It was during our most recent Fall Retreat weekend when I stood from a noticeable distance as I observed one 4th grade girl say to another, “No, we’re still friends with you. We just don’t want you to sit by us right now.” I knew in that moment that my sweet babies, who were mere four-year-olds when I started working at my church, were growing up. “They’re kids,” I thought to myself, “they’ll work it out…” But they didn’t.
About an hour later, the outsider of the group came to me and said, “Mrs. Lauren, the other girls won’t let me play with them. They’re all mad at me because I told Brandon that Ella likes him” (names are changed to protect the identity of the children). The rest of the weekend was a struggle with our 4th and 5th grade girls and their drama. I finally had enough and told them to cut it out and if I noticed anymore drama, they were going to sit out of activities.
I knew this was not a permanent fix for the underlying issue at hand. Though it helped us get through of the weekend—and helped me keep my sanity—it would not dismantle a culture within this group of girls that had been at play.
There is a lot to unpack regarding this incident, but my focus for this post is not why cliques are created, but how to dismantle a clique and how to create a culture in your ministry where bullying and cliques are unacceptable. I am personally practicing what I am preaching currently and so far, I have seen good results, and hope to see more growth in the near future. Here are three steps to take to keep your ministry clique free.
- Zero in on the leader(s).
When a clique forms, there is always at least one leader and the rest fall in line. The important thing to recognize is this child’s leadership abilities. This child is clearly going to be well liked by the other kids, and the other kids are going to look to this child for cues on their behavior. When this child wants to be exclusive, the rest of the kids will do the same. In recognizing the gifts of the leader, you can empower them to make different choices. With the ring leader in my specific context, I have chosen to take her under my wing. I have shown her special attention and allowed her to open up to me. There is almost always an underlying reason for a child to bully or leave other kids out. Get to the bottom of it. When this child knows they are safe to express these feelings, they are likely to be less hardened. As you form a bond with this child, use affirming words to help form their identity. Affirm in them the gifts God has given them and encourage them to use those gifts for good. Sometimes the bully needs to recognize that someone believes in them. Once your leader believes he or she can use their gifts for good, challenge that child to help you create an inclusive environment at church. Once again, when the other kids see the leader being inclusive, they will fall in line.
- Make rules, communicate them, and enforce them.
When teaching kids boundaries and acceptable behavior, rules are a given. Allow your kids to help you come up with a short list of rules (3-5) for the ministry. If they help come up with the rules, they will take ownership in the rules. Be sure the rules are direct, yet simple enough for the kids to remember. Once you come up with your rules, find a way to display the rules and recall the rules frequently. This helps set the tone of your ministry environment and can help when redirection needs to happen. Chaos may ensue without clearly defined expectations, so take charge of your ministry culture.
- Always circle back to Jesus.
Most importantly, Jesus. That is always the best answer, right? Let me be more specific though; there comes a time when the older kids in your ministry need to be taught application. The upper elementary age kids are figuring out how the world works. My kids can recall the details of most Bible stories as well as I can, so it is time for them to be applying what they know to their lives. I am currently doing a series with our 3rd-5th graders on Wednesday nights on what being a Christian looks like in our lives—this includes bullying and cliques. When rules and expectations fail, bring your kids back to the realization of what a relationship with Christ looks like. If we are Christians, the way we treat each other and the visitors who walk through our doors will reflect Christ.
I am happy to say that applying these three steps to my ministry has helped shift the culture of my upper elementary group. What are some ways you have built a culture of acceptance and hospitality in your children’s or youth ministry? I would love to hear more ideas!