Does bullying happen in our churches?

As numbers of clergy decline, before the growth in younger ordinands offsets this, there will be some pressure on numbers nationally. But that disguises the uneven distribution and ages of clergy across different dioceses. Some dioceses have more than 40% of their clergy over 60, and so will see a significant drop in clergy numbers in the next five to 10 years—unless clergy are attracted into these dioceses in significant numbers. As several people have pointed out in discussion, the challenge for the Church is not just the recruitment of clergy but their retention and deployment, and a key part of that is whether clergy feel they are well treated, managed and supported.

An important Grove Pastoral booklet addresses one vital but uncomfortable aspect of this: the presence of bullying and coercion within the Church. The author, Rosemary Power (who is a member of the Iona Community), begins with the painful reality of bullying within the Church:

A few years ago, a mature, able clergywoman divulged how she had been bullied out of her ministry and her health. She had been forced to take a case to her church. She finally won, but was too exhausted to do other than retire. She was one of many people who are pushed out of church life, or who walk away, perhaps forever. How can churches, which seek to present the love of God to a hungry world, have such a problem with bullying?

In 2011, when speaking on bullying at the Catholic National Justice and Peace Conference, I received an interview request from the Catholic weekly The Tablet. Church bullying must be very rare, the journalist postulated.

It is not: figures from the Faithworkers’ branch of the trade union Unite show that 30% of its helpline calls are about bullying. People who have been the subject of past bullying may not wish to speak of the humiliation and abuse they have experienced, usually over a prolonged period of time, but during the course of writing this book, numerous people have commented on bullying in church life. (p 3)

Rosemary carefully explores what bullying is, drawing on expert analysis and highlighting its key characteristics.

Bullying is the sustained use of power destructively against another. It takes an act of will by the perpetrator and requires the acquiescence of onlookers.

The bullied person is frequently criticized, isolated, silenced and deliberately overworked. They may put up with a great deal to protect a loved church and the work it does, often on behalf of those who need it. However, the situation may make them very stressed, which can lead to malfunctioning, which in turn enables the bullying to escalate. Further, they can be spiritually undermined and feel theirs is an isolated affair, perhaps brought on by some character defect.

The bully often has a history of this behaviour but is not always initially aware that the consequences are serious and unjustifiable. Bullies can be people in senior positions, colleagues, or members of a congregation. They sometimes appear to be ambitious and frequently form alliances. Where there is a weak church hierarchy, bullying in two directions can happen simultaneously.

Bullying depends upon a combination of spirituality, power and insufficient accountability, with the bullied person and witnesses being silenced. Where people with insufficient management skills or accountability are placed in positions of authority, there is the danger of collusion by inertia, fear or active intent, and an unwillingness to challenge activities of church members or colleagues. There may be a refusal to learn from secular practice, and the experience of being judged by society causes shock and denial.

The response required involves confronting spiritual malaise. The circumstances need to be changed in order to reinstate a moral balance. It is important to recognize that bullies, not their targets, are accountable. A culture of bullying damages the mission of the church and the community of believers. It also damages the public and moral attractiveness of the churches, and the reputations and effectiveness of those involved. Some forms of bullying are unlawful. A good response is to address an issue at the early stages, seek informal resolu- tion where possible, consider the opportunities for healing change, and then use written structures and processes, ideally with outside help. (pp 5–6)

In the following chapter, Rosemary looks at the causes of consequences of bullying, drawing on testimony from people in different situations who have experienced it for themselves. These testimonies are a vital but painful read, as they bring into focus the personal cost of this experience.

I tried to be kind, conciliatory, but the response was to heap more work on me. I regularly received complaints about the volunteers, but was refused when I asked for a discussion. When the work was successful, I was told it was happening in spite of, not because of, me. I had to go off with stress in the end. The union got me a settlement but I’d lost the centre of my life. The work I’d initiated ceased. This affected people living in poverty but their needs were not regarded. (p 10)

As a key reflection, Rosemary notes the connection between the presence of bullying and the wider sense of pressure that many feel the Church (and their ministry) is currently under.

