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.

One Person

A pitfall which can be a destructive force within the church is when everything revolves around one person—the pastor. When I was in seminary, one of my professors reminded the class of an important truth, he said that we had to be cautious about everything becoming about us as the pastor. We had been guided on all the important aspects of being a pastor. The importance of building relationships; effectively communicating the Gospel in actions and words; and walking alongside people as they began, continued, or finished their faith journeys were a few of these meaningful insights.

I learned that finding a connecting point with as many members of the congregation as possible was valuable. This did not mean everyone would like me but if I could find a way to connect with them in their lives, I could more effectively serve them as a spiritual support and teacher. Building relationships became important in my ministry alongside those who I had been called to serve.

My ability to communicate the Gospel in a manner which allowed people to incorporate it in their thoughts and lives was a gift that God has given me. This was identified by others before I made the step to attend seminary. Others pointing out this gift from God was one of the aspects of my recognizing the call God has placed on my life. My background in public speaking, which began in high school, enhanced the delivering of the Lord’s message on Sunday mornings. I also have a passion for, and some would say a gift for teaching.

Building relationships and communicating the Gospel became cornerstones to my ministry efforts. There were other areas of ministry which I was not the best at but these which I did possess became valuable in my work. I believe that these two cornerstones also endeared me to many members in the congregations which I have been blessed to serve. However, I was always mindful of the warning my professor gave me and my classmates in seminary. I would remind myself, and sometimes others, that I am called to serve with the people in a congregation for a relatively short period of time but they were called to continue to serve when I had been led elsewhere.

The issue that I see in some situations is that the pastor becomes beloved by members of the congregation. Why this creates problems is that when a pastor becomes beloved, it can be easy for that individual’s ego to become too powerful for her/him to manage effectively. This is only fueled when the congregation loves the pastor so much they fail to see the pastor’s warts. A pastor on a pedestal is bound to take a huge fall one day when their ego and the blindness of the congregation fails to keep the person humble.

Another issue which can arise is that members of the congregation can start abdicating their responsibilities as followers of Christ to the pastor. When there is not equal footing and responsibility within the relationships of the church, everything can easily become all about the pastor. The successes and the failures become the pastor’s. The effectiveness of the ministry is weakened due to the reality that no one person can possibly do everything needed. Pastors make mistakes like any other human being so when this occurs, and it WILL occur, if no shared ministry between pastor and members exists, the mistake can have devastating consequences.

When Jesus gave the Great Commission, it was given to a community of believers. There were apostles, teachers, merchants, fishermen, parents, children, families, farmers, lawyers, and all types of individuals with all forms of gifts and talents. Never was it intended that ministry should ever be about one person. The community of faith was designed to be a COMMUNITY which walked together, laughed together, cried together, learned together, and served together. Nowhere in Scripture does it indicate that one person, the pastor, should be the center of the community and the chief architect of ministry. I have never discovered the finding of an addendum where the Great Commission moved from being a community call to a one-person call.

It is not about the pastor. It is about a community of believers who have a leader who has been given the title of pastor working together to effectively communicate the Gospel to the place and time in which they live. Making ministry about the pastor, good or bad, is a way to destroy the potential ministry which can be done.

A New Era

A reality which is not easy for most churches to accept is that we now live in a time referred to as post-Christendom. What this means is that the elevated status which the Christian church experienced previously is no longer true today. Anyone who is actively involved in a church realizes that there are fewer people who attend worship services, even fewer people who attend activities sponsored by the church, and extremely fewer people who participate in any form of Christian education classes than in the 1950s in the United States. There are many factors which has led to the movement past Christendom but this is a reality which needs to be accepted.

If this is the reality which we now face in the Western Christian church, what are we to do about it? My first response is to realize that well planned programming and an outstanding marketing campaign are no longer the answers. The general approach of the church when it was on top of the societal spectrum was all we have to do is get them in the door then we will be able to add them as members. This could not be any farther from the truth these days. I have watched churches (and attempted myself) to provide the best programming options for people. I have seen very hard work put into getting the name of a church before as many people as possible. Yet, over and over this produced limited, if any, measurable results.

What the church needs to realize is that the priority of getting people in the pews is a futile goal. Instead, the church needs to move out of the building and to the locations where the people are located. This will require the church to operate in a completely different manner than the way we have conducted ourselves in the past. The training that our church leaders have received, and in many cases still are receiving, will provide limited assistance as we move into this new era. There remains value in our church leaders learning the academic information so they can assist people when they are searching for their own answers. However, there now needs to be a component regarding how to seek out people where they live, work, and play. Training must be done to teach our leaders ways to minister outside the building and to lead other members of the fellowship to do the same.

