Church Bullies

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.

Understanding Prayer

Prayer is one of the most common aspects of any faith system. Every faith tradition which acknowledges a belief in a higher power has some form of prayer as one of its spiritual practices. Some systems have regimented prayer structures. Others are relaxed and dependent more upon the individual than upon a structure. No matter how a particular faith practices prayer, the understanding is that prayer is a conversation between a person or group of people and the higher power which is at the center of the beliefs.

A challenge which prayer presents is that there are such a variety of forms and so many ideas about prayer that we often stumble over ourselves attempting to engage in prayer. As a Christian, I have often heard people say they cannot pray. Whenever I hear that, I am saddened because often this type of thought is the result of someone telling them that they do not pray correctly. At these times I explain to the person that a “right way” to pray does not exist. Sure there are formulas that some individuals use but a specific pattern or specific words are not at all necessary. Usually structured or patterned prayers are intended to introduce the concept of prayer to a person but are not mandatory in any way.

Prayer is a conversation, a conversation which should include a sharing of thoughts and feelings like any other conversation you have in life. A unique aspect about this conversation though is the reality that there is no audible response from the other one in the conversation. I am not saying there does not exist a response, just not one to which we are accustomed. A person needs to be open to experiencing the response in a much different way. Yet what remains is the understanding that prayer is a conversation and does not need to be difficult.

I have been practicing my faith for a large number of years. I have been trained as a leader in my faith. Over all those years and through all my training and service, I have prayed in different settings both aloud and silently. I have led prayer and I have been led in prayer. All types of prayers have been a part of my experience. I continue to learn of other ways people pray. Through all this, I have come to the point where praying is no longer confined to a specific time or location but seems to have become woven into my everyday life. I had heard of continuous prayer but had no perception what that might mean. Instead, continuous prayer in my life has just happened. I feel constantly engaged in conversation with my God. Different experiences, different settings, and different forms of expression make up continuous prayer for me.

Let me confess, I am not sure that the title I have given this blog post is fair or accurate. I say this because I do not believe that prayer can truly be understood. Prayer contains so many elements and expressions that it cannot be neatly tied up with a definition or a specific formula. Prayer instead is an experience, an experience that is unique to every person, every faith, and every culture. Accepting this reality is what I think has opened the door to continuous prayer for me.

Since prayer is such a large topic, I want you to view this as an introduction into my thoughts on this topic. I can promise more blog posts concerning prayer as time moves along. I would also love to hear of your experiences of prayer.

Learning Opportunities

Two recent events has caused me to reflect upon the importance of learning from individuals who are members of faith communities which are different from my own. Unfortunately, both events share the common thread of hatred and misunderstanding.

The first event occurred almost eight thousand miles away in Christchurch, New Zealand. I am referring to the deadly shootings which took place at two mosques over a week ago. We may never understand what led the man to carry out such an act of hatred. What we do know is that lives were forever changed on that day as we have seen it happen in so many other situations. We also know that one piece of motivation for the shooter was the faith which individuals in those mosques practice.

The second event occurred on my Facebook page. Facebook is good at reminding us about various posts, events, and relationships which have shown up on our timeline. This week Facebook reminded me that on March 26, 2017, I joined others at the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids to show support for my Muslim friends and those throughout our nation. There was fear in their lives due to the announcement of possible deportation of certain individuals who had immigrated from other countries. Words of hatred were being spoken throughout our nation because of fear. We gathered on that day to hear from speakers from a variety of faith traditions. We then encircled the Mother Mosque and sang together to show our solidarity in support of those who practice the faith of Islam.

Until moving to Cedar Rapids, I had little understanding regarding the Islamic faith. I had always been open to learning about other Christian faith communities. However, I had never really had an opportunity to meet and have discussion with a Muslim. After moving to Cedar Rapids, I became part of a congregation which was open to learning and understanding people who were different from themselves. The pastor had met and heard one of the Imams from one of two mosques in our community. She invited him to come and speak on two Sundays to our adult class. I was amazed how much I learned. Then after becoming a member of the staff at the church, I had an opportunity to work alongside the Imam and some of his youth. We began a relationship which was enriching for myself and for the youth whom I was leading. We shared in a variety of service projects and enjoyed some educational opportunities.

These thoughts came rushing back into my mind over the last weeks due to the two events which I mentioned earlier. This has reminded me how important it is for us to take advantage of every learning opportunity we may be given with regard to understanding different faith traditions. Whether that learning takes place within our own faith tradition or when we learn from other faith traditions. This is vitally important because fear comes from the unknown and fear can lead us to do acts of hatred on different levels. By learning from one another, the unknown is taken away along with misinformation. We come to see each other as humans and not as “them.” When fear is replaced by knowledge and relationship, our behaviors show our unity and not our separation.