Being a priest is a blessing, but it’s not always easy. Rev. Erik Parker addresses one of the challenges of ministry: dealing with people who assert their fallen wills in unhealthy ways. I have no doubt there are such people in our parishes; the question is how to deal with it. They cannot be allowed to poison the parish, but how, exactly should we follow Rev. Parker’s example and “stand up” to them?
As always, there are competing imperatives: the protection of the parish and the ministry, dignity and authority of the priest on the one hand vs. the healing and salvation of the “bully” on the other. In severe cases, both of these align: the censure and, for severe infractions and continued abusive behavior, excommunication of the perpetrator. There can be no healing without the tears of repentance, and the walling off of the of the bully is designed to bring him/her to the state (because other methods have failed) while simultaneously protecting the flock.
But things are rarely this cut and dry; people are complicated. In most cases, I think that (a modifier meant as a warning to engage your discernment filters!) we are obliged to work with the good attributes of the person in order to shepherd them to health – while discretely ensuring that the parish is protected from their vices.
I think this is especially important when we realize how our own discernment (to include the diagnosis of “bully”) is affected by our fallen psychology.
Which brings me to my main points: priests need priests and priests need bishops.
Even experienced pastors need people they can go to check and perfect their understanding of the situation and develop a fitting pastoral response. Every priest needs to maintain a cadre of such people (seminary classmates, clergy brotherhoods, and wives often fulfill this role).
Things may still go south. As Rev. Parker points out; standing up to bullies entails serious risks and these risks cannot be underestimated. This is where deans and bishops come in: even if they are not part of our cadre of trust (mine are, glory and thanks to God!), we must keep them in the loop. I often hear priests complain that their bishops “don’t have their back.” That may be the case, but it’s easier for a bishop to respond rationally if he is not blindsided by phone calls from the bullies and their gang before he has heard a word from us.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic.
12 Reasons Why It Is Good To Be A Church Bully
By Erik Parker (A Lutheran Pastor / Married to another pastor / Millennial. Writer, cellist, guitar player, gamer, movie nerd, tech geek.), posted at The Millennial Pastor on 23 January 2014
If you have spent any amount of time attending church, it’s likely that you have encountered a church bully. It is even more likely that you have come across church bullies if you have been involved with church leadership. Of course, bullies are everywhere in the world, and are not limited to churches. Bullying is hot button issue these days, and bullying is something many people are trying to draw attention to so that it can be eliminated. Yet still, bullying can be hard to identify. It isn’t just the big kid on the playground stealing lunch money. Bullying can be psychological, emotional and physical.
Church bullies have a special advantage, though. 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.
Some of you may have seen my post from a few months ago, 12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better. In that post, I linked a Louis C.K. clip where he talked about White people. He said white people are not better, but being white is clearly better. (Warning, this video contains offensive language).
Church bullying is the same. Church bullies are not good, but being a church bully is good business these days, and here’s why:
1. Being a bully is the easiest way to get what you want. Churches are groups where people usually have to work together, and work out how to live as a community. That means give and take, compromise and collaboration. Bullying, however, means you can get anything and everything you want. You can bend people to your wills and desires without giving anything up in return. And as a bully, you don’t have to work with, consider or respect others. Bullying is the easiest way to get what you want.
2. Bullies can offer anonymous feedback. Churches are already pretty good at not requiring people to stand behind what they say. We send out surveys and feedback tools that remain anonymous. But bullies have it really great. They can send anonymous emails to leaders. They can give in-person feedback with the qualifier, “people are saying.” Bullies never have to own the criticisms, and so are free to criticize anything they want to.
3. Bullies often have gossip clubs. Bullies are often supported in a small group that likes to keep up on the latest church gossip. This kind of group can meet for coffee during the week or lunch on Sundays or any number of places. As a bully, you can find allies who are ready to support you, who will offer behind-the-scenes support to your behind-the-scenes bullying. It is always easier to bully when you can be confident you are supported by, or acting on behalf of a club.
