By Gabriele Rienas
Q: We live in a small community and pastor a small, but tight-knit congregation. We have been here almost a year, but no matter what I do, I cannot seem to break into the social circle at church. A core group of close friends run everything. They treat me with distant respect, but never reach out to me or invite me to anything they plan as a group. This morning I found out that I was not invited to yet another impromptu social event. I have noticed that visitors to our church do not stick around. I think they feel the same thing I do.
A: Your situation makes me want to wrap my arms around you for a heartfelt hug followed by a trip to the closest coffee shop for girl-time. Like all women, you crave relationship with other women because God designed you to require it for your emotional health.
No doubt, what you are going through is not what you expected when you and your husband accepted this position. Worse, you tried to reach out and you were unsuccessful. Rejection by the group is extremely painful.
First, do something about your isolation. As long as you continue to feel unconnected at church, be especially mindful of reaching out to your extended social network like your family, friends, and community.
Next, consider some possibilities about what might be going on in your church. You may need to challenge your thinking. It would be easy (and discouraging) to come to two conclusions:
- I am not acceptable.
- The people are cold and unfriendly.
No. 1 is clearly opposite to what God says about you and No. 2 is a premature conclusion. Consider some other options that would not be as discouraging and final.
Will building relationships take more time and patience?
The amount of time it takes to form bonds varies according to culture, geographical location, or congregation. If the group has been together for a long time or if they have shared life experiences, they have inevitably formed strong bonds. The women naturally feel comfortable with one another and therefore naively do what comes most easily to them without considering other options.
If you suspect this is the case, try as much as possible to avoid taking it personally. Continue to make yourself available in nonforceful ways. Express interest in what they are doing. Reach out to some of the women one-on-one. Invite someone to coffee or lunch. Avoid focusing on what you are not a part of and engage warmly when you are included.
Have they gone through relational trauma together or have they had a bad experience with a previous ministry person?
You may or may not know if there was a difficult situation with a previous pastor, his wife, or church leader. Someone may have been difficult, insensitive, or manipulative causing hurt and self-protection among these women. Unfortunately these wounds take a long time to heal.
In this case it will take patience and consistency on your part to show them over time that you are not the same as this other person and that history will not repeat itself. This requires calling on the bigger person in yourself to reach out in an atmosphere of distrust. Most of us find it easy to form bonds when there is mutual admiration and affirmation. In this case, however, you will be reaching beyond barriers with time, patience, and love. You will need God’s grace.
Is there a ringleader who is threatened by your presence and manipulates the less confident others to her way of thinking?
In ministry we will occasionally encounter women who are competitive, manipulative, and covertly rejecting. Unfortunately, they can also be articulate, competent, and helpful. This sets them up to take on leadership positions where they end up wielding their power in self-serving, hurtful ways. If you have experienced this kind of treatment, then you also know the great pain that can result.
If you suspect this is the case, then acknowledge what you are dealing with to yourself and to some safe others. Deal with your resentment daily and pray for God’s will to be done. Then address your thinking about this. No man or woman has power to alter God’s plan for your life. You can stand squarely in the authority of the call God has given you. Do not get into a tug-of-war or power struggle. Find someone to hold you accountable to responding wisely when drama happens.
Often, the women who follow a person like this are largely unaware, so consider the possibility that some of the women would respond positively if you individually reached out to them. Let them get to know you and make their own assessment of who you are and what you have to offer in friendship.
Are there others who are longing for connection as desperately as you are?
If you have been ignored, then assume there are others who have felt the same way. Watch for women who do not seem to be included and reach out to them. Be careful, however. Rather then building a competing group, your goal is to build a cohesive network of women that welcomes, nurtures, and loves others in a mature way.
As you bravely move forward, remember there is no substitute for time in working things out. Having been in the ministry for 30 years, one significant lesson I have learned is that things change if you wait.
Relationships that seemed so tight (or so problematic); commitments that seemed so firm (or so flaky); ideals that seemed so entrenched (or so loose) can all change over time. We need supernatural patience. God, however, remains the same: always loving, always present, always caring.