Lesson 3: I have mean girls in my youth group. Now what?
Rev. Dr. Blair D. Bertrand
“I don’t hate you ‘cause you’re fat. You’re fat ’cause I hate you.” Mean Girls, 2004
Anyone doing youth ministry should watch Mean Girls because even ten years after its production, it still rings true to the teenage experience. The statement above is just one among many possible examples. Here in a single devastating statement is the recipe for mean girls. One part hate combined with an inkling of some attribute slightly outside the norm whipped up into a bilious drink publicly force-fed down a peer’s throat. Each part of this formula is important. Hatred begins by despising the other for some difference. The hated attribute, perhaps something physical (too fat) or behavioral (she’s a **** [insert any insult]), does not measure up to an arbitrarily created (and certainly unattainable) ideal (perfect body type; ideal sexual behavior). The meanness moves into cruelty by adding an audience, by publicly shaming the peer. Hatred. Distortion. Silencing.
We can easily predict the results. No young woman feels safe sharing anything about herself because she is never sure whether a mean girl will latch onto it, distort it, and silence her through shame. Without a sense of safety, young women will remain withdrawn from larger meaningful projects and from each other. Who wants to do anything of significance if you believe that your peers might set their sights on you? How can you have positive relationships with others if you always believe they can become an enemy the more you expose to them?
Mean Girls captured the dynamics of female cruelty but there are male equivalents as well. What small male hasn’t loathed locker rooms because all of his shortcomings become abundantly clear to his peers? Mean girl dynamics are a particularly toxic form of relationship, but they are not the only kind of “problem” we encounter in youth ministry. If a youth ministry can understand mean girls, then directions to take regarding other “problems” become clearer. It is important that I put “problems” in quotes here because we cannot view mean girls or their victims as a problem to be solved. They are people, and as people they cannot be solved.
The difference between a problem and a person seems obvious when laid out on the screen; girls are people not problems. When we type “mean girl bullying” into our search engine though, we want answers to the immediate problem. We want to know what to do to make the situation better. There are many pragmatic resources out there that can help youth ministries figure out how to manage the problem of mean girls. You should avail yourself of that advice but it is insufficient for understanding a faithful Christian response. What many of those resources don’t do is say why mean girls pose such a threat to the Christian community. Sure, we have a vague sense that Christians are supposed to be nice but the call of the Gospel isn’t to make nice people nicer. There is something deeper at work. Pragmatic resources can manage a problem but don’t address the theological reality damaged by mean girls.
At its core, Christian community is about a covenantal relationship between God and God’s people. The key relationship for community is not human-to-human but God-to-human. Despite our sinfulness God sees us as children worthy of love. In Jesus Christ, God covenants with humanity to remain true and faithful to us. Nothing, not even sin or death, can destroy that relationship. This new covenant found in the life, death, resurrection and promised return of Jesus Christ continues God’s covenantal faithfulness through all time.
Our response to God is to act as servants for God’s coming reign. Because God has chosen us and has entered into this deep relationship of faithfulness and grace, we can choose God. We can respond with faithful lives filled with grace. This isn’t some kind of abstract spiritualized response: we love God through loving each other. When we see each other as children of God, we love God. When we hear the call to service in the voice of another, we love God. When we serve and delight in each other, we serve and delight in God.
When mean girls hate, distort and silence another, they hate, distort and silence God. If we express our response to God in our human relationships, then anything that we do to harm those relationships harms our relationship with God. Mean girls are a more extreme example of what sin does to our relationships all of the time. We might not think that we overtly hate, distort, or silence others but if we are honest, we do. The first response to mean girls must be for us as leaders to step back, to confess our complicity in sin, and to see ourselves as children and servants within a covenantal relationship with God. We must know the reality of God’s grace before we can help others encounter it. The second response is to extend the same grace to the mean girls, their victims, and to the community as a whole. God has mended brokenness before and will do so again.
From here we must use wisdom to guide us. We may need to take the dramatic action of excusing certain young people from programmed activities. These conversations will not be easy and should not be entered into lightly, but we help the mean girl when we gracefully acknowledge the presence of sin. Christian community is larger and more important than youth group. We should never exclude mean girls from Christian community but inviting them to engage in one-on-one relationships rather than in the larger group may need to happen for a time.
We may need to spend an extra amount of time seeing and hearing the victims. If they have been hated, then they need love. If they have been silenced, then they need to speak. Loving and listening might be hard since we want to give them answers, but the most faithful action might be to walk as a companion in their suffering.
Above all we want to create a true Christian community. As the ones who set the example of what true community is, adults need to consciously set good norms through their behavior. If we are always worried about the task at hand and not the person in front of us, then the community will struggle. The relational norm for our ministry must be to truly encounter each other. It isn’t just that we want mean girls to stop being mean, to stop hating, distorting, and silencing. It is that we want them to love. We want them to see, hear, delight, and serve one another because in doing so they can encounter God. No matter our role in the ministry, our responsibility as Christians is to love each other so that we might love God.
Rev. Dr. Blair D. Bertrand serves Calvin Presbyterian Church (Abbotsford, BC) as their senior pastor, and recently completed his Ph.D. in Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- When have you witnessed bullying among adolescents, either in your personal experience or through observation?
- Watch Video
- Fellowship. Safety. A reason to meet. Blair names these as the three things every group needs. Comment on the importance of each.
- Blair says that if mean girls invade, there might be a time when we ask them to not attend youth group. Do you agree or disagree?
- Have you known or encountered the mean girls that Blair is talking about? How did you handle them?
- Describe your ministry. Is it a program that young people come to just to “do”? Is it a Christian community dedicated to fellowship and worship? Which aspects are better than others?
- In the name of being a Christian ministry, how can we as leaders uphold young people to a higher standard of relating to one another?
- How can this impact our church more broadly?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)