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.
5. You can use your anxiety against others. Human beings don’t like anxiety, we don’t want to be worried or fearful if we can avoid it. Anxiety and fear are contagious. Use this your advantage. As a bully, if you can get others to take on your worries, your fears, your issues, your anxiety, most people (especially church people) will do almost anything to relieve you (and therefore themselves) of your fears. Use this to your advantage.
6. You can use the other’s anxiety against them. As human beings we have often been taught that we have two responses to anxiety – Fight or Flight. Bullies know that this isn’t true. There are 3 – Fight, Flight or Freeze. The best bullies know that freeze is the most common response. If you can make others anxious, you know that their first response will be to do nothing. It is pretty easy to bully people when they don’t do anything or say anything to stop you. Make them anxious.
7. You don’t have to be open or transparent. Bullies know this tactic well. It is much easier to bully from the shadows than in the open. Write anonymous letters and emails that you can deny came from you. Ambush your victims when others aren’t around to catch you. Make life miserable for people in private, and be an angel in the open. Most people won’t even know that you are a bully. Hide in plain sight.
8. You can play the victim card when caught. So what do you do when someone actually calls you on your bullying? Why accuse them of being the bully, of course! Most people will get so worried that they are bullying you that they will forget all about the fact that you were bullying them first. You never want to defend your own actions, so make other people defend theirs – play the victim card.
9. The stakes are low for you but high for others. One of the great things about being a church bully is that the stakes are pretty low. What could happen to you? Churches will rarely kick you off the membership list. Pastors have jobs to keep, leaders have to tend to running the place. As a bully the worst that could happen is people get annoyed with you, but really that’s good for you (see point 6).
10. You don’t have to change. Change is hard. Growing up and being mature is really hard. Bullying means you can stay the same. You don’t have to accept new ideas or learn new things. You can just impose your will on others, make them do what you like, and complain if they don’t. Don’t change, be a bully instead.
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.
12. You don’t have to care about anyone but yourself. This is the best part of being a bully of course. You can claim you are speaking for the wronged, the victimized, the silent majority or minority, but really it is all about you. That’s the whole reason you can bully in the first place, because your issues come first. Your needs, your wants, your feelings, your ideas. You are numero uno, and thinking about others only gets in the way of taking care of you. So put yourself first and you will be a great bully.
All snark aside, bullying is a major issue in society, one that often seems to paralyze those in authority. Bullying happens because most bullies know to use our anxiety, our fears, and our emotions against us. Most of us would much rather just avoid conflict altogether, and it is much easier to give in to make the bullying stop than to challenge it.
Bullying in the church makes me crazy. I have zero tolerance for it, but I have watched as colleagues and friends deal with church systems / family systems where bullies are protected. Upsetting the bully would cause so much stress on the church, that their behaviour is permitted, condoned even.
It is time for the bullying to end. But it won’t be easy. Standing up to bullies means recognizing our own anxieties and need to be liked. Standing up means risking being unpopular, it means risking the wrath of the system that protects the bullies. Standing up means knowing all the advantages that bullies have to lose (see the list above), and not underestimating how far bullies will go to retain their power and privilege. Standing up means that we all participate, even unknowingly support bullies, when our own anxieties about change prevent us from moving and growing into healthier ways of being.
Ending bullying means change. Change is hard. Sometimes it might land you on a cross.
But God knows something about that… in fact, change is one of God’s favourite tools to work with – crosses are God’s speciality.
Are church bullies the worst? Been bullied at church? Share in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter: @ParkerErik
Fr. George Washburn says
I could not agree more with the belief that parishes in which bullying is part of the culture (and in my experience it is almost always the subtle, behind the back kind) can only get healthy when the issue is put on the table and dealt with wisely, patiently, but firmly, under full blessing, backing and approval of the bishop, with clergy brotherhood support as well. Where in North American Orthodoxy has that taken place recently, and with what results?