There is always a precise moment that hammers it home.
Sometimes it’s when everyone around the table is laughing and I laugh, too, uncertainly, because I don’t really get the joke or the reference that sent everyone around me into hysterics.
Sometimes it’s when someone casually tells me that we’ll be meeting in the “usual place, room 45,” and I wander aimlessly for twenty minutes around Room 44 and Room 46 before some kind stranger takes pity on me and tells me that Room 45 is actually in the annex on the other side of the building.
Sometimes it’s when an event gets canceled and no one remembers to call me.
Sometimes it’s when I park next to a group of women who walk into the church side-by-side, chatting and asking each other questions like old friends, and they breeze right by while I struggle to carry a bunch of boxes inside – even though I’ve been in their group for five weeks now.
Sometimes it’s when the woman sitting next to me confides that Eliza’s not able to make it “because of Ben, you know,” and I’m not sure if Ben is Eliza’s husband or her son or her brother, and if he’s sick, or maybe if he died, and no one ever really explains it.
And sometimes it’s the moment when I make a suggestion or bring up an idea and the room full of people nod, politely, or never even acknowledge the contribution at all, before going back to the way this event has always been executed for the last 145 years of the church.
In those precise moments, I realize what’s going on: I’ve stumbled into the center of a church clique.
That word, “clique” – people don’t like it. And they don’t like being described with it. “Clique” makes them think of Regina George and the Mean Girls movie, of catty girls and backstabbing and high school drama. But that’s not the way I mean it here. When I say “church clique,” I’m simply referring to a group of Christians with a shared history whose culture (often unintentionally) is more insular than inclusive. Most Christian cliques I know are full of kind people. They’re often benevolent and well-meaning. And they often don’t realize that they’re excluding others.
Yet this clique-ish behavior, as well-intended as it may be, has a profoundly alienating affect. I’ve watched congregants slowly fade away from churches, unable to “break in” to a group. I’ve watched visitors with no incentive to dig in and try to worm inside the group simply give up. I’ve watched brilliant ideas left abandoned, unique and wonderful people shunted aside, and whole churches suffer under the weight of insularity.
I’ve been on both sides of this. At some congregations I’ve been in a church clique and participated in clique-ish behavior without even realizing it. And at others I’ve been on the outside, unable to break through to belonging. And whichever side of the divide you happen to be on right now, it’s worth considering what forms church cliques in the first place, and what characterizes them.
Church cliques, as far as I can tell, are often formed between long-time members with shared history and experiences in the church. How do you know if you’re in one? There are a few indicators:
- with an exception or two, everyone in your group knows each other fairly well, and often share preferences, likes, or dislikes
- you have a history or shared experiences or events within the church
- the group’s conversations and interactions are peppered with private jokes, inside references, and mentions of familiar group history/events/members
- you all share a good working knowledge of the layout and functions of the church, know who to talk to get things done, and know how most processes work
- your group gravitates to each other at larger events and many of you work together in various church functions
- your group has a series of familiar, unwritten traditions and methods to accomplish actions that everyone seems to know but no one ever explains
- you are familiar with the spouse/immediate family names, family histories, illnesses, and struggles of many of the people in your group
- your group seems content the way it is; very few of the members make an effort to befriend or bring in new congregants, visitors, or unfamiliar faces. New members or visitors might come for a while, but rarely seem to stay long.
- very little about the makeup of your group has changed over time
“That doesn’t sound all bad,” you might be saying. “That sounds mostly like Christians being friends with each other.” But the difference between “a group of long-time Christian friends hanging out” and a clique is insularity and context. The clique tends to exist inwardly, focusing mostly on itself and often oblivious (if not unfriendly) to including others. Nothing’s necessarily bothersome about that if it’s just a group of friends going to Dairy Queen on their own time, but in the context of church functions or fellowship the behavior of a church clique can be alienating. Here’s how:
Church cliques don’t bother with explanations. Of anything. Newbies to the clique are left to ferret out on their own, if possible, all sorts of things: who this “Ben” is that keeps being mentioned in conversation, what happened on that mission trip in 2015 that breaks everyone up in hysterics the moment it’s mentioned, and where Room 45 actually is. In cliques, everyone operates on the assumption that everyone else already knows everything important/vital and doesn’t need it explained, forcing new participants to either a) make themselves the center of attention and ask questions every 5 seconds, b) absorb the relevant information by proxy, or c) figure it out on their own.
