Being a part of a small group has been one of the most enriching, joy-filled parts of my life. I’ve been in several, but all of them have been marked with thoughtful, rich teaching of Scripture, an emphasis on forming deep community and living life together, and serving our church and community alongside one another.
However, for all its benefits, there is a real and often unaddressed issue that often creeps into small groups: cliquishness. Perhaps one of most dangerous (and overlooked) consequences of cliques in the church is the hurt those groups can cause a pastor. In this a trending article called, How to Destroy Your Pastor, pastor Peter Chin shares his own story of the terrible hurt he suffered because of a small group in his church. After a particularly nasty confrontation with a parishioner who showed contempt toward Peter, he began trying to discern the source of this man’s vitriol. What had turned him so sour? Peter writes:
“For months and even years after this experience, I struggled to comprehend why this man viewed me with such disdain. The only thing that I could discern was that his entire small group seemed to collectively hold a pretty dim view of me as their pastor.
For a long time afterwards, I thought that my experience was unique. But as I spoke with other pastors, I realized that this narrative was an altogether common one. In conversation after conversation, fellow pastors told me their horror stories of how they too had faced poisonous and unwavering criticism from a single individual or, more commonly, a single faction of people. And this criticism had been so unrelenting that many of these pastors had left their congregations or the ministry altogether, sometimes both.”
You can read the rest of his story here.
Peter cites an alarming statistic: 28% of pastors have been pushed out of their churches by attacks that originated from a relatively small group of people. Peter himself almost quit, and although he did not, the emotional and spiritual scars remain.
His experience is sadly not unique. Crosswalk contributor Dr. Chuck Betters writes this about his own painful moments in the church: “In one particularly low moment, my wife concluded that many people view pastors and their wives as commodities, embraced and loved only as long as personal needs are met. What we define as friendship for us is actually a casual relationship for them, easily discarded when the parishioner is disappointed when their perceived needs are not met by us.”
So, the question remains: how can churches continue to support the good efforts of small groups, while being on guard against the kind of exclusivity that Peter describes? He sees two crucial things that need to happen.
First, churches must encourage each group to welcome newcomers or asking groups to multiply so that connections and relationships are more broadly shared at the church.
Second, and most important, individuals in the small groups themselves must actively work to fight against this behavior when they meet together. Peter writes, “It takes individuals who will stand up and lovingly say, “You know, I don’t think this conversation is really honoring God or that other person. We should bring it up with them directly.” Or “I love our time together, but want other people to enjoy it too. What do you think about creating another group out of ours?”
Crosswalk contributor Julie Barrier shares a few tips of her own when in comes to conquering church cliques. A pastor’s wife herself, she’s seen the hurt that cliques can cause, not just on pastors but the church as a whole. She reminds us that the church in Corinth suffered under the same problems—intellectual arrogance, bitter divisions, favoritism, super-spiritual members who possessed the “important” gifts, and so on.
“The truth is,” Julie writes, “it’s just too much trouble. A stranger in your small group changes the dynamics. An older person is irrelevant and has nothing to offer. A visitor with a jaded past just contaminates the super-spiritual prayer meeting.”
Don’t let cliquishness destroy your pastor or your church. Welcome new people, embrace a standard of inclusiveness, and be on guard against group polarization—where the shared opinion of the group is stronger and more extreme than the opinion of any one individual of that group. “The church must address the fact that often what is destroying pastors are not the arrows that come from outside its walls,” Peter writes, “but those which originate from within.”
Have you ever experienced the pain of church cliques? How has your church helped model a better way of doing community? Share in the comments section!
Kelly Givens is the editor of iBelieve.com.