Does bullying happen in churches?

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 08.45.37As 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.

The latest 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, she 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 book post-free (in the UK) from the Grove website. Is there someone you know who needs to read this?

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23 thoughts on “Does bullying happen in churches?”

  1. I believe this is a vital issue for the C of E. I retired early through ill health. I won’t talk publicly about what happened and also when I tried to get a PTO following. But in any other organisation there would have been help and resources to give me a hope and a future. My GP advised retirement with the words… The organisation you work for will not do anything until you throw yourself off a bridge …

    • Dear Malcolm,

      Thank you indeed for your comment. It is helpful and contributes well.

      You wrote:
      “…But in any other organisation there would have been help and resources to give me a hope and a future…”

      Actually most organisations don’t. I work in a major company where bullying at management level is part of management, so it does feel a bit like “the other man’s grass is always greener!”

      • I think the difference may be that there is an ultimate resort to employment law. In a traditional employer relationship – whilst there may be a culture of bullying in certain places – a person can make a claim that bullying and harassment drove them out of their employment. That is much less of a clear route in church ministry. Potentially leading to confusion about what to do – or worse – compounding the stress that the victim of bullying is going through, as there isn’t clarity of a route to take (even if there actually may be one).

        Having been in leadership in both large secular organisations and now in church leadership it feels like there is a need for better, and more clearly signposted routes to support with clear procedures in place nationally for clergy when they feel bullied or harassed.

  2. We’ve been working our way through 2 Corinthians in our church recently. It has struck me when preparing that what Paul was facing was something like bullying from those leaders in Corinth who had set themselves up against him.

    2 Cor 4:8-10 – “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

    Ministers of the gospel should expect resistance and bullying. Not to say that it’s a good thing or we should be a doormat, but Jesus’ example strikes a chord: 1 Pet 2:23 “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

    Although procedures and institutions have their place, ultimately I think the only weapon we have against bullying is the gospel – God alone has the power to change people’s hearts through it.

    • I am an accredited union representative and gained that accreditation when working in the public sector (for a City Council). Since working for the church I have remained a union member, but been largely inactive. The reason I mention this is because the article seems to be suggesting (or might lead some people to suggest) that the church might stand to learn something from the secular-corporate approach to dealing with bulling, or even follow one of it’s models?

      I would resist that idea intensely, having worked as part of one such system. Almost all “institutional” bullying (as opposed to personal vendetta/conflict) in my experience comes from one of two root causes. The first is an inability (unconscious decision) or unwillingness (conscious decision) to see a person’s contribution to the team/organisation as in any way valuable. The second is the assumed need to be seen from above to have exercised control or authority in a situation.

      It is because of this that I agree with Phil. The principle weapon the church has to combat bullying is the gospel – a gospel which in making everyone family and equal heirs in Christ has made us all equally valuable to God (addressing the first issue) which then leads us then to submit ourselves to His will and authority to exercise discipline when we stray from this, as a father does over his children (addressing the second).

      • As an aside, my father in law (who is visiting us this week and not a Christian) is a senior director for an international consultancy firm. I’ve been speaking with him about this article and the points it raises. His comment was thus:

        “The only way to combat bullying in any organisation is from above, the top, by the most senior leaders setting an example of good practice and humility that can be emulated by those serving them. You do not do it by laying down the law, or by enforcing rules, you do it through support, encouragement and above all listening to people and valuing them. The worst thing you can do is ignore it or pretend it’s not happening. It is not the church that needs to learn from the world, but the world from the church.”

    • It is notable that in the passage you have quoted Paul says ‘We’ not ‘I’ – there is the sense that it’s not just him being bullied, if you will, but he and his team. This implies a somewhat different dynamic to the examples above, where isolation seems quite a common theme.

      Following on from that, perhaps Paul’s writing to Timothy is instructive. Timothy might perhaps be someone who Paul felt concerned could be subject to bullying (1 Tim 3:12) And it’s notable how Paul in the letter does not just encourage him in general terms, but also gives him very specific instructions as to how to deal with particular groups of people. There is the sense that Paul really inhabits the specifics of Timothy’s situation alongside him.

      And it’s that that seems to be lacking in the examples given here, a sense that people are just left to get on with it by themselves, without support.

