March 15, 2019 • Jonathan Greer
It’s 2 a.m. and I just can’t sleep. In the last 3 hours I have seen 3 different pastors post about struggling with discouragement and stress in their church due to bullies. It breaks my heart for them and brings up old hurts from when I had an experience with a bully in church. So I wanted to write about 3 common traits of a church bully and 3 responses for the pastor who finds themselves the target of the bully.
3 Common Traits of a Church Bully
Constant Passive Aggressiveness
A bully rarely comes right out and faces you one on one. While sometimes this can be the case, in my experience the bully will be passive aggressive towards you at church, on social media, and in private communications like texts or phone calls. You see this especially with feigned support or involvement in your ministry and life. They do this for appearance sake so that they appear to others to be in good graces with you, thus giving them credence when they “imply” wrongdoing or shortcomings. They seek to insert themselves into as many aspects of your life as possible and they capitalize on any perceived disagreement they find. Always ready with a lament, or to be the open ear to the disgruntled party. Slowly they are seeking to discredit your relationships and your leadership potential without ever having the courage to publicly oppose you.
They Actively Seek to Usurp Authority
In my case, I was the youth minister not the pastor, and my bully regularly questioned by leadership decisions behind my back. Statements to the youth like, “Well if I were making the decisions I’d have no problem with it, but that’s his decision.” This translates to pastoral authority as well. When they make statements like that they are seductively implying that their brand of authority and leadership is preferable to the pastor’s. If they gain enough of a following they will then try to leverage what leadership capital they have usurped in hopes of influencing your decisions and patterns of service. You realize this is happening when you can’t make decision or plan an event without having to navigate how to work around the “bully’s party” as I call them.
They Seek to Cause Strife in Your Family
A church bully will likely be attacking your family as well as you. Wives are particularly vulnerable to church bullies. If you have kids, the bully tries to be their best friend and gain influence over their opinion of situations. The passive aggressive attacks and dismissive statements towards your wife will further complicate things. When confronted they will feign ignorance and claim you misinterpreted their actions. Often comparisons will be drawn to former pastors or their wives. To the onlooker this looks innocent enough, but they are not seeing the whole picture of abuse. The bully will find times when you are trying to be with your family to discuss controversial issues or stir up drama. When the bullying is as constant as it usually is, it only takes a text message to ruin a nice evening with your wife. Even not responding to it doesn’t help because either you are angry, your wife is hurt, or both. In my situation with the bully we had a toddler and my bully, a lady, would take every opportunity in public view at church to try to take our child (she was a nursery worker and children’s church volunteer) and act like a second mom. Meanwhile she would criticize my wife for not being “like a youth minister’s wife should be.” Often when I posted on Facebook about being out with my family or going on a date she would make a point to text me about some drama or want to “get my thoughts” on the youth doing something she knows I’ve said to the youth that we couldn’t fit in the schedule. It is targeted and intentional and it will kill the intimacy and joy you have at home with your family if you are not careful.
How do we respond when faced with bully’s like this?
Prioritize Family Over The Bully
These points are in no particular order, but I’d put this somewhere at the top of the list of things to focus on. You have to do whatever it takes to care for your family. If that means blocking the bully on social media, denying them personal time with your children, or immediately and directly correcting comments towards your spouse you must do it. Avoidance of the bully is a last resort, but can be a necessary one. Make time to listen to your wife’s heart in the matter. Be intentional about praying for and over your family. Make sure you are taking time to do family devotions where you can pour into your kids and wife from the Word. Make date nights a regular occurrence and make them phone free social media free times. Build your wife up with words of affirmation and encouragement. Realize when you are in a foul mood or in the dumps emotionally because of the bully and don’t turn around and dump that on your family. If you find yourself neglecting your kids or wife because you are too preoccupied with the bully then take time to repent and pray and work at loving your family well.
Pour Your Heart Out to God
There is no greater comfort in times of trouble than The Comforter. Go to God’s word and see the promises He has for you. Pour out your anguish, frustration, depression, anger, etc to the Lord and let him deal with your heart. God is our only source of strength. He is our mightiest defender. He is a just and holy God and will bring the devices of the wicked down upon themselves. He also may break you and show you areas of sin in your life that you need to be sanctified. He may, like he did to Paul, leave the thorn in your flesh and remind you that His grace is sufficient for you, and his power is made perfect in weakness. Whatever God’s will for your situation is, you will never figure it out unless you are meditating in God’s Word and seeking His face in prayer regularly.
Seek Support From Like Minded Pastors
If you do not have a close like-minded friend in the ministry then I strongly encourage you to seek one out. There is just no substitute for the prayer and support your fellow pastors can give you. They understand your situation better than anyone else can. If you need to vent, need wisdom, need a ear to talk to or a shoulder to cry on then go to your pastoral friends. In my time of being bullied this was a void in my life that it took me years to fill. But I learned the necessity of it from absence. Don’t be too prideful or stubborn to open up to someone about your struggles. There is no need to struggle alone.
Now, I acknowledge that this topic is much more complex than I have presented here. You are probably already pointing out traits of a bully I have neglected or thinking, “This would all be solved if churches practiced proper church discipline.” But let me remind you that we are not all perfect pastors and we do not all serve in perfect churches. This is the world we have to wake up and serve the Lord in every day. I hope this can be an encouragement to you. If you are struggling with a church bully please reach out to us at SmallChurchShepherds@gmail.com. We would love to pray for you and if you don’t have anyone to talk to about your struggles send us a message on Facebook and we would be glad to chat with you.