My perception is that we are being required to the model of ministry which was common during Jesus’ time and a model which the church has adopted at various times throughout history. Jesus clearly went where the people were to minister to them and to share the message from God. He would be found in pastures, on hillsides, along lakes, in market places, and in the temples and synagogues. He would spend his time taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Then he would share the message of God using images which the people in the particular location understood. There was not a specific location which was set aside for worship, practical ministry, or education. A specific day or time was not set up for any of this to take place.

Another reality of the post-Christendom society in which we live is that what people are seeking in their faith journeys is different today than in the era before. While there is still a place for ritual and learning, people today want to focus on practically applying their faith to life. There exists a strong desire to make an impact on the world in a positive manner. Instead of an inward focus, there is an outward focus. The church has an awesome opportunity here and can emerge as a great leader in this area. First, we demonstrate it by leaving the walls of a building and immersing ourselves where people are gathering. Second, we share our love in words and actions which allows us to point to God, the source and very nature of love. Third, we make ourselves available for people to ask questions. Fourth, we show people how to apply the love of God in their daily lives and as a body of individuals who go into the world instead of a building.

The church is no longer on top. We can choose to sit in our buildings, spend hours trying to figure out how to get others to come sit in our buildings, and bemoan the fact that our buildings become emptier every year, or…. We can re-imagine how we can be the church outside of the walls. We can learn to worship, teach, care for, and fellowship with people in a variety of settings. We can learn from the model of Jesus and the itinerant leaders of our past. We can continue to be the church with a new list of priorities.

A New Role

A fabulous author, leader, and visionary, the late Phyllis Tickle, talked about a trend in the Church. She presented the idea that every approximate five hundred years, the Church would do a garage sale. What she was referring to is the idea that due to a variety of forces, the Church was made to look at itself and determine what aspects of being the Church it was going to keep and what aspects would be discarded as the Church moved forward into the future. Her viewpoint was that the Church is currently in one of those periods which started in the early 2000s or a little earlier. (To read about this more in depth read her book, The Great Emergence: How the Church is Changing and Why [2008].)

I think that her theory is very accurate. I also think that we are still in the midst of one of the Church’s “garage sales.” There is a lot of turmoil within the institutional church. We are trying to figure out what will take us into the next five hundred years in a way which will serve the people of God both within and outside of the Church. This inventory and choosing is being done by individuals and by the corporate body. I have addressed this in previous posts without referencing Tickle’s theory but definitely in the same vein as her theory.

In this post, I want to lift up the idea that there is a growing need for nontraditional ministry models. Specifically, I am thinking about the role of leaders, usually referred to as clergy, in nontraditional ministry. The traditional clergy role is one which is connected to a specific congregation, in a specific location, under a denominational title. I do not support the elimination of the traditional role as I have just described but I think it is time that the Church is open to other ways for clergy to live out a ministry role. A vital one which is overlooked as of now is one that utilizes technology.

With the increase in technology and the manner in which it connects us in new ways, I believe it is time for the Church to acknowledge a ministry role for clergy which focuses on technological connections. To date, the Church has just added to the list of duties for traditional clergy, a component which points toward involvement in social media and the internet. I have personally been one of these traditional clergy who has attempted to actively use technology in my ministry. The problem with this is that there is not enough time to adequately serve in this capacity. The amount of time and energy necessary to fulfill the traditional role of clergy as I outlined above, leaves a fair inadequate amount of time and energy to do any sort of justice to a social media ministry. In order to honestly provide ministry in this area, the Church must acknowledge it as a validated ministry with the same status as a clergy person serving in a local congregation.

One aspect of ministry which Jesus demonstrated and the Church has at times striven to live out is the idea that ministry occurs where people are at a given time. Jesus did this by walking from village to village and sitting on hillsides or by lakes. The Church has done this by sending people to new lands. I believe this is what Jesus meant when Matthew records him saying, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” The key word here is GO. Jesus intended the Church to go where the people are. Today, the people are in the cyberworld. For me, this legitimized the importance of an affirmed ministry role for clergy in this aspect of life.

Do you agree that this is a need? How might this need be part of the change happening in the Church? What other nontraditional ministry roles need to be considered?