The Mean Ring

[ 6 minutes to read ]

He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.
~ Proverbs 13:20
When preachers act like ‘Mean Girls’

[I] was doing some light reading on the power dynamics in social groups, as you do, and I came across an interesting article on this subject as portrayed in a movie called, Mean Girls. Apparently, the setting for this movie is a high school, which is the perfect vehicle for commentary on this social phenomenon. Everyone who’s been to high school is aware of what are called social cliques in school, i.e., the cool kids, the rich kids, the athletes, the nerds, etc. Since I’m writing an article on the strictures of shadow hierarchies within social groups, which no one will read, by my own choice without any form of remuneration, I will let you decide which group I should be in.

Schools are like biomes with different ecosystems in them. You have the official system with its power hierarchy and written rules. The first system would include the school administration, teachers, staff, and the various school rules that govern academic life and extracurricular activities. These are the sort of things you can find out on school websites, in printed handbooks, and official stationery. The first system might extend to the students via student councils and class presidents. The first system is the primary system and overarching hierarchy that includes the whole school.

There is also what Tolstoy referred to as a second system, an “unwritten system,” in his epic, War and Peace. Tolstoy, of course, was writing about a military setting, which is another great example like schools. The second system is unofficial and unwritten. Within the first system it is clear who is in and who is out. Every student, teacher, janitor, principal, etc., of that school is in and everyone else is out. The second system is not like that. There are some who are clearly in and some who are clearly out, and there are always several on the border. This is how C. S. Lewis described what he called the inner ring in his essay, The Inner Ring. Lewis observed that inner rings have real power, though unwritten and unofficial, due to people’s desire to be in and fear of being out. The key is to know that these mean rings, as I shall call them, have a very real power that influences and controls people, even though there is no official structure, meetings, rules, or officers. There is no formal process of membership or exclusion. If you’re in, you’re in, and if you’re out, you’re out, and out hard.

Going back to school

The mean ring in the movie is a group of teen girls the article writer referred to as “the plastics.” That’s a good name, though I don’t know if they were actually called that in the movie or not. The group has a de facto leader who is attractive, rich, and has a very high EQ. She understands what motivates people and how to read them so as to manipulate them. This is how she derives her real, though unofficial, power. She makes up arbitrary rules to control her pawns, plays group members against each other, and resorts to blackmail if she’s not getting her way or her power position is threatened. Her primary power is her approval. If you’re in, you have her approval. If you have her disapproval, you’re out and your social standing is nil. Girls want in this group to have her approval and the social cachet that provides. One of the ways to get in and stay in is to provide information to the leader. Information is vital to maintain the power structure and control of the group.

Nothing reveals the presence and power of such groups like introducing a newcomer, who is an outsider. The movie brings a new girl into the school who is intelligent but completely unaware of the power dynamics of the groups and the unwritten rules they play by. She mistakenly takes everything at face value, as though people are who they appear to be and say what they appear to mean. The mean ring fakes nice to the new girl at first, which she interprets as friendliness. However, they have hidden motives, because such groups have to evaluate people to determine whether they would be an asset to the group and willing to abide by the rules, or whether they are a threat and have to be neutralized and clearly kept out of the group. Someone who sees through the shadow hierarchy and cannot be controlled is a clear and present danger that requires swift, decisive action to eliminate.

The movie plot obviously sets up a big showdown between the reigning queen and the new girl. According to the article, the script writers used a crutch to bring down the system. In literary terms, the crutch is called ex Deus machina, which can refer to an act of God, or some outside intervention. This seems to be lazy writing to solve the problem they set for themselves, or it could be clever commentary about mean rings and how you can’t defeat them with normal means.

The purity of the turf

Perhaps you’re an old fashioned sort of sportsman who fully believes in the purity of the turf. Maybe you think such shadow hierarchies in groups could never exist among churches. Read no further if you want to cherish those notions still. I can best comment about the independent Baptist churches I know and assure you there are mean rings among churches. Independent Baptists have the idea of unaffiliation written in their names and first systems. So fellowships are considered informal and voluntary, a pure turf, if you will. However, within these fellowships there are mean rings that hold real power and control over pastors and churches. It’s all unofficial and unwritten. There is no central office you can visit. There are no duly elected officers, nor official membership roles. If you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re out, and out hard.

Power in such groups always ends up in the hands of a few and, ultimately, one will hold the most power and control. That power is created by the desire to be in and the dread fear of being out. The group currency is information and the pawns are willing to pass the information upstream to keep their position and standing. The leader will have certain qualities or credentials that install him in this top spot. Don’t think that long standing leaders cannot be replaced. They can and are. The leader may have the credentials of legacy, being a generational in-group member. The leader probably has ability to read, manipulate, and control people. The leader cannot be challenged and will do whatever is necessary to maintain power. In case you’re wondering, yes, this is all very unbiblical.

I can see that some are skeptical that any such mean ring exists. Let’s take stock and see. You probably belong to a fellowship of churches that is fairly well defined as to who is in and who is out. Those who are out are probably highly suspect as to whether they are truly churches at all. If you can refer to key pastors or key positions within this informal fellowship group, there is an unwritten hierarchy. If the majority of conferences, fellowships, and revivals feature the same few speakers, there is an unwritten hierarchy. If there are unwritten rules and insider lingo that obviously distinguishes between those who are in and those who are out, there is a mean ring. If there is particularly one who seems connected with everyone, and who is the most dominant voice, there is a second system. If you and your church can be disfellowshipped, not by any formal process of course, but by falling out of favor with, or crossing one or two preachers, there is a mean ring. If one pastor can make calls and get other preachers disinvited from meetings, there is a mean ring. If a preacher can make calls and get himself invited to preach at someone’s meeting, there is a shadow hierarchy. If there is a preacher in the group that seems to be above being questioned, challenged, or corrected, and to do so means the exclusion of the questioner, there is definitely a mean ring.

The cold light of day

Maybe you’re not convinced that preachers can act like mean girls, or that mean rings exist within fellowship groups. If that truly doesn’t exist where you are, you are rarely and exceptionally blessed. Maybe you doubt there could be made up, arbitrary unwritten rules in a group that keeps people in line and quickly shows who’s in and who’s out. Maybe I’m wrong, and I always have to account for that possibility, but I can assure you these are not the thoughts of some fevered dream at night. These words are reasoned out in the cold light of day.

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