by Eric Bonetti
One of the great tragedies in any church is when it becomes, rather than a place of safety and comfort, a place of pain and anguish due to bullying. And while there are many articles out there on how to deal with individual bullies, group bullying often goes unrecognized and unaddressed, and it is surprisingly common in churches.
Here’s what you need to know about this tragic phenomena:
1. There’s a great description of group bullying in the Bible
Just look at the events leading up to the crucifixion. A group clamors for the death of Jesus, who is considered an outsider based on the notion that he is king of the Jews. Emotions run high, and the group conveniently forgets that Jesus is, in fact, also a Jew and presumably also suffering under the Roman occupation. Pontius Pilate, who has authority to quash the uproar and clearly is sympathetic to Jesus, is an enabler who goes along with the crowd, despite the pain and suffering his decision causes.
Similarly, in a church setting, the group often is a specific program, ministry, or group of staff members. The victim usually is someone, perceived not as a fellow parishioner and Christian but rather as an outsider, who like Jesus does something, either on a one-time or recurring basis, not to the group’s liking. Despite the victim’s good intentions, the crowd closes in and acts to punish the victim via a hailstorm of criticism and other bad behavior. The situation quickly gets out of hand if clergy, the wardens, or others in authority “pull a Pilate” and fail to act decisively, or even worse participate in the bullying.
2. Group bullying often involves an array of behaviors
While group bullying may not involve physical violence or threats, there’s typically a range of equally troubling behaviors, ranging from the “cold shoulder,” to the arched eyebrow and pointed sigh, to threats of suicide and other manipulative and sometimes truly outlandish behaviors. Raised voices are not uncommon, as are hyperbole and speculation about the victim. A favorite: The explosive outburst. The precipitating event is invariably innocuous, since the bully knows that the tantrum works best when it comes out of the blue.
These behaviors may not, as isolated instances, be particularly troubling, but when used consistently and deliberately, can have a profoundly hurtful effect on the victim and, ironically enough, on the bullies, who lose track of our shared humanity and the components of healthy, loving relationships. This is turn leads to a toxic parish, with the result that even those not directly involved suffer.
When you confront the bullies about their behavior, don’t be surprised if they try to throw the victim under the bus or question the veracity of others, or resort to tears and other camouflage. Remember, bullies believe the best defense is a good offense!
3. The bullying group often justifies its actions
Just like hate crimes, in which the perpetrator often appears genuinely surprised when apprehended and responds with something ludicrous such as, “But she was a lesbian,” or “But he’s a Muslim,” bullying groups often attempt to justify their actions: “She disrupts my work,” or “He didn’t ask us first,” or “But my grandfather hung that painting there….how dare someone move it?”
The latter, which is the appeal to tradition and the recitation of some personal connection to the issue (typically long forgotten by others), is particularly common in churches. My experience suggests that both group and individual church bullies often see themselves as guardians of tradition, the only persons in the parish who know how things have always been done and, for that very reason, justified in their behavior. This is the case even if those involved have no formal role in the organization. Indeed, this real or imagined lack of power in the organization, in the minds of the bullies, warrants especially strenuous behavior, since others are seen as not appreciating their unique insight.
Another justification that’s often used is stress. Bullies respond to stress by offloading on others, which in turn leads to self-justifying behavior. “Just look at all the interruptions I have to deal with!”, or “he is always late getting things to me!”, the bully proclaims as he or she torments others.
4. Some telltale signs of group bullying
In addition to the “us-versus-them” paradigm and other factors described above, look for situations in which the reaction is out of all proportion to the issue and the focus is not on resolving the underlying issue. Indeed, bullying groups often cite some ludicrously small event or complaint as the reason for their behavior, such as changing lightbulbs in the parking lot, the food for a parish event, or some other issue that, on its face, is inconsequential.
Neither are facts an obstacle. Bullies will claim, for example, that they are physically unable to clean up after themselves, even if they have done so for years and there is no reason to believe that their physical capabilities have changed. And if you ask them to do so, they will explode in rage at your purported lack of compassion.
Also, just as the mob appealed to Pilate to do what it could or would not do, look for triangulation, or reaching out to persons other than the individual involved as folks demand retribution. For instance, vestry members may be the subject of complaints to clergy, or clergy may get complaints about other clergy. But in almost every case the one thing that will be notably absent is an effort to speak directly with the victim of the bullying, at least in any meaningful, positive way.
