by the Rev. Tim Fleck
St. Andrew & St. John, Southwest Harbor and St. Saviour’s, Bar Harbor
When I was a child, I knew and my friends knew what a bully was: A bully was a kid who beat up or threatened to beat up other kids. The quintessential bully who comes to mind is the yellow-eyed coonskin-capped Scut Farkus of “The Christmas Story,” terrorizing other kids apparently just for the thrill of it (or at least so it seemed to his victims). The idea of bullying someone online or adults bullying one another in the workplace would not have made sense to us kids.
Recently, though, the term “bullying” has expanded to include all sorts of manipulative behavior or speech, not necessarily threatening physical violence, but using intimidation and fear to get others to do what one wants. The fact that bullying has sometimes been overused to describe any sort of behavior that we don’t like or any kind of speech that hurts our feelings doesn’t change the truth that real bullying does take place. Thank goodness that we live and work together in the Church, a place where bullying could never happen, right?
Sadly, the church is not immune from bullies. In fact, our churchy instinct to be nice, to be pastoral, to give one another the benefit of the doubt creates a perfect habitat for bullying. Physical abuse or threats are rare (although they happen), but there are other kinds of manipulation and intimidation. Let’s have a look at the natural history of some of our native church bullies:
The Financial Bully: This person lets it be known, either explicitly or tacitly, that his or her financial support for the church is contingent on getting his or her way. This is especially powerful if the parish is reliant on a small number of large givers, but can occur around even small sums of money. Ironically, someone perceived as a major financial supporter can be treated as a financial bully even if he or she is not: “We’d better not change that, because Mrs. van der Guilder might withdraw her pledge” – when Mrs. V has never indicated that she might do any such thing.
The Long-Term Bully: This person is similar to the financial bully, but the threat is not about withdrawing money but withdrawing long-term membership: “My family have been members of this church since it was founded, but I don’t know if I can stay here if you do X.”
The Indispensable Bully: This person has set himself up as the only person who knows how to do a particular ministry or meet a particular need. He or she may have others convinced that the church will not be able to function if he or she is not there, so you’d better not tick him or her off.
The Knowledge Bully: Similar to the Indispensable Bully, but using perceived superior knowledge as a weapon. Clergy are particularly prone to this kind of bullying (“I went to seminary, and I know what an epiclesis is, so just do what I say. You probably wouldn’t understand it, anyway.”), but it can also occur among those with any type of specialized knowledge that can be used to cow others: financial, liturgical, musical, or even knowledge of parish history.
The Emotional Bully: As a church, we are called to respond pastorally to our brothers and sisters in need. This bully takes advantage of that by making it clear that he or she will fall apart emotionally if things don’t go his or her way. This bully can also engage in all sorts of outrageous behavior, but need not be held accountable because he or she is perceived as emotionally fragile.
The Angry Bully: A particular type of Emotional Bully, relies on the fact that many church people cannot stand to see someone actually express anger, and will do anything to get him or her to calm down.
Have you experienced any of these types of bullying in church? This list is far from exhaustive. If you find yourself walking on eggshells around particular people or particular subjects, look around for the bully. If you experience someone engaging in behavior that would never be tolerated in another setting (insulting or belittling others, shutting down conversation, keeping secrets or having secret conversations about others, threats, emotional blackmail), you may be being bullied. If a group or person has been given the responsibility to carry out a task only to have their authority undercut, a bully may be at work.
Of course, it’s one thing to identify bullying, but quite another to put a stop to it. In “The Christmas Story,” Scut Farkus gets his comeuppance when his victim Ralphie flies into a berserk rage and pummels him bloody. While perhaps satisfying, this is not recommended (in fact, it is not even satisfying for Ralphie: he is so overwhelmed by his own rage that he bursts into tears and has to be taken home by his mom).
The element of truth in the story, though, is that bullies usually can’t stand up to being challenged. Jesus gives us a pretty good plan for dealing with bullies in the church in Matthew 18:15-17:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
If it feels like you are being bullied, call the bully on it. He or she may not even be aware that his or her behavior is bullying. Check yourself, though, to make sure that you are not functioning as an emotional bully yourself when you do this, using your own feelings of discomfort to get your way. Are you uncomfortable because you are being intimidated, or are you just frustrated that things are not going your way? Is someone threatening you, or are they simply pointing out how you have hurt them?
If that doesn’t work, try taking a small group – ideally people who are trusted by the bully as well as by you. Again, though, make sure that you are not bullying in turn: “I’ve got this whole group of people here who back me up, so you’d better back down.”
One hopes that bullying does not rise to the level of needing to be called out before the whole church, but when the behavior of one person or a small group threatens to sabotage the ministry of an entire congregation, it may be necessary to tell them in love that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, even in church. This is not a matter of saying that the church doesn’t love them unless they straighten up (remember Jesus’ attitude toward Gentiles and tax collectors?). This is a matter of being together in one Body, and working to make sure that every member of the Body has the opportunity to live up to the image and likeness of God in whom we were created.