Bullies in the Church

March 18th, 2013

Because my wife is a middle-school principal, I often hear stories about the school bullies. In fact, bullying has become a major point of conversation in the past decade, and schools, in particular, have tried to address the issue with students, teachers, coaches and parents.  There are books on school bullying—and more than enough data to support techniques for dealing with the problem. 

But when it comes to the church—there’s very little information.

Nevertheless, there can be bullies in the church.  And most don’t fit the bully stereotype.

Consider, for example, a few of the bully personalities that are more commonly found in the church:

  • A retired man who makes a habit of harassing the church youth leader over small messes left by the teenagers. His petulant and curt (even condescending) attitude causes the youth leader undue stress, despite attempts at reconciliation.
  • A church staff member whose mean gossip is causing a myriad of problems among other staff members, including harsh words and hurt feelings.
  • A young mother who writes a continuous stream of letters to the church board regarding the pastor, insisting that the pastor be fired or else she will leave the church.
  • An older teen who seems intent on harassing a younger teen after youth meetings.

From the outside, some of these personalities and scenarios may seem innocuous, even more like misunderstandings—and they can be.  But they can also be examples of church bullies.  And if left to their own devices and attitudes—some people (like those described above) can cause indelible harm to the church, to staff, or even to children.

Years ago, when I was in seminary, I recall hearing the story of a “church bully” that was described by then retired bishop, Kenneth Goodson. Bishop Goodson related how, in one of his first parishes, he encountered an older woman—not your typical bully type—who seemed determined to destroy him and his ministry. I can still recall how the bishop described this woman’s attitude and demeanor:

“The first time I visited this woman in her home, I discovered a very quiet, meek, even milquetoast personality who was completely subservient to her domineering husband (a man who wanted nothing to do with the church). Our conversations were pleasant, though constrained, and when this woman and I parted there seemed to be an air of satisfaction and harmony.

“But whenever I encountered this woman in a church setting, she was quite the opposite.  She was domineering, curt, and completely out of sorts with the pastor and the rest of the congregation. Everyone in the congregation was afraid of her—and everyone, including the young pastor, submitted to her demands and taunts. If anyone attempted to challenge her authority, they were quickly ‘set straight’ or whipped with biblical quotes.  She insisted on leading every important function—and every voice or attempt at resistance was met with scorn and contempt. Even when I put forth my ideas as the pastor, she would forcefully defeat them, and in time began to threaten my expulsion because I dared to challenge her authority.”

Now, this is not your typical bully!  But in the church, bullies can come in all shapes and sizes and ages. And bullies are often difficult to deal with.

However, there are ways—and no bully should ultimately be left to destroy a church (or a youth group or a staff). Consider, for example, some of these suggestions:

  • If a bully is, indeed, a problem—and if others are aware of it—bring a small team of people together to brainstorm a solution.  This solution will likely involve a conversation with the bully (usually not involving the people he/she is bullying).  And having several people present in the room with talking points can help deflate tensions and make it easier to discuss solutions with the difficult personality. Offer options for resolution.
  • Redirect the bully’s energies if possible.  Sometimes a bully has misguided ideas about another person or may crave attention.  Where possible, remove the bully from the situation that is causing consternation, and offer another way of service or helpfulness.
  • Some bullies may be angry about other issues—but expressing their anger in the church.  For example—the older woman described above had no authority in her own home and likely had a troubled marriage.  Her bullying in the church was her way of having control.  Sometimes, a pastoral talk with a bully can uncover deeper issues that have nothing to do with the tensions in the church.  And counseling can be recommended.
  • In extreme cases, bring in help.  Bring other helpful individuals to form an intervention team and kindly point out the attitudes and practices to the bully.  This may help (or even further inflame) the bully . . . but in most cases the resolution here will be that the bully will step aside (or even leave).  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Others often breathe a sigh of relief after a bully is gone.

Finally, there are several other aspects of bullying that are worth mentioning.  First, always remember that most difficulties between people—including misunderstandings or harsh words—are not bullying.  Most situations can be deflated or healed without regarding someone as a bully.

Secondly, bullies most commonly impact a small segment of the church—usually another person.  Often these situations can be remedied through arbitration or sitting down together to “reason it out”. 

And finally, as a general rule, the larger the church, the less impact a bully can have.  A bully in a church of fifty people can do a lot more damage and wield more weight than a bully in a congregation of 2000 people. In general, a bully in a large congregation can be ignored—and they will often get tired and go away. Bullies are most commonly “fed” on attention.  And when they don’t get attention, they wilt.  Odd, yes.  But sometimes the easiest way to stop bullying (among adults!) is to ignore the bully completely—and not allow the bully a forum, a platform, or an audience to perform to.

Usually, the bully is a fickle personality who enjoys creating trouble. But if you can create a congregation of unity, of peace, and of mutual concern—most bullies cannot thrive in a spirit-filled environment. They will retreat into the shadows.


Todd Outcalt is the author of twenty-five books in six languages, including eight youth ministry titles from Abingdon. His forthcoming book, The Other Jesus, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2014.

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