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Bullying in the church

Bullying in the church

Church culture is conducive to bullying, argues the Rev. Erik Parker in a recent blog post that has been making the rounds on social media. He writes:

Church bullies have a special advantage… Most church people have been taught to be nice and kind, to refrain from stirring the pot or rocking the boat. Church bullies know that often people will not stand up to them, and that they can get away with just about anything.

He offers a list of 12 ways in which bullies in the church operate, or are tolerated. For me the most telling are these:

4. People will worry that challenging bullies is unkind or unchristian. The vast majority of church members worry that their behaviour could be perceived as unkind or unchristian. You know, Jesus never stood up to anyone and never challenged bad behaviour. So as a bully you know most of the time you can be confident that other church members won’t stand up to you, lest they be thought of as creating conflict or being un-Christ like.

11. The congregational system (read: family system) will often work to keep you in power. Great church bullies know that individuals might challenge them, but the system will work to maintain the status quo. Bullies don’t change, and therefore don’t challenge the system. Intelligent individuals will cease thinking straight in a group and will seek to silence those who oppose bullies (and therefore advocate change in the system) since is it easier to maintain the norm. Feel confident that almost all of the group behaviour in a church is there to support your bullying.

There is, I suspect, no level of our own Episcopal Church that is free from bullying, from 815 Second Avenue to the vestries, altar guilds and Strawberry Festival planning committee at tiny churches. It happens online as well. My sense is that people do not call bullies on their behavior because they are not willing to pay the consequences for doing so.

Are there ways in which bullies can be called to account gracefully and patiently? And if that happens, will the church support the people or parties who do so, or acquiesce when the bully takes retribution, or the community attempts to sweep the incident under the rug?

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John B. Chilton

@George, I highly respect your assessments, so I say this with some hesitation.

I'm reacting to your comment just above and the your comment that began this comment thread.

I beg to differ. To some extent you are blaming the victim here. You can be a healthy adult with a strong sense of self-worth and identity and still be bullied. Or, to put it another way, the bully can take it away from you.

Are you going to blame the wife bullied by her husband? I hope not. I hope what you are saying is that the community needs to step up and provide the victim of bullying with resources to restore their self esteem.

Similarly, in a church system it takes the community to step up and police bullying. This is true whether we are talking about a bully in the congregation, or in the church office, or on a diocesan committee.

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George Clifford

Children need protection from bullies. Healthy adults have developed a strong sense of self-worth and identity that makes bullying impossible. The Church needs healthy, adult clergy able to resist bullying. Clergy worn down by bullying need help and time away before resuming their ministry.

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John B. Chilton

Somewhat related to the question of how does the community discipline bullies:

http://freakonomics.com/2014/01/31/more-benefits-of-gossip/

quote/

Dr Matthew Feinberg, a researcher at Stanford University in the United State who co-wrote the study, said: “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain co-operation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t.

“And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members.”

...

When people deemed selfish suffer social exclusion they often learn from the experience and reform their behaviour by co-operating more in future group settings, the team found.

/unquote

One way to frame this is -- do we have as few bullies as we have because we do employ gossiping and ostracizing.

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Rick+

A friend who is a counselor makes an important point about bullies: "Usually they play one of three archetypes: Bully, Victim, or Savior to get their way. Then they want you to play another of the three archetypes. If you refuse to do so, it diminishes their power."

So, for example, a person might start out with being a bully, and they want you to play the victim. If you refuse to, and can remain the non-anxious presence as Ann Fontaine so wisely said, they will probably try another of the archetypes: they will switch to being the victim and try getting you to be their savior, etc.

The key in my experience seems to be refuse to play an archetype, be the non-anxious presence, and speak truth in love.

[Editor's note: Thanks for the comment. Please sign your full name next time.]

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Paige Baker

Instead, we need to get serious about Christian formation, spiritual growth that helps people acquire the self-confidence, healthy assertiveness, self-awareness, and other characteristics that strip bullying of its power.

As the mother of a bullied child, I came to resent the suggestion that she was somehow contributing to her own victimization or could stop it by being appropriately "assertive."

People get bullied precisely because they don't have the power to stop it. Bullies aren't stupid--they pick people they know to be powerless or afraid. And they take the silence of those around them as evidence that they are perfectly justified in their actions.

I believe this to be just as true of adults as it is of children.

In my experience, the only thing that stops a bully is a group/community/authority figure standing up and saying "We aren't going to tolerate that behavior" and imposing consequences if the warning fails.

Bullying is violence. We should not put the burden on the victim to stop it.

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