By Sharon Gartland

What Would Jesus Do About Mean Girls?

I have a vivid memory of a popular 8th grade girl chasing me into the bathroom after I had done something (I don’t remember what) to offend her during gym class. That memory of me cowering in a locked stall while she kicked open each door to try to find me still comes flooding back now and then. I was normally skilled at staying in my social lane. I was not in the cool kid crowd, but neither was I much of a target for overt bullying. However, I was not immune to the subtle social and relational bullying of whispers and gossip, exclusion from invitations, jealousy, mockery, and, worst of all, being treated as invisible. I survived, but it was a baffling social landscape to maneuver.

Decades later, I still find myself dealing with “mean girl” scenarios. Unlike that of many working women, my professional life is mostly populated with other women. My workplace is a little bit like a 1970’s girls’ gym class with few men in sight. While that means we avoid most of the sexism and explicit gender bias that others wrestle with, it does not mean we avoid workplace frustration and drama. Cliques form, social hierarchy is established, feelings are hurt, and gossip sometimes runs rampant. In grown-up mean girl fashion, aggression is often passive and of the relational variety. It still confuses me. Finding myself in the middle of this nasty reality as an adult, Jesus-following woman, I have asked myself, “What would Jesus do in response to mean girls?” How can I bring light and grace into a dysfunctional work dynamic?

Here’s my response:

  • Don’t respond in kind. In a dysfunctional work relationship, the enemy often uses traps to cause us to sin. When someone maligns, slanders, ignores, or belittles us, it is easy to fight back out of our own insecurity and sin nature. For me, that can look like joining the fray with my own gossip, complaints, or alliance-forming. Jesus was no stranger to being targeted by the “in” crowd. The Pharisees set traps for him in order to expose him and to see him fail in front of his followers. Their own status was threatened and Jesus’ ministry success put them in jeopardy. But Jesus never took the bait. He always responded from a centered place, savvy to what was happening but consistently pointing back to the bigger picture of God’s kingdom purposes. Taking the high road is what Jesus would do, and I try to follow.
  • Offer grace. Jesus prayed on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Rarely is the mean action or word actually about what it seems to be about. Hurtful behavior from others is usually more a reflection of their brokenness and hurt overflowing. Jesus calls us to hope for the best for others and to treat them the way we want to be treated, and I aspire to this response. I find it helps to know someone’s story and to consider why the person may be so unhappy and disruptive. Sometimes it’s related to personal stress in their lives. Frequently it is a result of structural weaknesses at work, making them feel overworked, undervalued, and under-appreciated. Choosing to respond with compassion and forgiveness when I am treated poorly may not stop the bad behavior, but it does guard my own heart. It leaves the door open for change in the relationship and for healing to happen. This response requires the Holy Spirit’s work because it is counter to how human hearts work. It has required vast amounts of prayer related to my work life and my more challenging colleagues. 
  • Keep focused. As a Christ follower in the workplace, we are there at God’s good pleasure. If our lives have been fully submitted to God’s control, then complications on the way to obedience are God’s problem, not ours. When I get lost in my analyzing and strategizing, tossing and turning with anxious thoughts about how to find a way forward, I remain stuck. When I eventually remember, “God is God, and I am not,” I get to the important posture of submitting my life story again to God. It is the Divine One’s job to manage the difficult people, the roadblocks, the work that feels so frustrating. 

Jesus never forgot why he was on earth. He knew he needed to die on the cross to redeem a broken world. He set his face to that calling with firm determination, ignoring the temptations to grasp at shortcuts or misuse his power. Satan, the ultimate “mean girl” was banking on being able to derail Jesus away from his calling (see the temptations in the desert). He taunted, provoked, and played to Jesus’ physical weaknesses. But Jesus, steeped in Scripture truth and fully aligned with his heavenly Father, stood firm. And his faithfulness is what makes a way for all of us to be our true selves serving the one true God.

I confess that the mental exercise of WWJD about mean girls was initially just a way of amusing myself. But Jesus did come down into our human messiness. He experienced the unique pain of humans turning on one another. He walked through that sludge on his way to the cross so that we could live free from it. I no longer have to cower in a locked bathroom stall, feebly trying to protect myself. Jesus stands by me as compassionate friend, guide, and protector as I once more navigate the confusing and broken world of females, of males, of all of us. I am grateful.

About the Author

Sharon Gartland, OTD, OTR, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at UW-Madison where her specialty is in developmental disabilities.  She enjoys the combination of teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities that makes up her job. She is the former national director of Women in the Academy & Professions and continues to participate in the ministry as a volunteer and frequent contributor. She is married to Craig Gartland, a local church pastor and former long-term InterVarsity staff and leader. Together they have four children who are gradually getting launched into the world as functional adults but continue to store a lot of their stuff in the basement. She believes strong prayer practices and a supportive faith community are key to flourishing in career and family life. 

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