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Excluded by Church Cliques

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Church Cliques

In my overview, I stated that there are four general categories that hold the mechanisms for becoming dechurched - excluded from a church or faith community: Differences in Doctrine, Church Change Decisions, Power Plays and Social Popularity.
 

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Social Popularity or Church Cliques

God forgive us, there are people in our congregations who we wish would just GO AWAY!

In my overview of this topic I mentioned a few:

  • The guy who rambles ON and ON and ON at every business meeting about things that seem to have no relevance to the topic.
  • The kitchen nazi who has to have everything just so.
  • The guy who seems to just not be able to leave some of his coarse “guy” features at home, like off-color comments, farting in the pew, and being just a little too loud.
  • The overly emotional kid whose feelings are hurt with every little thing and his parents who are there to defend him to the end.
  • The rich widow who insists that things be done her way or she’ll quit tithing.
  • The guy who questions every leadership decision and every theological point at every opportunity.

And so on.

The reality is that any of these people could be us. Most of us have been excluded from a group or clique at some point or another in our lives. (High School comes quickly to mind.) There is a going perception that church should be a place where this sort of ostracism should not exist. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen in the other exclusionary mechanisms, churches are no refuge from our social behaviors. To get a better feel for a church’s social structure, let’s look a little deeper into cliques, or subgroups, within a church.

A clique is simply a subgroup of people who interact more frequently and intensely together than with their peers. In this definition, we could say that the church choir, or men’s group, or Young at Heart, or young families are all cliques within the church. The downside to cliques is that they do not like to accept others into their social circles. There are rational and valid reasons for this. While young adults might get some value out of attending an occasional Young at Heart meeting, they are experiencing life from a very different perspective. Likewise, a woman might be welcome to attend an occasional men's group meeting, but the dynamic of the group will change in such a way that many topics the men might otherwise discuss would not occur. So, we find that creating subgroups within a church is not necessarily a bad thing. If that’s the case, then where does the trouble begin?

Problems usually arise when a given person cannot find a subgroup, or clique, in which they are well accepted. Just because the Young at Heart group has people over 60, doesn’t mean everyone over 60 is going to be welcome there.  Just because a man is a gifted bass singer doesn’t mean he’s going to be welcome in the choir.  This is because there is more that defines a group than its title.  For instance, if the lady over 60 is the rich widow I cited earlier, she might be the type that feels she should have a say in all the group decisions . She might also feel she's being ignored if the group doesn’t go along with her opinion.  The gifted bass singer might sing a bit too loud such that he’s overpowering the group because he’s “a formally trained singer.”

Example:
 

Let’s call this bass singer Ned and use him as an example of how exclusion via lack of social popularity works.

Ned has a master’s degree in vocal performance. He has sung in many choirs and performed many public solos. Currently, he teaches vocal music at the local community college and gives voice lessons on the side. The church he attends has a choir of 20, fourteen women and six men. The choir director has a bachelor’s degree in music arts and teaches at a local private school.  The choir members are the loving rabble able to carry basic rhythms and tunes who most churches find in their pews.

When Ned joined the choir, everyone was excited. Singing men are usually hard to come by in a church, much less one with a degree in vocal music. Sadly, it didn’t take too many rehearsals and worship services before the excitement wore off. Ned had an annoying tendency to correct Tricia, the choir director, and suggest “little improvements” to the pieces. He would do the same with the men sitting near him. That might have been tolerable to the group, but Ned also sung with his stage voice, which was significantly louder than the rest of the choir.

Tricia politely accepted some of Ned’s comments and would often gently push off others. Ned was quick to bring up his running joke that “I guess her Bachelor’s trumps my Master’s tonight.” When Tricia would ask him to back off the volume a bit, Ned would counter that the others needed to “fill their lungs and stand up straight" so they could sing more strongly.

Within a few weeks, fewer choir members began showing up for practice. Some were even skipping Sundays. The normal array of white lies were offered: busy, throat was a little sore, kid’s activities, too tired, etc. Behind the scenes, the truth was well known and oft discussed – nobody liked “Big Head Ned.”

Tricia made an effort to speak with Ned personally, but was quickly overwhelmed by his forceful personality. She brought the issue to the church leadership, who quickly dumped it into the pastor’s lap. The pastor took Ned out to lunch and discussed Tricia’s concerns with him. The pastor thought the meeting went well, but Ned felt Tricia was working behind his back to get rid of him because he “was a threat to her position as choir director.” He was very vocal about his theory, which only served to make the rest of the choir upset. Tricia eventually resigned from the position and left the church. Cool shoulders met Ned at every corner and event. He, too, quit attending First Church of My Holy Imagination and eventually both Ned and Tricia quit attending church altogether.


 

Summary

The tricky thing here is that Ned does have some personal qualities that make his social interactions very difficult with others. In my illustration, I’ve even made a special effort to show the church attempting to keep the boat on an even keel – something that doesn’t always happen.

So how do we, as a church, keep our arms open to those people who consistently rub us the wrong way? I would offer that there is not an easy or pat answer for this. All the same, I do believe there are some general rules of thumb that apply:

 
1)      Address the issue before it gets out of hand.

If we sit around hoping things will improve, the likelihood is that we are just giving a bad situation time to fester into a social cancer.

 
 
2)      Address the person in a manner equal to their personality.

What I mean is this: If the person has a meek personality, we need to be meek in our approach. Don’t push hard on a Gentle Jennifer. However, when we have a bold personality like Ned, we need to be bold in our approach. Jesus used this mixed methodology very well. Consider His manner with the woman at the well as compared to the religious authorities.

 
3)      Address the issue, not the person.

In the example above, we might affirm Ned’s skills, but be forthright in stating that his "suggestions and corrections" undermine Tricia’s confidence and credibility, thereby diminishing her giftedness and the ability of the choir and the congregation to worship with ease and joy.

There is no guarantee this will work. One fact of life is that very, very few of us like to hear critical words about ourselves, even if they are well meaning. Sadly, this plays into the faux reality that church is a place where all we ever hear are “good things” about each other.

One thing we can all do as a church is learn to be more honest with each other. This will take time and will involve some bumps and bruises along the way, but in the end, open and healthy communication is always an essential foundation to any group relationship – churches included.