There have always been church bullies. I don’t know whether some people are simply inclined to act out in despotic ways (e.g. the bossy personality gone awry) or if circumstances (our church is falling apart!) move ordinarily collaborative humans to act out.
But Bullying Pastors and Bullying Parishioners are real. (I won’t get into Bullying Mid-Council Leaders here but maybe you’ve met them too.)
This article by David Brubaker spells out the four participants necessary for bullies to thrive:
- There is The Bully who humiliates and gaslights. Like Brubaker, I appreciate this 2015 article about the characteristics of bullies by Thom Rainer. The Rainer article would be a good discussion piece for church elders to consider asking leaders, “Do we have a bully problem in this congregation?” This would be a brave conversation important to establishing norms and transparency.
- There is The Victim whom The Bully targets. The Victim could be a vulnerable person or someone who questions The Bully.
- There is The Enabler who sides with The Bully. Brubaker says that enablers are either “true believers” who follow the bully’s lead or “craven opportunists” who believe that backing up the bully with help them gain their own power. Good points. But I have found that enablers simply believe life will be easier if they stand with the most powerful person in the room – even if that person is a bully.
- There is The Bystander who’s afraid to step in and speak up. Sometimes bystanders are simply conflict-averse. And sometimes they are terrified that the bully’s wrath will be turned on them next. Bystander Training is a good idea for church councils because according to this 2018 article in the HBR, trained bystanders help in “leveraging the people in the environment to set the tone for what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable behavior.”
Imagine a staff meeting or a board meeting or even a congregational meeting in which The Bully antagonizes The Victim will The Enablers looking on while The Bystanders speak up and call The Bully on their misbehavior. This just might stop the bullying – at least for a moment. And squelching it over and over again day after day, week after week could change the DNA of the organization and therefore alter the system.
Especially in church settings when we are expected to be “nice” it’s tricky to know how to act when someone is not being nice. Nice People who witness bullying behavior don’t know what to do with it. If we who are Nice People challenge the bully, will we lose our Niceness Status?
As I’ve personally witnessed institutional bullying through the years, what makes me saddest is noticing that many leaders (or people who are supposed to be leaders) seem indifferent to church bullying. They don’t seem to care enough to be willing to change the system.
“It’s just the way things are around here.” “That’s just the way she is.” “He’s always been like that.”
I don’t accept this as a church leader.
A thriving organization and especially a thriving church organization depends upon participants who hold each other accountable out of love for God and each other. It’s deadly to have bullies in church systems. I’ve observed it more often than I’d like to admit.
The hardest action is moving from someone standing by and letting bullying happen to standing up for what is right.
Worked for a psychologist as an admi. while going to seminary. He said that research showed with basic, run of the mill bullies it is necessary to get right up in their face—to stand right up to them figuratively and sometimes literally. I have done it a couple of times and sure enough, they backed off. The time that I was moderating session, the elders got to see an alternative approach and were empowered to go and do likewise. In small congregations, it changes the dynamic toward health very quickly if the people are open.
I stood up to it while others stood by and watched. I sacrificed so much when we eventually left, and grieve the loss of that church like I grieve the loss of my parents. But I wouldn’t have done it any differently.
I have been dealing with church bullies for years. These bullies had gotten so bad that they made up lies about my Mom and got her kicked out of the church. This was all so that they could get the preacher that they wanted for our church. Mom has since passed away. My Mom was giving the most money at church which in one year was enough to pay for the preacher. Since her passing giving has dropped and our church is struggling. Due to the bullies in our church we can’t pick up new members and current members don’t always attend every Sunday. The one bully has been for years blaming me for the bad things that happen in church. I have attended this church all my life. My family has been very big in the church since the beginning. I have thought about leaving and I realize that if I do that it will not solve the problem. I just got to keep praying about it and seeking God.
The worst bullies are narcissistic clergy. Charming, personable, friendly, yet willing to do anything to get their way. In the case of my former rector, that even extended to committing perjury in court