Those who make a career in the church might find as they come towards retirement that the status they expected to achieve no longer exists. As churches shrink in numbers, and public standing and civic roles decline, ministers are stretched ever thinner geographically. When conflict emerges, those tasked to deal with it may be overwhelmed. They may themselves be overawed or exhausted by the bullies, who may be long-time colleagues and people on whom they depend. Further, people under stress are unlikely to behave well all the time, and those charged to deal with a conflict may need to consider the emotional pressures to all parties. (p 12)

After some very helpful theological reflection, including an exploration of Jesus’ response to the abuse of power, the author then sets out some practical responses for all involved. This includes practical and spiritual actions to be taken by those experiencing bullying, those who are accusing of perpetrating bullying, and those who are onlookers—the phenomenon of bullying involves all three parties. This includes the important and profound observation: ‘You are not damaging the church’s reputation by protesting bad treatment through the formal structures. You may be lancing a boil.’

Rosemary concludes with this reflection:

When writing this book, three matters struck me on a personal level. First, I heard of many bullying situations. Had these been normal employment situations, they should have been subject to codes of conduct and ultimately the law, and the labour of addressing the issues would have fallen to others to deal with. Yet the bullying I heard of often continued, and had to be dealt with, alongside an active ministerial role, and the reasons for it were never articulated. Indeed, a church might regard its behaviour as normative, and even well-intentioned, with representatives not grasping the negative impact of certain conduct. I also found there was sometimes an undercurrent of fear, insolence towards the target person and the experienced ministers or other professionals who tried to help, and a lack of willingness to address the problem dispassionately. This was so contrary to the description of love in 1 Cor 13 that it convinced me of the need for an outside person to be present in a decision-making position when there is conflict. Yet help from within can be crucial as well: my editor and myself found ourselves both speaking of the same Anglican bishop who had intervened positively in separate situations of which we were aware. (p 25)

This is such an important issue for the health of the Church—as well as for the health and well-being of individuals at every level. You can order the booklet for £3.95 post-free (in the UK) or as a PDF e-book from the Grove website. Is there someone you know who needs to read this?

(These extracts first published in 2016.)

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42 thoughts on “Does bullying happen in our churches?”

  1. I have found this article SO helpful as I have experienced bullying from surprising quarters and as I have an underlying health condition which can be triggered by stress I try to balance my work life appropriately.

  2. ‘You are not damaging the church’s reputation by protesting bad treatment through the formal structures. You may be lancing a boil.’

    Agreed. But, based on my own experience, those who marshal the formal structures are given wide discretion that allows them to avoid due process for an official complaint, despite it being copied to the Safeguarding Team and Archdeacon.

    The real issue here is thia wide discretion by which churches can collude with an otherwise adept perpetrator in burying scandalous abusive behaviour and bypass the prescribed due process that should emulate the repeated scriptural evidentiary requirement (Deut. 19:15; John 7:51; Mark 14:55-59; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19)

    If Church of England dioceses were obliged without exception to apply such due process, and there were dire consequences for neglecting it, then there would be more confidence among victims that bullying would not be condoned.

    As it is, there’s a better prospect of due process in the secular situations.

    It’s the culture of lock-step connivance and that makes victims of clergy bullying, like me, look for a church elsewhere.

    The fact that I have documented evidence of this abuse of power makes absolutely no difference.

  3. Lorraine Turner also did a PhD a couple of years or so ago on this with some really interesting findings – and quotes. It was entitled: Formulating a response to bullying as experienced and interpreted by Church of England Clergy within once diocese. Well worth a read .

  4. Thank you for this article. It was very helpful. Of all institutions we in the Church do need to do more, notwithstanding that we are all sinners. “Bullying, abuse, discrimination ” fall into the category of misuse of power. It’s outrageous! Let me give you an example : I found an internal letter by a Bishop regarding a potential post concerning me in which he drew attention to my perceived ethnicity. He then wrote “… in my experience of having worked with people from the Indian Sub-continent there are cultural differences in the way, … actually handle issues of truth and clarity.”

