Equipping the Bystanders

I was initially going to call this post “Bullies Unleashed.”

There have always been bullies in church and only the most naive among us believe that everybody in church is kind and sweet. Church exists for people who need help whether it’s because we are bullies or we are broken. (Actually bullies are usually broken but that’s for another post.)

COVID has unleashed the bullies in Church. While – again – there have always been bullies in congregations, the world feels upside down. From isolation to political division to half the world being on fire while the other half is under water, we are deeply weary. During COVID congregations lost members and money and traditions and a way of being God’s people that brought comfort and routine. And now – as early COVID dissapates and new variants spread – worship is different, Sunday school is different, meetings are different. Many people are not “back” and many are never coming back.

And bullies have been empowered. It’s easy to take out our COVID frustrations on volunteer organizations and my ministry coach tells me that this is happening everywhere. Bullies are mistreating their pastors and other leaders. I’ve heard more stories from pastors about COVID bullies than any other time in my 30+ years of professional ministry.

Long before COVID, when HH and I were co-pastors, a former pastor of our church asked to meet with us while he was in town visiting. The day before, he had eaten lunch with a group of members and – as he told it to us – one parishioner in particular spent the whole lunch “shredding” us. That church member – an elder by the way – criticized us in searing terms. The former pastor thought we needed to know that we had a Session member who was doing this.

What did the other members at lunch say when they heard him talk about us like that?

And the former pastor simply said, “Nothing.” The others around the table had kept silent rather than speak up and defend us.

Anti-bullying and anti-racism advocates often teach us how to speak up when we witness different forms of public harassment and we need this kind of training in church too. Church people need to recognize that “saying nothing” while witnessing bullying in church is the same as condoning it.

No – it’s not okay to ignore it or change the subject or meet privately with the person who was bullied after the fact and express our shock at ___’s behavior. This is not the way of Jesus, my friends.

In this COVID/post-COVIDish time, I’ve heard of bullies lashing out at pastors and church volunteers for everything from favoring one form of worship over another to misplacing the microphone. I’ve personally heard bullies scream at pastors in meetings while the pastor took it and no one stepped up to say, “This is not how we talk to each other.” Emotionally controlled leaders can say this themselves: “This is not how we speak to our siblings in Christ” and then they go home and cry for a while.

What really hurts is when there are witnesses and the witnesses don’t have the courage to step in.

Pastors are called to equip the saints for ministry and strengthening bystanders is just as essential as teaching the saints how to pray or exegete Scripture. It’s about modeling justice. It’s about modeling pastoral care.

Just as God intervened in human life as Jesus, we are called to intervene when faced with suffering. Let’s teach our leaders how to do this. We can shift Church Culture to become a Culture of Respect.

Thanks to LF for helping me wrestle with this.

2 responses to “Equipping the Bystanders

  1. I would hope the former pastor in your story stopped the shredding, but it doesn’t sound like it. 😕

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  2. Excellent. I have witnessed a member verbally attack our minister during 10A meetings. And while I was shocked , another member had the wherewithal to say how troubled and disgusted she was at the meanness. If our minister ( now retired ) did nothing else , he told us from the beginning that his job was equip us to be ministers–little Christs.

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