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Recognize and stop bullies in church

By Eddie Hammett

Bullies can destroy a church by their determination to get their way or sway people to their side.

Bullying is a growing issue in our culture — in schools, businesses, organizations, families and communities. It is also a major problem in churches and other religious organizations. It often hides in the shadows of being right, politically right, getting control, or “this is the way I/we like it done.”

Church bullying is growing across the country as churches struggle with declining attendance, finances, commitment and community impact. Often church bullies target the pastor and staff, blaming their leaders for the decline in their church’s metrics or status. While certainly leaders do bear some of the responsibility, more often these diminishing numbers and impact is a pulpit, pew and cultural issue.
How should a pastor, staff member and congregation deal with church bullies?

Recognizing bullying
I realize that change is a difficult concept and process for many churches, and that many churches and clergy have little or no training in dealing with the exponential change we find ourselves in these days. Such a deficit raises fears, anxieties and frustration levels when things do not go a preferred or familiar way in a church.

Having coached with clergy and other church leaders, it is clear to me that pastor bashing and bullying is a critical issue in many churches regardless of size, type, theology, age of church or median age of the congregation. Church bullies not only do not want to change their preferences, but they want to blame others in order to protect their preferred ways or comfort zone. I have heard of or experienced church bullying in a variety of ways in a church:

  1. A Bible study group of older adults who repeatedly attack the pastor and staff with judgmental words accompanied by a spirit of anger, revenge or
    desire for their way.
  2. A finance or stewardship committee that holds the church purse strings as if the money were in their household family budget. They often control what is or is not permitted by controlling the spending based on their personal preferences rather than the church’s
    mission or desires.
  3. A very active, engaged lay leader that has his orher hand in everything not just to be a help, but to exercise some control in the way things are done to ensure their preferences are not ignored by others.
  4. A parent or guardian who becomes the mouth-piece for their child or grandchild in order to exercise control by evaluating all others by their personal preferences of parenting styles, disciplinary actions, dress preferences, programming preferences and standards. These parents usually are demanding, vindictive, persevering and filled with anger and revenge.
  5. A deacon body or trustee group that is more committed to their personal preferences or comfort zones than the divine mission for the church. This control is most often exercised in micromanaging pastor and staff, wanting the pastor to be all things to all people and keeping everyone happy. The mission of the church becomes maintenance – by the deacon or trustee’s standards – and very often inhibits the pastor to live Christ’s call on their lives and the church.
  6. There are clergy bullies out there who are driven by personal preferences, comfort zones and often seek to force the church into molds or styles they are more comfortable with rather than contextualizing ministry and facing their own learning curves and challenges.

Dealing with bullies
Church bullies like to stir up trouble; they love attention as much as they like getting their way. The more attention you give them the more they stir the pot. Of course, when you don’t give them attention it often initially escalates their anger, determination and vengeance. Very often the bully cannot let go of their agenda. It has them at the heart and no one sees it like they do! They truly believe they are doing the right thing and saving their church. However, more often than not, they have tunnel vision and it’s all about them.

If the church or group plays into their game, the bully wins, and very often the pastor, staff and the church loses because the community learns they fight at that church. Bullies create a bad reputation for the church, and often people – weary of the internal war and conflict – leave the church because of the bully control rather than the issue the bully is mad about. A group of bullies can destroy a church by their determination to get their way or sway people to their side. They very often really do not care for the pastor, church or community reputation or wounds. It’s all about their agenda!

So how do you manage such within a Christian context? How do you deal with such vengeance, anger, self-centeredness and hurt in a redemptive and Christian manner? Many pastors and churches have weakened because they opt to do nothing for fear of hurting people. They allow a small group to hurt – if not kill – the spirit and mission of their church in order to preserve someone’s feelings. How long will a church let the desire of a few condemn or control the future of their church?

Approaching the situation

  • Be prayerful and intentional while following the principles in Matthew 18.
  • Invite a neutral outsider to help with the process.
  • The issue has to be dealt with by trusted lay leaders who have earned the right to talk and be heard and are  willing to step up to the challenge of leadership.
  • The clergy are the target and they need to empower the lay leadership to determine next steps and carry out the desires of the congregation.
  • Go to the bully and respond to issues by asking, “What do you need from me that you are not getting now?”
  • Following this, negotiate with lay leadership and congregation if the bully’s demands are in line with the congregation’s mission.
  • Invite trusted friends and colleagues of the bully to become an advocate for furthering conversation, being careful not to get triangulated in the relationship.
  • Scripturally, if these ideas do not work, then you take it to the congregation. This can be done in some church governance, but depending on a possible pathology of the bully, it could become detrimental and destroy, or certainly scar deeply, those involved and the reputation of the congregation in the community at large.
  • Church bullies must be dealt with; otherwise the poison they spew will negatively impact the church’s forward movement, generate polarization and often fuel adetrimental reputation in the community.

Eddie Hammett lives in Hendersonville, N.C., and is a ministry colleague with The Columbia Partnership. He is a certified coach with the International Coach Federation. www.TransformingSolutions.org and www.cbfnc.org

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3 Comments for “Recognize and stop bullies in church”

  1. How can never-challenged church bullies – be stopped damaging the lives of newcomers, who join their church

  2. How can never-challenged church bullies be made to see the harm they’ve done, and steps taken to ensure they stop their damaging behaviour?

  3. Thank you for your article ~ As a church administrator I have watched bullies work to destroy the church and it’s leadership! There is not much information on how to handle this type of behavior so I really appreciate your writing this because it is exactly as I have experienced and I believe you will be a help to others. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated reading the warning to others on what to look for and what to do….very clear direction!

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