As I have written about before, the church is not exempt from the realities of interpersonal relationships outside of the church. While there is a desire that inside the walls of a church there is safety and love instead of hatred and attacks, this desire is something still to strive for and not a reality. The human behaviors which we encounter in neighborhoods, workplaces, and social groups can all be found within the church. This may be the reason that when we do, and we will, encounter negative and hurtful behaviors in the church, it seems even worse than in other settings.
I doubt that any of us have not encountered a bully at least once in our lives. Perhaps the first time occurred on the playground of our elementary school. A bully is anyone who uses intimidation, hateful words, or even physical attacks to manipulate someone into doing or giving them whatever they demand. Schools have always been an environment where bullies seem to exist. However, workplaces can also have a fair number of bullies. Today, social media has opened new avenues for bullies to exert their power. Our education system has worked hard to reduce the impact of bullies on the lives of students but this is a difficult task in light of the number of adults who are bullies as well and youth learn behaviors from adults. The one location which we all hope is free from bullying is the church. Sadly, this is not the case. Church bullies exist and the behaviors are identical to what can be found in the other settings which I have just mentioned.
So what does a church bully look like?
As is the case in the schools, workplaces, and other groups, there are all types of bullies. In addition, to the different types, there are a variety of methods which are utilized to achieve the desired responses from those who are being bullied. I will share a few from personal experience and/or observation.
The Money Bully
One of the most common forms of bully in the church is the money bully. This is an individual who attempts to use their financial contributions as leverage in getting their desires met. They might say something such as… “If the new sanctuary carpet is green, I will stop meeting my pledge commitment.” Their goal is to create the perception that the church will experience a huge financial disadvantage if their preferred color of carpet is not chosen during the sanctuary remodel. An interesting aspect of this type of bully is that there is little evidence available to confirm the threat. Since most church financial giving is kept highly confidential, a person may make the threat even though they are one of the average or below average contributors. Also, will the person actually carry through on the threat is an unknown.
The Volunteer Bully
These are the individuals who use their volunteer hours to manipulate a situation. Usually this type of bully will be heard saying a similar statement like…”I will just stop helping with (fill in the blank) if I am not allowed to (fill in the blank).” Their goal is to take control of the event or project by threatening to walk away if their preferences are not followed. Since the church’s ministry is primarily accomplished through strong volunteers, this threat can carry some weight in the decisions being made by whoever is in charge.
The Behind-the-Scenes Bully
A bully of this persuasion operates in the shadows. The individual enjoys having parking lot conversations with others to rally others to the bully’s way of thinking. These days the conversations do not even necessarily have to occur in the parking lot thanks to the use of email and social media messaging. Bullies who utilize these methods try to undermine the leaders who they disagree with and achieve their goals and desires. I think they can be the most dangerous type of bullies because of their clandestine approach.
What do we do?
Let me first respond by stating that dealing with a bully is never easy. It requires courage and risk. Accepting those requirements, confronting bullying in the church starts by naming it truthfully. The tendency is to dance around the issue and try to redirect so that an actual confrontation can be avoided. By not confronting, the bullying is actually encouraged. The bully gains confidence and feels there is no threat to their power. With time, this will create an environment which will destroy the participation of others and negatively impact the ministry of the congregation.
Once honest naming of the bullying occurs, the leaders within the congregation must have a conversation with the one doing the bullying. This conversation should always occur with at least two leaders present. Important to this conversation is the attitude which the leaders take into it. The goal should always be to work for reconciliation and to affirm the bully’s positives, to acknowledge their views, and to strive to redirect their energies in a positive direction. However, the leaders also need to make sure they point out why this type of behavior has a negative impact on the ministry. Support in changing behavior should be promised by the leaders.
After the initial conversation, a follow-up conversation should occur. During this second conversation, the person should be able to express how they feel they are changing their approach and where they may need additional support. The person should also be given the opportunity to state any continuing or new concerns which may be present with the project or ministry task. If continued bullying behavior has been identified, the leaders must address this honestly as well.
Unfortunately, even after continued conversation with the bully, there may not be a resolution and the behavior continues. If this occurs, then the leadership of the congregation as a whole must make a decision regarding the future of the individual within the life of the congregation. The choice of a bully to continue the behavior is the bully’s choice. The choice of the leadership to allow it to continue to exist within the congregation is the leadership’s choice. Sometimes leaders have to make the difficult decision to allow a person to find another spiritual community which may be a better fit for their desires.
I have only raised a few types of bullies encountered in the church. The reality is that there are bullies in the church. The health of the congregation and its ministry depends upon the willingness of the leadership to address this behavior.
If you have other types of bullies which you have encountered in the church, or have other suggestions on how to address this behavior, please be sure to comment.