    I found this letter offensive and discriminatory of people of the Indian Sub-Continent. It exposed a culture of intentional or unconscious biasness of racial discrimination. The Bishop has escaped or evaded any accountability.
    Interestingly during my time there I was constantly unsuccessful in my job applications. For my efforts in effecting justice and holding the Bishop accountable (nb. no assessment or CDM for the Bishop was carried out. ) I found myself at Tribunal with potential fees up against the Bishop’s legal team comprising a QC and senior solicitor, who are arguing to have the case struck out on a technical point of timing rather than the discrimination depicted in this letter. This is what power can do in quashing the weak and vulnerable. What does it say about this course of action in God’s Church, Mediation was declined by the Bishop.

  5. I wonder if the Apostle Paul would be accused of bullying in our day. In 21st century terms, his sharp public disagreement with Peter could be classified as humiliation, his bust up with Barnabas over John Mark looks like management intransigence and his handing over to Satan (of Hymenaus and Alexander for blasphemy, and the man in Corinth for sexual immorality) might give rise to a complaint of abuse of power.

    • As we dont know the exact details, hard to conclude anything. But by definition it was a different culture from our own. Perhaps if clergy were strong leaders too there would be more respect. I keep hearing the phrase ‘the tail wagging the dog’ in relation to churches.

    • I think Paul totally would be accused of bullying. And that would be to misunderstand him. He might have his eyes set only on the best outcome. Once people have come through to repentance he is gentle as a lamb with them. that is nothing to do with control, only with knowing human nature, that there are certain things that as humans we all know are bad for us, and only those who care will lovingly rebuke them out of it. It is part of doing unto others what we know would be best if done to ourselves – in other words, part of love.

      As in teenagers, going off the rails is directly or indirectly connected with testing out ‘who actually cares? – does anybody?’. Even if there is one person who does, that is the person who will step in.

      Typically such a personality will be mortified when they hear offence has been caused, since they were acting for the person’s best outcome.

      • Paul was certainly accused by the Corinthians of being bullying in his letters but nicey-nicey when he met them face to face. Regarding John’s examples, my feeling is that he was in the wrong in his argument with Barnabas. He was clearly right in his dispute with Peter, but may not have acted graciously at the time. Let’s remember that although Paul was a closer and more faithful follower of Jesus than many people of a “progressive” slant give him credit for, he wasn’t Jesus!

    • Dave Summers; no, absolutely – Paul was a sinner (the worst of all in his own estimation) who was saved by grace, and we mustn’t cast him as a saint who was virtually angelic. Working with or under him must have been a pretty intense experience.

      But whether he would be classified as a bully today, I really don’t know.

  6. Bullying doesn’t only happen by Church members against clergy. As a long standing Church member I saw three members bullied out of the Church by the minister, and their spiritual lives damaged. They wouldn’t let me fight for them, they were too scared. Then the bully turned on me, demanding my resignation. I stood firm, fighting not just for me but for those who would be bullied after me. In the end I gave in and resigned with great sadness. I got no support from the Church leaders who were all frightened by the bully. There is no place to turn to for help in this situation and to have fought on would just have involved and harmed more people in a schism. So I turned the other cheek. It was 10 years before I felt able to join a Church again.

    • Which, unless the speaker has genuinely had a word from God, is, I believe, one of the most serious ways of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

    • Perhaps but then we also shouldnt assume that anyone who says such a thing is automatically a bully. In any case, they should only ever say “I think God told me…”.

  7. Churches (I think) sometimes feel “we are nice people who will always do things well. Therefore we don’t need to check legal procedures and structures; they are for the secular people who need them.”

    • Hi Penelope,

      Yes! I was speaking with an older Christian woman the other day and the subject turned to greed, lying and hypocrisy in the church. Her response? Well, I’m a Christian, so I can’t be any of those things.
      Her comment reminded me of a book I just finished on racism and white people. White people (especially Liberal white people) see racism as an evil and their ideas of the racist are some overweight guy in a pickup truck flying a confederate flag and so they think, “I’m not that” which translates to “I can’t be racist.” To think of themselves as racist in their thinking and actions is to court cognitive distress. The same holds true for Christians who see themselves as redeemed in their thinking.

