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Mennonite Brethren HeraldVolume 46, No. 10October 2007
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Bullying can take the form of dominating the microphone at church meetings, manipulating votes, and using Scripture to oppress and silence others.

Bullies in the church

Melissa Miller

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“Lead a life worthy of your calling,” Paul writes in Ephesians. “With humility, gentleness and patience, bear with one another in love” (paraphrased Ephesians 4:1–2). In the church, we often see people demonstrate these qualities promoted by Paul.

We see people “take the high road” in church decision-making and conflicts, and we’re inspired to follow, to act like Christians.

There are other times, however, when it seems we’ve forgotten the basics of good manners, let alone the Christian values of humility, patience, and forbearance. Sometimes we see bullying in the church, and we’re puzzled and discouraged. Perhaps you’ve witnessed these kinds of behaviours – browbeating language, threats to leave the church or to withhold funds, disparaging gossip or destructive emails, or the use of the pulpit to berate, humiliate, or chastise others.

How does it happen that Christians, followers of Jesus who taught and modelled respect, compassion, and self-giving love, act like bullies? How does it happen that Christians become tongue-tied bystanders seemingly powerless to confront such bullying? Most importantly, how can Christians stop bullying in churches?

What is bullying?

First, we must identify and define bullying. Author Barbara Coloroso (writing about child and teen cruelty in The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander) zeroes in on the hurtful nature of bullying. It happens in situations of power imbalance, she says. The bully wants to hurt his or her target. And the harmful behaviour tends to be repeated.

Coloroso identifies three attitudes that allow people to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion, or shame. These attitudes include the liberty to exclude a person who isn’t deemed worthy of respect or care, intolerance for difference, and a sense of entitlement, which includes the right to dominate others.

In churches, this can take the form of dominating the microphone at church meetings, manipulating congregational votes, nonverbal expressions of contempt, the use of Scripture to oppress and silence others, stalking, and harassment. It might be clergy who bully, or it might be other congregational leaders who bully the pastor and other members.

In summary, bullying includes the abuse of power with the intention to silence or hurt another, and the bullying typically occurs repeatedly.

But our Christian values contrast with such destructive actions. In the Christian community, we’re called to use our power for the good of others. Our behaviour should bring healing, wholeness, justice, and peace to others. Our destructive, negative actions shouldn’t be habitual, but should be brought into and shaped by the light of Christ’s transformative grace.

The church torn apart

Great harm is done by bullying in the church. In my informal research, people have spoken painfully about their experience as targets of bullies, or as witnesses to bullying in a church they love. They describe themselves as feeling powerless, devalued, and disrespected, and refer to the experience as ugly, devastatingly painful, and highly destructive. The damage wreaked by unchecked bullying can tear apart the fabric of the church.

For a number of reasons, we have difficulty addressing bullying in the church. Some Christians believe we must “turn the other cheek” in such situations, or we may give in just to make peace. There are fears that bind us – fears of making the situation worse, of becoming a target, of losing control emotionally and “blowing up.” We may be isolated or think we have insufficient power, or we may be manipulated by the bully. For many of us, we don’t know how to intervene effectively; we lack the skills.

School research indicates that as many as 80 percent of kids may be bystanders who witness bullying. It’s the silent, ineffective bystander who empowers people to continue their destructive behaviour. Bullies feed off what appears to be the consent or complicity of bystanders.

But, when bystanders are given the language and tools to tackle bullying, they do. When bullying is addressed in schools, things improve! Life gets better for the kid being targeted, and bullies learn more effective ways to use their social power. The entire community becomes a kinder, more just and moral place.

Helpful strategies

The same thing can happen in our churches if we extrapolate from these school initiatives. There are a number of helpful strategies we can implement to promote healthy decision-making and relationships in our churches.

We can learn to identify and name bullying when we see it. We can create codes of conduct and hold each other accountable to them; such willingness to give and receive counsel is at the heart of our baptismal and church membership vows (see sidebar). We can cultivate respectful, assertive ways to disagree. Basic conflict resolution training – learning how to communicate your viewpoint and listen openly to others – is also helpful. Finally, those who bully benefit from invitations (or expectations) to use their power to build up the body of Christ, rather than to control or destroy others.

We are the body of Christ. How fortunate when the diverse members of the body – the eyes, ears, hands, and feet – function in harmony and accord. May we find ways to address and end bullying in the church so Christ’s body can continue its mission of saving and redeeming the world.

This “code of conduct,” used by Mannheim (Ont.) Mennonite Church and adapted from In Tune with God by Sally Weaver Glick, is an illustration of how one church is addressing the problem of bullying.

Discernment guidelines

  • Take time to become settled in God’s presence.
  • Listen to others with your entire self (senses, feelings, intuitions, imagination, and rational faculties). Don’t think about what you want to say when someone else is speaking.
  • Hold your desires and opinions – even your convictions lightly. When you disagree, keep the attitude that others may be right.
  • Speak for yourself using the first person “I.” Express your own thoughts and feelings. Be as honest as possible, avoiding generalizations and uncaring language.
  • Listen to the group as a whole – to those who haven’t spoken as well as to those who have.
  • Give those who haven’t spoken a chance to speak before speaking a second time.
  • Take responsibility for the success of decisions we make together, including the upholding of these discernment guidelines.

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Last modified: Oct 9, 2007

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