Church and the mean girl (When We Were on Fire synchroblog)

When We Were on Fire | Addie Zierman

I was 13, new to the high school ministry and eager to be part of it. I’d been back in the holding pen of 8th grade for a year, the lone girl in my grade, anxiously awaiting the time when I could move up to high school ministry and be with the girls again.

I was thankful the wait was over.

It was October, finally, and I was on my first church retreat of the year–my first retreat ever, really–our whole youth group packed into a picturesque cabin in the woods. We were going to spend the weekend sleeping in bunk beds and playing rowdy games and crunching through fallen leaves and talking about Jesus. I was ready.

We piled off the school bus, unloaded our bags, and began to get settled. We were city kids, and I was happy to see it was rustic, but not too rustic. Wooden beams and unfinished floors, but a full kitchen and–thankfully–flushing toilets.

We hadn’t been there an hour when I was sitting on one of those toilets behind a locked but rather low door when an older girl–a senior to my freshman, one of those girls I’d looked up to for a long time–popped up over the low door and snapped a photo of me, on the toilet, with my pants down.

“I’m gonna show everybody!!” she shrieked. “This is gonna be awesome!”

I have no idea what I did next. All I can remember, thinking back, is stunned silence as my brain struggled to process what had just happened. I was on a church retreat, for God’s sake. And I was sitting on the toilet–naked, embarrassed, exposed.

And I still had to wipe.

I must have gotten up, because the next thing I remember is our group gathered in a circle under the rustic pitched roof as our youth minister spoke to us about following Jesus, about living “on fire” for him, about how we’d spend the weekend exploring what that meant.

But I was too worried about that picture to listen.

*****     *****     *****

I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking that church in therapy. (And we didn’t even talk about that photograph! Yeah, she printed it.)

It took me a long time to realize I needed counseling, because nothing terribly dramatic ever happened back then.

But I eventually realized the emotional toll those comparatively small–even commonplace–adolescent dramas had taken on me, largely because they happened in church, and asked for the help I needed to untangle my faith from my bad church experience.

It’s been a long road.

I think that’s why I resonated so deeply with Addie Zierman’s memoir When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. Addie’s gift is to make you feel the emotional weight of seemingly no-big-deal events–like so many I experienced–common to Christian adolescence and young adulthood.

When We Were on Fire releases today. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2013, and if you resonate with any part of the story above, or have your own complicated memories of growing up evangelical, I recommend you grab yourself a copy. Grab it for Kindle here ($7.99) or in paperback here ($11.24).

When We Were on Fire | Addie Zierman synchroblog

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This post is part of the When We Were on Fire synchroblog.

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  1. Sarah Beals says:

    YOU have got to be kidding! UGH. THAT is a mean girl…and one of the reasons I love youth ministry. It’s such a hard time of life. It really is. I’m cringing inside FOR YOU.

    • Sarah Beals says:

      because I’m NEVER clear the first comment around…ahem…
      Meaning, I love youth ministries because I love to encourage girls who have had a rough time of it–and most of adolescence is hard–and to be a voice to teach love and respect of one another.

  2. Caris Adel says:

    “But I eventually realized the emotional toll those comparatively small–even commonplace–adolescent dramas had taken on me, largely because they happened in church,” – this is making lightbulbs go off in my head. This is a really good, succinct way of describing why ‘church issues’ are a thing.

    • Anne says:

      It took me a long time to figure that out, obviously. It also took me a long time to figure out that encountering that kind of stuff as a kid is totally different from experiencing it as an adult.

  3. Sarah says:

    WORD. Mine was smaller. I unpacked my toiletries on the shelf above the sink (also at church camp) when she saw what I was doing she called everyone to point and laugh because OF COURSE everyone else carried in their toiletries every time.

    I still remember it.

    I spent an entire decade as an adult refusing to attend church. It also took a lot of emotional work to figure out why.

    Will definitely check out the book.

  4. Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry that that happened to you. This story really resonates with me, because I remember feeling ignored and un-welcomed by my youth group as a teenager, and I know my self-esteem really suffered for it during those years. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Keely says:

    I was told by a girl at church camp that I was putting on too much deodorant. I’m not sure how that was an insult, but I know that’s how she meant it.

  6. Ibukun says:

    So sad to hear about the picture, Anne! I don’t think I could ever recover from something like that. And did she ever apologise?
    Can’t wait to read ‘When we were on fire’! I’ve been wanting it on Kindle since you first blogged about it

  7. Ugh. There is something about old-fashioned mean girl behavior mixed with raising hands and singing songs to Jesus five minutes later that can really mess you up. I can still remember hearing my best friend at the time talking about me to a boy she was trying to impress. (It was not good talk, obviously.) They were literally sitting in a church pew. I still feel small thinking about it, like I’m thirteen again.

