Bullying Is Also Found in the Church


You don’t know William Stover.

I do.

I can see him in my mind’s eye today, even though my memories are 54 years old. Billy Stover and I were in the same 5th grade class. He came from a family that lived on the north side of town, literally across the tracks. I never knew his family’s circumstances, if he had siblings, where his father worked, or anything that would have humanized him. I just knew that he often wore the same shirt and pants all week, wasn’t very clean, and he was picked on by his classmates.

Today, we call it bullying, and I remember the day when Billy stood in the middle of Mrs. Schuler’s classroom crying. He was all alone. Kids had been making fun of Billy, and reduced him to tears. The bullies weren’t the big kids; they were the “good” kids. No one touched Billy, no one hit him, but he was injured emotionally. He was outcast by his classmates.
I am ashamed to say that I was standing there, and I knew that this was wrong (I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen to me), but I didn’t try to stop the teasing. To this day, I’m regretful of that morning.
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior. It can be the kind of verbal harassment that 5th graders specialize in, but it can escalate to physical coercion of assault. It can include verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. It can be one-on-one, or engaged in by a group. Bullying almost always occurs in an imbalance of power. Since it is a human relational dynamic, it can occur anywhere: in the family, at school, at work, in a neighborhood, or even in a church.
Researchers have noted that bullying need not be direct, but is often more indirect and verbal and can include name-calling, arguing others into submission, manipulation, gossip, spreading false rumors, mocking, and threatening. In the workplace, or in a church, bullying activities can also include administrative end-runs, character assassination, and coercive activities like secret meetings and organizing into voting blocs.
As a District Superintendent, I have, sadly, encountered forms of bullying that are not worthy of our calling as disciples of Jesus. There have been instances in which a pastor has identified someone by name from the pulpit, and proceeded to use public worship as an opportunity to carry on a one-sided conversation that has demeaned, threatened or humiliated an individual. This is an unconscionable abuse of the pulpit, and the worst kind of harassment.
Likewise, there have been instances of church members verbally abusing and threatening both pastor, and other laypersons. 
In both of these instances, the bullying takes place in the presence of a relatively large group of persons, whether at a worship service, or in a class, or at a Board meeting. Often, those present are bystanders, and are reluctant to speak out. As a result, it appears that the bully has the support of a majority of those present. Over time, when a bully “mentality” has been allowed to become the defining feature of the group’s culture, a steady stream of abuse becomes a regular and predictable part of persons’ experience.
This toxic environment will become the status quo of the group, unless challenged.
Far better is the option of creating a church behavioral covenant that identifies those behaviors that are acceptable and those that are unacceptable, and the remedies for such behavior. Your church, or class, or group can give permission, in advance, to individuals to identify bullying behaviors and intervene appropriately.
As long as we are together in church communities there will be differences of age, race, culture, opinion, gender, politics and theology. We are called upon to grow in our witness to the Gospel by valuing our differences, and living in faithful civility.
If you would like to learn more, a key resource is Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences, by Gilbert R. Rendle. 1999. This book is published by the Alban Institute. ISBN# 1-56699-209-5.