      • Her response? Well, I’m a Christian, so I can’t be any of those things.

        This is a bit bizarre; has she not heard any of the many sermons about how the Devil just loves to tempt a Christian to sin, so Christians have to be especially alert and on their guard at all times against temptation?

      • As I have heard it said, we hear or read Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and respond “I thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee.”

  8. “Churches (I think) sometimes feel “we are nice people who will always do things well. ”

    My experience has been that is that this far from being the case. I think it is because churches in general, ( and I think this is across all denominations) do not have the same level of legal procedures and structures, that many think they can get away with what they like.

    On many occasions, I have been shocked and not a little depressed at the personal behaviour of some Christians to others. All the stuff being preached about love, grace and being Christlike is so much water off a Duck’s back.

    As Rosemary Power makes clear, enforceable accountability is the key.

  9. I am deeply saddened over the years at just how many young ministers (and some not so young) who have come to me and shared about the bullying they have received from, often well known, ministers with national platforms. It is often wrapped up in spiritual guise and so could be termed ‘spiritual abuse’. Power corrupts unless wrapped in love.

  10. Easy answer: YES!
    Longer Answer: Yes and you should get out of such a place, but keep in mind that in recognizing the dysfunction you are also part of it. Depending on how long you have remained in this atmosphere, it has had that much time to work its way insidiously into your psyche and therefore twist your idea of normal.

    My experience with this kind of “spiritual bullying” comes out of so-called independent, non-denominational churches. The leaders of these churches have options when it comes to writing up and enforcing bylaws. Depending on what kind of leader you value–or how you envision the laity, you’re going to lean hard towards a structure that speaks to that end.

    I have been in leadership positions in churches and I remember this one situation where I encouraged the lead pastor to let the worship leader pick the songs for worship–he liked to pick the songs that he believed held the most spiritual heft, which meant that he didn’t value the irenic style of songs that the (female) worship leader often played.
    I remember having a phone conversation with him a couple of months before I resigned. I was still in good stead with him when he told me that he had taken my advice and let the worship leader lead. I congratulated him. His response was that doing what he did left him feeling “small.”
    I was puzzled by that comment, but later, after I had walked away, it all made sense.

    What’s more is that it may not be one person who is doing the bullying, but a network of people who are all in lockstep with a certain ideological perspective. What’s more is that these people have usually good reasons at hand to explain their actions–gaslighting comes to mind, but these people do it un-self-consciously because they firmly believe what they are telling you!–
    and so it’s always going to be the critic/complainer/questioner’s fault.
    The honest truth: You are not Sally Fields in Norma Rae. You are not going to lance that boil. You will be buried.

  11. This article brought to mind a quote by Cherie Blair: ‘Where there’s a playground, there’s a bully!’ I guess one could substitute ‘church’ for playground; or probably any institution where people work together with a leadership structure!
    When I read such articles I end up feeling I have a high tolerance for what would be called bullying behaviour because of 50 years of adult life experience. In fact, as I try to do with all experiences, I have sought to assimilate it as character development. So my experiences were in teaching from headteachers, from foremen on building sites and from other leaders in my church context. So I now stand up to people who seek to be overpowering and find that tends to mollify their manner. I can’t say this is exemplary in the sense of being a recommendation; but it has been the source of more ‘personal grit’ which has been particularly useful in standing up to people who are intimidating others in a bullying fashion. It has also had some positive effect on bullying people who have to learn to change their manner if they are going to be challenged which could be a means of grace for them. Whether it means I don’t bully other people is, I guess, for others to decide.

    Simon mentioned ‘spiritual abuse’ which seems to be a term which covers any mistreatment in a church context and I suppose would include bullying. I am bewildered why such an oxymoronic epithet has come into being when the word ‘spiritual’ in the New Testament is practically always used in a positive sense, describing actions or people who demonstrate mature wisdom. Surely it would be more appropriate to refer to it as ‘religious abuse’ as being a more general thing and something which secular people might understand more – i.e. abuse in a religious setting.

