member of the larger community. According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, a person is capable of sustaining ~150 stable social relationships at a time, which could include pastor-member relationships. That would require a LOT of pastors in a mega-church!

Instead of going that route, larger churches cultivate the formation of cell groups of 6-15 people. Members of a cell group typically share a common bond (like hobbies or interests), and they meet on a regular basis outside of church services in order to build community and hold each other accountable to their own personal growth and goals.  Members of the group are invited to bring guests to their meetings, with the potential of that person joining the cell group.  Occasionally, a cell group will split into two groups when its membership becomes too large to sustain a personalized, small-group dynamic (usually when it reaches 15-20 members).

As you probably guessed by now, the use of the term "cell group" was derived from biology - not only are cells the building blocks of living organisms, but they also grow to a certain point and then divide into two if needed.

How this concept can help the poly community
Building support networks
There have been studies performed that indicate that the larger a group is, the less likely members will respond to an individual's request for assistance.  People will typically look towards how other members of the group respond to something before they determine their own reaction.  If everyone is waiting to see how everyone else reacts, the end result is typically inaction.

If people feel that they are part of a smaller group, they are more likely to assist if one of the members needs guidance. Also, due to the structure of a cell group, there's also a leader who can provide guidance if none of the other group members are able.

Safe Space
Another quality of cell groups is that members typically share one or more demographic qualities.  The intention here is not to intentionally exclude others as a means of oppressing them, but rather to provide a safe space for those within the smaller community.

Whenever you have a diverse group of people interacting with each other, there are going to be power dynamics. The factors that can affect these dynamics include:

  • Age (there's an article here on issues with age-dynamics within the polyamory movement)
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Educational Background
  • Economic Status
  • Mental and Physical Ability

Society as an institution has built a system of privilege and oppression. Having privilege means that you have different advantages (real or perceived) because of certain demographic classes that you belong to, while oppression means that you are in a disadvantaged position because of those categories.  

In a diverse group, those who are a member of one or more oppressed classes may not feel like they are able to fully participate, or that their voices are being quieted by those of the privileged classes.  This is not to say that anyone in the group is consciously acting in a way to oppress others - but that people are unconsciously following the standards set forth by society and the media. 

The cell group concept can be used here to form groups that share similar demographic traits.  This way, people are allowed to build communities and speak freely without class dynamics of privilege and oppression getting in the way. 

The quandary that comes into play is how to move people beyond the "cell group" that they're in and interact with the larger group.  Without that element - that "bridge" - you merely have a large group that's divided into cliques.  If your group chooses to utilize the cell group approach, it is critical that the people involved in event planning for the larger community are cognizant of the nuances of privilege/oppression dynamics and create social settings where the effects of these can be minimized. 

As an aside - Small Groups and Projects
There's an old saying: too many cooks spoil the soup. 

The reason for this is that people generally have a different way of looking at things, or determining how a specific task should be done. In a small group, it's easier for members to give input and collaborate on an outcome.  Everyone feels like their voice was heard, and thus they "buy in" to acting towards the end goal.

Once the team grows beyond a certain size, the dynamics change dramatically.  It becomes difficult for everyone establish the basic level of trust needed to cement a team.  There's also a greater chance for group politics and power dynamics to interfere in the collaborative process. Attempts to acknowledge and consider the views of all team members becomes cumbersome, and at times counterproductive.  The focus shifts from getting the task done to being heard and acknowledged by having one's views acted upon.  Those who feel that their views weren't acknowledged typically feel that they have less "buy in" during the action phase of the project, which means less gets done in the end.

When putting together a project team, there's two types of people that should be involved:

  • Those that will either do the actual work, or be in charge of delegating the tasks to a volunteer force
  • Those who have knowledge/skills/resources that can support the group's work - for example, if your group is trying to put together a social function, it's okay to solicit the feedback of someone who has a lot of experience with event planning (either personally or on a professional level)

If they do not fall into either of these categories - they may not need to be involved in the team's project.  If the person wants  to be a part of your team/committee, you need to consider what the impact will be of having them participate. There are some people out there that want to be in control, and will try join a project team (or many of them) to try and create the outcome that they want. 

It is okay to limit the number of people in a committee.  Saying "no more" does not make you a bad guy. You are preserving the integrity of your team's working dynamics and the task that you are trying to accomplish. If you are concerned about leaving someone out (or losing a potential volunteer), direct the group member towards other projects that need assistance.

Developing "cell groups" within a poly organization
Here are a couple of "next steps" to consider that will help build a community of smaller tight-knit communities:

  • Encourage members to get to know each other and hang out outside of "official" social events - I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes it needs to be stated before people will actually follow through
  • Expect to meet people "where they are" with regards to communication skills and willingness to be open.  We are a diverse group with regards to many things - therefore, it's unreasonable to expect everyone in your group to be at the same level with regards to communication, assertiveness, and comfort level.  It is the responsibility of the hosts/leaders/group shepherds to create a place where everyone can feel safe.
  • Host engaging group mixers, and host them frequently.  This may be the difference between having a bunch of cliques and building a community. You need to find a way to create social events that encourage others to get to know people outside of their respective small-group (ice breakers are awesome for this). In addition,  you need to be mindful of various social power dynamics that occur in a larger group setting, and take actions to create a safe space for all involved.
  • If your group uses committees/project teams, make sure that every team is on the ball - meaning that they're performing what they need to do.  Volunteers are attracted towards committees and teams that are making progress.  If one team has an effective leader and a well thought out plan, and another team has a less skilled leader and no sense of organization or planning, you may find people flocking to the first group and not the second. In the end, this harms both teams (the first due to too many people participating, and the second due to a lack of support). 
  • Be sensitive to power dynamics and don't be afraid to bring up the issue of power and privilege with your group. Encourage everyone to participate in a power flower exercise so that they can recognize their level of privilege relative to the other members of the group. The increased awareness can help you take proactive measures so that all members have a chance to be heard and to help.

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