Church cliques have a distinct way of doing things that they don’t always explain, and don’t like deviations. Here’s a funny story: at a previous church, I was invited to decorate the lobby for Christmas with a particular group. We were told to “decorate the trees with the bulbs in the boxes.” I found a box of bulbs that seemed appropriate for the tree I was working on, only to glance up and find myself the object of surprised, unhappy stares. When I asked what was wrong, one member told me tersely, “We never put those bulbs on that tree.” Oops.
Church cliques have a certain way of decorating the church. They have a certain way of doing lunch. They have a certain way of running ministry events, or holding a meeting, or putting on an Easter play. The trick is that they don’t explain these procedures or expectations to outsiders. Most everyone seems to just know how these things ought to go, and if you violate that unwritten rule…well, they’ll let you know.
Church cliques care a lot about their own, but not always others. In one small group I was in, the members swung into action like a well-oiled machine at the slightest hint of a longtime member’s suffering. If a baby was born, if someone died, if someone broke a bone, a housework-‘n’-dinner brigade assembled immediately. I also watched this same group do nothing when a new member was once in critical care for three days and then discharged home with a home health nurse while she recovered from surgery. When I asked where the housework-‘n’-dinner brigade was, one of the members said tentatively, “Well, we…don’t know what she might prefer or might want or not want, so…” Their motives weren’t necessarily malicious or unkind, but I’m not sure it mattered to the woman at home recovering. She never attended again.
Church cliques only miss their own. If one of the clique’s members goes missing, everyone knows why – and, if possible, they seek to remedy or ease that absence. If a newer member disappears, or never shows up again? Well, maybe it wasn’t the right fit for them. Or maybe no one knows why, and it never occurred to them to ask.
They exclude others without meaning to do so. If you ever wonder if you’re seeing a church clique in action, watch their body language. Look for the closed circle of believers with their heads together, or who are facing each other, and watch who is sitting on the periphery of that circle, or who is peeping over someone’s shoulder to try to join in, or who sits quietly outside the closed circle entirely. Something that I wasn’t always conscious of, but am now, is where my body is facing when I’m addressing a group; if there are people behind me, or people excluded, I either try to beckon them in or I turn as best I can to address them.
And there are other, subtler means of exclusion, too: not introducing new members or participants to everyone, not giving explanations or help, unwritten assumptions and rules, and even simple things like forgetting to invite people to get-togethers or neglecting to add their names to lists. In conversation, it often means interrupting or talking over people, dominating the conversation, or simply ignoring contributions by newbies.
In the end, because of this, a clique often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course they welcome new congregants, they say, but never seem to wonder why the new congregants never stick. They don’t realize that, after four or five meetings of feeling like an afterthought, or of bearing the heaviness of not-belonging, very few people have the incentive to endure and become part of the group.
The great news is that the solution to the Christian clique is simple, and it can start with just one person being more inclusive. Taking the time to explain where Room 45 is or who Bob is, or even pulling someone aside after a meeting to explain a group joke, helps foster a feeling of belonging. Treating new members with the same care as old ones goes a long way. And a lot of times it’s the things that might seem insignificant that matter the most: inviting other people into the circle of a conversation, asking questions, listening, making sure that they’re on all the communication lists.
When it comes to the church clique problem, a tiny bit of effort can go a long way toward opening the door to others. And if we can commit to doing that, we’re likely to make our churches more welcoming and warm for all who attend.