    • I am bewildered why such an oxymoronic epithet has come into being when the word ‘spiritual’ in the New Testament is practically always used in a positive sense, describing actions or people who demonstrate mature wisdom.

      The whole point of living in a fallen is that anything good and positive can be perverted to evil, isn’t it? That’s what total depravity means: not (as people sometimes get wrong) that everything is corrupted to the maximum possible extent, but rather that there isn’t any are of life which is immune from corruption — which cannot be misused and abused — and that pf course includes the spiritual.

      • Hello S.
        I appreciate your point here about the possibility of corruption and don’t doubt that happens. I am contending that corruption is not produced by following the Holy Spirit; and indeed that anything which is spiritual in Christian life as the New Testament understands it would be inspired by the Spirit. I am sure that abusers are motivated by the flesh even though they may claim otherwise: as we read, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” Abusers may well be gifted people, but gifted does not equate to being spiritual. As Paul said elsewhere: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal”. I have met many older Christians who are very immature and unspiritual people in the way they speak and behave.

        • I appreciate your point here about the possibility of corruption and don’t doubt that happens. I am contending that corruption is not produced by following the Holy Spirit; and indeed that anything which is spiritual in Christian life as the New Testament understands it would be inspired by the Spirit.

          Depends what you mean by ‘spiritual’ in that case. If by ‘spiritual’ you mean ‘inspired by the Holy Spirit’ then obviously, no, that’s not corrupt.

          But I do not think that is what the adjective ‘spiritual’ usually is used to mean; rather, it means the area of life which is concerned with the spirit, as opposed to the body (and perhaps the mind, depending on your ontology). In which case there certainly can be thing in that area which are are corrupt and fallen. After all, aren’t demons spiritual beings, which are corrupt and fallen?

          Indeed, doesn’t the whole idea of ‘spiritual warfare’ imply that there are spiritual forces which act against the Holy Spirit and against God?

          Spiritual abuse, therefore, would be to side with those anti-God spiritual forces; to be an agent of the Enemy in the midst of the Church. It would certainly exist, and it would be that serious.

        • I am sure that abusers are motivated by the flesh even though they may claim otherwise: as we read, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”

          Careful — that’s sounding close to Manichaeism!

  12. But this is not confined to churches. While we correctly expect more from Christians, and I’ve experienced a more rounded, perhaps less competitive, more supportive leadership in the work place, manipulation, domination and control and self preservation and promotion can be stock in trade in all spheres.
    I can recall in the NHS that very senior managers were told that if they didn’t achieve targets, it would be career limiting and young woman (it doesn’t have to be a woman) on a course saying that she would use manipulation to achieve goals in meetings. And during training as a solicitor being told by my principal, to whom I was “Articled,” indentured, that there was room for only one ego in his firm.
    In the church, I’ve been lied to by a minister about their support for me to the Bishop only to find out that he was being duplicitous and wouldn’t do what the Bishop suggested, to put the matter to the whole church. So I left, without mentioning anything to church members. It was, after all, his church and I wasn’t willing to go down the adversarial route I’d been trained in, even with the documentary evidence I had, nor even the scriptural route.
    In another instance gave advocacy support to a sister in the Lord, in “curtailment” proceedings in the Methodist church to cut short her fixed term ministerial appointment. The church secretary and treasurer, and the District Chairman had taken against her and wanted her out. The complaints were properly answered and I can recall that the head of the tribunal saying in a stage whisper that she was going to be cleared. But it was adjourned to seek advice, by telephone, from the District Chair, of some national prominence, who had taken no part, had not been in attendance. Her ministerial appointment was duly curtailed. There were good evidential and procedural grounds to appeal, but unsurprisingly my friend was floored and moved on to an appointment in a different Circuit.
    I’m extremely reluctant to get embroiled in the language of “abuse”, as to my mind it is in itself abused, overused and sloppily misapplied.
    But a vital aspect to any relationship is trust: reliability, constancy, which is based on evidence and a sad and unsettling corollary is that from the evidence of experience, the older I get, the less likely I am to trust leadership in the church, who may talk about me, without me, and the more likely I am to disengage, remain uninvolved, at arms length. And it goes against the grain of being and becoming who we are as Christians, in Christ Jesus.