    Thanks for sharing, Anne!

  8. Oh Anne. My heart just breaks for you. So healing to share stories with everyone today. Bringing them out into the light makes me realize that so many of us were in it together, we just didn’t know it then. I’m thankful that we’re learning it now.
    And yes to counseling (another taboo of my church). So good to have someone else to help untie those knots.

  9. MJ says:

    Oh wow. This really hit me in the gut this morning. I’m so sorry for your experience, and as someone who had a particularly memorable bad experience that just happened to be intertwined with the church of my childhood, I can totally relate. I’ve struggled ever since to reconcile the feelings I had then with how I feel about God now. It’s complicated and complex and I really never thought there were a lot of other people out there going through the same thing. Thanks for sharing and I’m definitely going to read this ASAP.

  10. Colleen says:

    I never did a church camp, but found similar problems with Girl Scouts. No, that’s not on the same level as Christianity and bullying. Still, it was meant to be a place for bonding, friendship, teamwork and all that. There was plenty of the 70s/80s touchy-feely sentimentality in the discussions we had at scouts, but I’m not sure how anyone would feel safe revealing their inner lives in such a setting. Mean Girls abounded at both meetings and camp. Unfortunately, the prime instigator was often a leaders’ daughter or her clique. Ugh.

    As an adult, I can see how the mean girls were the minority. I’m not sure why more of us didn’t revolt somehow to take away their power. That bothers me still. I’m not sure what my young self should have done!

  11. Abby says:

    I almost wrote about a story like this one for the WWWoF synchro. Only, the people who were mean to me were supposed to be my friends, and worst of all, the youth leader joined in the teasing. I left that group (It wasn’t even my church) because I’d had enough of it, but none of them ever understood back then how hurtful it was, and unfortunately, I sort of lashed out at them in the end, which made me no better in some ways.

  12. Jessica says:

    Is this there I say my parents forced me to go to church camp and the girls in my cabin surrounded me the first night and told me I wasn’t cool enough to hang out with them and to not talk to them and then tried to lose me in the woods the next day. Yep.

    And our next church? The girls in my class wouldn’t talk to me, because the queen bee said so. So I usually sat in the bathroom on a little floral couch by myself.

    I’m now realizing my disdain for mega churches is more than just seeing the model as not so profitable.

    • Abby says:

      This is a little off topic, but please don’t blame the mega church model for the behavior of those girls. The group that teased me was a tiny youth group from a tiny church (less than 30 overall, only 4-5 regular teens in the group, almost none of those guys attend church anymore), and my “mega church” youth group friends were an amazing group of teens who welcomed outsiders well, many of whom I’m still close to today.

  13. Heather says:

    The worst bullying I recieved was also in our church youth group. I was in grade 8, and my best friends from church all got together behind my back and wrote a list of things they hated about me. Then they called me up on a five way conference call and read it to me, giggling and laughing the whole time. It took me about 10 years to really deal with it and move on…though the scars still remain.

  14. Kristin T. says:

    You nailed it by pointing out how these seemingly small incidents can impact us in big ways when they happen in connection with our faith community. Our expectations for other Christians are just so high. In some ways, I think they should be! But in other ways I think these very expectations—that Christians are somehow perfect, always overflowing with love—sets off a chain reaction of hurt and damage. The expectations leave little room for humility, grace, and the truth that we need Jesus.

  15. bethany says:

    ohmygosh, Anne. I suffered so many similar incidents at the hands of the mean kids (not just girls, but boys too). I think it’s why I’m still, a decade later, so insistent on straightening my curly hair – too many traumatic moments of kids laughing at my veritable lion’s mane at youth events. I wouldn’t even go swimming because I didn’t want my hair to frizz.
    I think you really hit on something here, about the difficulty of separating out our relationship with God from traumatic church experiences. As I wrote in my own wwwof post today, I’m still recovering from the unhealthy relationships I had with others in my youth group, still reminding myself that God isn’t the bully I grew up with.

  16. Leigh Kramer says:

    So heartbreaking when these incidents happen at church. Because on the one hand, we know Christians are imperfect people but on the other hand, we don’t want to believe that’s true. It’s especially confusing when Christians act in mean, vindictive ways, like that girl. I can’t imagine trying to navigate that as a teenager. I’m so glad you’ve been able to process this in therapy. And I agree that Addie’s book is one of the best of 2013!

