Q: Our church is experiencing what needs to be acknowledged as bullying tactics between some factions. How can we deal with this situation in a healthy and Christ like way?
A: Thankfully, not every church experiences bullying. Yet that’s one reason why, when it occurs, we are often not well prepared to deal with it. A bully, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a “person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” While public awareness of the impact of bullying, whether among school children or in the workplace, has increased, the attention hasn’t eliminated the behavior. Bullies can be found in various settings in life, including the church.
Despite healthy dynamics in most flourishing churches, opportunities for bullying can coexist—from pastors and laity alike. In fact, some aspects of Christian community can even allow bullying behavior to thrive. Why? Because of two key words in the above definition: influence and intimidate. Let’s take a closer look.
Churches are places where influence is valued.
Informally, hierarchies can emerge within churches based on factors of influence such as who helped start the church, who has been a long-time member of the denomination, who is successful financially, who knows key denominational leaders.
Areas for misuse of influence include donations (time or money), longevity (with the local church or denomination), and roles (lay leader or pastor). For example, if someone is unhappy with a pastor’s decision, the threat or actual withdrawal of attendance or financial support can become a bullying behavior as can threats to “report” behavior to district or denominational leaders.
Similarly, if parishioners ask questions that are seen as challenging authority, they may experience fewer leadership opportunities (such as being asked to teach/preach/sing, and so on). In these situations—whether intended or not influence can be leveraged to misuse of power, which, in turn, can be intimidating behavior.
Churches often have limited interpersonal accountability. Obviously, relationships are important within the church. But, without careful attention, informal relationships can define the church and, unchecked, unhealthy aspects can dominate.
Churches often have limited systems of accountability beyond “big” moral issues (sexual impropriety, embezzling funds, and the like). Without careful attention to the informal culture of church operations, the board or pastoral staff may be unaware of subtle changes in how people are treated. So, intimidation can be occurring unchecked unless we are discerning.
Q: How can we resolve this in a healthy and Christ like way?
A: Giving assent to the biblical value of each person and the importance of how we treat each other is a crucial baseline. Being discerning of how words shape our understanding of people is also central; when we hear innuendo, gossip, or subtle put-downs, we need to speak up in loving ways—in a spirit of accountability.
If the action is more overt—misuse of power or threats—we must begin with the biblical admonition to approach the offender with two persons, define what is observed, and ask that the behavior stop. To ignore bullying behavior is to allow ungodly interactions to define our churches. This isn’t tolerated in the workplace or schools, and should not be tolerated in church-based organizations.
Anita Fitzgerald Henck is dean of the School of Education at Azusa Pacific University and a frequent consultant to churches and faith-based nonprofits on projects relating to organizational culture, mission, and values including building healthy organizations.
Holiness Today, 2013
Please note: This article was originally published in 2013. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.