      • Thank you, PC1,
        While not directly on the topic of bullying you’ll be aware of this keen observational essay from CS lewis which was brought to mind as motivational in our behaviour:
        From which this comes:
        “My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. ”
        Deeply challenging for any of us, who would not be recognised as bullies in any shape or form, even those who have blogs and comment thereon, any social media. Why do I even seek to make a comment here , well beyond my sphere of competence or influence or learning or qualifications?

  13. The balance of opinion here is that the “correct” response to being bullied is to confront. That is not always so. Jesus said “If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault…” but he also said “If they persecute you in one town, go on to the next…”

    A lay person in a secular job, if they are being bullied, may decide to confront. But they may also just quietly find themselves another job. Both can be good.

    A difficulty here is that most clergy can’t so easily just find themselves another job, especially if they hold to a “catholic” view of vocation-to-ministry as being for life. Frankly that’s a weakness in the “catholic” view of vocation – it would be better if any “vocation” were seen as being just until God moves us along to the next thing.

    • Im a bit of a coward myself and looking back at some of my experiences with bullies in my secular job makes me regret not girding my loins and confronting them with their behaviour. apart from anything, even if you move away, you know their behaviour will continue. The quote from Jesus specifically is talking about people rejecting the Gospel.

      • We all have regrets about not-having-confronted. One key question is, can we forgive *ourselves* for our failures in this area? But human life is a muddle and there are also occasions to follow Proverbs 19:11b “…it is (a man’s/woman’s) glory to overlook an offense.”

        I’m fighting against the evangelical tendency to suppose that there must exist a correct solution to every dilemma.

    • While it’s true that Jesus wasn’t ardently disputatious (in fact, in Matt. 12:20, Jesus’ meekness in withdrawing from a synagogue dispute is remembered as fulfilling one of Isaiah’s messianic prophecies – Is. 42:3)

      It’s worth noting that the persecution of the early church from one town to the next was specifically on account of the gospel, and that, unlike many abuse victims, they were not silenced by their opponents’ abusive intimidation.

      In Acts, we see that Paul’s harried existence didn’t prevent him from “speaking the truth in love” to confront his opponents, despite their bullying tactics of denouncing him constantly before the religious and civil authorities of his day.

      • “speaking the truth in love”

        Ahh – that phrase again – quoted without any context – remember the context is humility! I have yet to meet a humble person who bullies.

        • The context in Acts was Paul’s trial before Felix, where he was wrongfully accused by the Jews: “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”

          Paul’s description of his calling and ministry (Acts 24:10 – 21) does “speak the truth in love”.

          My point is that victims of persecution and bullying should not confuse humility with silence and persistently inability to stand their ground.

          Perhaps, you can explain why you believe otherwise.

          • “My point is that victims of persecution and bullying should not confuse humility with silence and persistently inability to stand their ground.”

            I agree with this.

            My point was that the quote you made from (Eph 4:15) is too often used out of its context in Eph 4 and is used by many to justify language which is sometimes little short of bullying if not actually bullying.

          • It is interesting that you respond to my comment on a quote from Eph 4 by quoting a context from Acts 24. Can you explain why this is the context for the quote from Ephesians?

  14. ‘You are not damaging the church’s reputation by protesting bad treatment through the formal structures. You may be lancing a boil.’

    Exactly. That’s why I continue to try and engage on here.

  15. ‘In 2011, when speaking on bullying at the Catholic National Justice and Peace Conference,’

    The irony is staggering. You persecute and bully lgbt people all the time on social media. Do you not see that?

  16. ‘Bullying is the sustained use of power destructively against another. It takes an act of will by the perpetrator and requires the acquiescence of onlookers.’

    I find this such a bizarre post. You write or commission articles about lgbt people and then you invite all your sycophants to slag us off. Can you have a bit of self realisation here?

  17. ‘Bullying depends upon a combination of spirituality, power and insufficient accountability, with the bullied person and witnesses being silenced.’

    And I’m sure you’ll delete my posts as you always do.


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