  17. Dee says:

    I just had a weird experience with a church group, but these were adults. After service, while the little kids were playing in the playground and their parents sat around a table with coffee, about three of the moms starting gossiping about all the people we’d just seen running the service, including a family whose teenage son had declared that his father was his hero. “Well, of course. They homeschool. He only knows, like, two adults. What a joke.” I could not believe it. I am brand new to the church and had such high hopes for it, and they were really dashed in that moment. I know we can’t expect a congregation to be perfect, but it really left a bad taste in my mouth that the other parents were participating in that gossip not fifteen minutes after service. So gross. I’m not sure I want to go back there.

  18. I think us INFPs especially have an ideal vision of what church should be (what it will be one day!!!) and it hurts us on a very deep level when we see how far reality can be from that ideal. But church is really a big family and, just like we have “family issues” that we may need help to deal with as adults, church issues can cause a lot of trouble if we don’t recognize them and deal with them.

  19. I’m with Caris. This line is perfect: “But I eventually realized the emotional toll those comparatively small–even commonplace–adolescent dramas had taken on me, largely because they happened in church.” YES. Church is where you’re supposed to be safe, where people are supposed to love and take care of you. And when these “small” injustices happen, they feel so elevated. Just yes. Thank you for joining up and for the extremely kind words about the book friend. I appreciate you.

  20. Karlyne says:

    Because I was brought up as a heathen (insert smily face here), I never faced church camp and even after I became a Christian I was never been comfortable with my kids going. Maybe I heard too many horror stories, or maybe I was just protective.

    But, any kid who had to go to public school certainly saw bullying. And I know that I always stepped in and defended the picked-upon, and as funny-looking as I was (I think it was Bethany who posted about her curly hair- I had it, too, with a vengeance), I never suffered much bullying myself. I have often wondered why! I went to mostly country/suburban schools and never had to deal with inner-city gangs, but still the question remains: Why not me?

    Why are some kids picked on and some not?

  21. Sarah says:

    I’m so glad people are talking about the mean girls and cliques in church youth groups. During my last two years of high school, my family attended a church with a youth group of about 12 people. The other teens would always sit in Sunday School and talk about the good time they had hanging out the night before. I and two other girls were never invited. It was terrible for my self-esteem.

    I had lots of crying sessions with my parents. They sympathized with me and told me they understood how hard it was. Now as an adult I wonder, why on earth didn’t any of the adults in the church intervene? My parents and the other teens’ parents all acted like they were powerless to put an end to the social exclusion. It was a “boys will be boys” attitude, except these were teenage boys and girls. It makes me really mad that none of the adults intervened. I feel more responsibility as a parent now to stand up for my child.

    • Karlyne says:

      Absolutely, Sarah! It’s not enough to sympathize with our kids; they need to know that we will stand up for them anywhere and every time!

  22. Kim says:

    Thank you for sharing this. When my then teenage daughter went on her first overnight camping trip at our new church, she was in her tent when she heard the other girls talking about her in very negative ways. This was 10 years ago.

    As a mom, it is so important to not let one bad or really bad experience at church or church camp keep our children from pursuing the good. I love that you actually dealt with it through therapy instead of allowing it to make you bitter.

    I loved church camp as a child. Not because I was popular or good at the activities, but because I truly felt the presence of Jesus there. It was at school that I took the regular mean girl verbal beatings. 🙁

  23. Pamela says:

    I recall being scared of church camp because the church boys claimed they had the best carnal experiences there but once I went it was not like that at all.

    Also as another stated, I too had very bad Girl Scout camp experiences. Being new to a teen group, a clique (comprised the daughters of the leaders and their chums) chose to break a variety of rules over one night including smoking cigarettes. Although I wasn’t even in their cabin or aware of their activities – I was blamed and punished. See, their mothers decided that their little angels must be telling the truth because I had recently relocated from what they considered a socially and culturally inferior area. Honestly I don’t think I have ever gotten over it.

  24. Maggie says:

    I read about half the comments. What strikes me is that all the reader girls are offended and still deal with painful memories, while all the out-going, easy-going girls have no idea what we are talking about and call those years the best years of their life, remembering what fun they had.

    I think this is an interesting difference in personalities you learn in those years. Not excusable, but just that people interpret, remember, and are impacted so differently by similar events. I have a child who had something even worse happens and laughs it off.

    I Corinthians 13 in The Message struck me as poignant, that “Love has thick skin.” I realized that I just need to develop some thicker skin over some events and laugh them off instead of centering memories around the ugly moments…we all have them. Still not my favorite phase of life! I’ve seen some of those same people who seem less happy now. I guess it’s a trade off!

  25. Beth says:

    This has been on my TBR for awhile now, but after reading this, I’m buying it today. I too grew up Evangelical. I’m now in my early 30s and still unpacking the damage that accompanied my experience.

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