The victims of group bullying are, sadly enough, often truly gentle people who may be reluctant to complain or fight back. Bullies being what they are, they are most likely to attack those they they sense will pose an easy target.
5. Look for ringleaders
Just as the chief priests begin hurling accusations at Jesus in the hours prior to the crucifixion, so too are there usually one or two key people behind the bullying. These often are strong-willed persons, and not uncommonly hold jobs in which the ability to remain in control is prized, such as teaching and law enforcement. Because these personalities often are high achievers, they may be well embedded within the church and have many friends, as they tend to be very involved.
If the ringleaders don’t manage to arrange for their victims to leave the church or suffer a meltdown, they often will turn around and, ironically enough, lead efforts to resolve the problem. While this may seem paradoxical, it actually makes sense. The bullies wrap themselves in the cover of sweet reason, claiming the moral high ground, strengthening their “leadership” within the bullying group, all the while reserving the right to return to the fray down the road, more powerful than ever.
6. Bullying groups often comprise truly decent individuals
Groups that bully often are made up of persons who, as individuals, would utterly oppose bullying. Yet, when a group invokes a common, outside threat, they rally around their friends and quickly join forces, abrogating the responsibility to “respect the dignity of every human being.”
Groups that are prone to bullying behavior typically are very close-knit or have an intimate working relationship, often structured around a specific ministry or job function that, rightly or wrongly, perceives itself as essential to the functioning of the church. This sense of camaraderie makes it easy to close ranks and go on the warpath–so much so that folks will make statements like, “You really don’t want the food pantry folks as enemies.”
Enemies? In a church? This sort of comment speaks volumes about the dynamics behind group bullying.
7. Group bullying may arise in times of crisis or change
Often, a church that has experienced an unexpected death or other crisis will fall into a group bullying situation. Emotions already are running high, and normal outlets for pent-up emotion may be displaced as folks deal with their loss and sorrow. In such cases, groups may transfer their feelings, assigning them to real or imagined slights, then over-reacting, often without even realizing that they are doing so.
This happens, too, in the midst of a major change, such as the retirement of a beloved rector. Without a central focus point, groups begin to jostle for position within the church, and react badly to an interim clergy person or other perceived interloper.
8. If you ignore the problem, you are part of the problem
Let me preface this with a caveat: Bullies, whether groups or individuals, often are good at concealing their presence. For example, some of the most egregious bullies out there are those who would otherwise appear to be sweet, maternal or paternal souls. Yet right beneath the surface lies a tiger, ready to spring into action.
But once you realize that bullying is occurring, you cannot and must not ignore it. Bullying groups tend to repeat their behavior over time, and they cause immense suffering and disruption. Those in power have a duty to act quickly and decisively to shut down the bullying and make it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated–even if that risks having individuals or groups leave the church. Church has no value at all if it cannot be a place of physical and emotional safety.
It’s also important to recognize that bullying, especially group bullying, is like a fire and quickly spreads if not extinguished. You may think your issue is in a particular program, office, or ministry, but ignore the matter, and it will quickly pop up elsewhere in your church. And there’s no hiding from a bully–even if you aren’t personally attacked, the bad karma is more than enough to go around, and it will erode your love for your church, your ministry, and other things important to you.
To make matters worse, rolling back a tide of bullying is a little like dieting: It goes on quickly and imperceptibly, but comes off slowly and only with effort. So don’t delay. The longer you do the bigger a mess you will have on your hands.
9. You can help
Besides making clear that bullying behavior is unacceptable, bullies must understand that bullying will result in consequences, whether it is potential loss of employment or, in egregious cases, being asked to leave the church.
It’s also possible to head-off both bullying and other forms of trouble by asking those who come to you to complain about others, “Have you spoken directly to this person about your concerns?”, or “Why are you telling me this?”. Bullies are famous for triangulation and forum-shopping, often going from person to person as they look for a toehold from which to cause trouble.
10. Outside help is available
Bullying is a common change management issue, and there are many experts in organizational, church, and nonprofit management who have specific training in addressing these situations. And because bullying groups often treat their complaints as life-or-death matters, you may save yourself a lot of wear and tear handing the issue off to someone who does not have to deal with the individuals involved over time.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.