      • It’s interesting when reading 2 Corinthians to think about who the ‘we’ actually is, because I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Is Paul using the ‘royal we’? Is he referring to the apostles? Not easy to know. Isolation is a huge issue, and Paul certainly knew it well (e.g. 2 Tim 4:16-18).

        I think the biggest message in Paul’s message to Timothy is to keep preaching the word “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2) – it’s the only thing which will make any lasting difference. It can change the hearts of the bullies in a way that nothing else can.

    • This is the answer. Many of us have been frustrated because those we expect to take action do not but the only real answer is a change of heart within those doing the bullying. It might be possible to remove the authority they have but they may then move into a similar position and bully there. There comes a point when the only safe thing for the bullied to do is to remove themselves from the place where it happens and to warn those following of the experience they have had.

    • Sorry my previous comment appears in the wrong place for my purpose.
      My comment “This is the answer” refers to Phil’s early comment.

  3. As a priest I’ve been bullied by clergy colleagues and by parishoners. It gets to the point where people avoid tackling it because they feel it will jepordise the ministry of the church. I was even told (verbatim) by one diocesan official: “What’s happening to you is unacceptable, but your church gives too much money for us to put that at risk by a direct intervention”. The diocese hung me out to dry because of money.

  4. This is something that my husband and I have come across recently in both our roles, he as a minister and myself in the workplace. He recently listened to details of bullying from certain quarters and the outcome of that was less than satisfactory. This was with the involvement of the Bishop even though there were widespread concerns. Nothing was resolved!This left us with questions as to why? and why in many cases it is overlooked and not treated with the seriousness it should have been. The victims of the bullying are left so much less trusting in the church and those in authority. I often feel the wounds of the church are felt more because they are a reflection of god and the image of god that is portrayed is one of an authoritarian bully! This is not a good witness to the world. Very often we have found it stems from someones insecurities, or they have been placed in a position where they are out of their depth and this is the only way to maintain control. After all the bullies are bullying for a reason and sometimes its because they are being dumped on and bullied too.
    just as an aside when my husband went into the ministry and was accepted for training his selection conference was quite a grueling three day event and much of it was physchological profiling. From that many people were turned down from ministry and redirected to other things and careers. It was in my opinion a good way of detecting weak spots not to highlight them or make you feel bad or worthless but to address the fact that these could be issues later on and ultimately trip you up.the selection panel was interested in your character formation as much as the theological training you were going to receive. That was 18 years ago but talking to another ordinand recently she said there was a little bit of that but not much at hers! why the change?

  5. Bullying is inevitable while bishops, and others in the hierarchy, have too much power: unless saints only apply, the institution needs to be set up with checks and balances to mitigate the harm a wrong appointment can do to their inferiors (in rank if nothing else). There also needs to be a realistic prospect of firing bad bishops.

    Particularly, barring a handful of tightly-drawn conscience protections, labor laws should be fully extended to the church. You only have to look at “Mad Priest’s” blog to see the devastation the current rules allow. That not a single bishop has stepped in to help him despite six years in the wilderness speaks volumes.

  6. The bullying that I experienced as a Churchwarden/lay person was from a combination of my parish priest and a predecessor as Churchwarden. I still work for the church and fortunately I have been supported by friends and colleagues but these people were never asked to answer any questions even though their Archdeacon witnessed it happening to me. I live in another diocese now but my constant thought is ‘o how these Christians love one another’

  7. I hope that people can still get hold of and read the Society of Martha and Mary’s 2002 report Affirmation and Accountability, which addresses this subject very well. It’s lessons have not yet begun to have been learned.


  8. C of E comment- I wonder if this needs to go to the Renewal and Reform group. The fundamental issue is that of clergy tenure. Take the classic “Curate bullied by incumbent” situation – Under Common Tenure, both have access /are subject to the same disciplinary & grievance procedure BUT the tenure of the curate is qualified and related to their training whereas the the incumbent’s tenure isn’t. It is therefore institutionally & legally (let alone pastorally and workload wise) much easier to remove a curate from a situation where they are bullied than the incumbent. The cost of this for a stipendiary curate who will have moved and put down some roots is high. If they have a family who have also made the same connections & friendships then that anxiety is higher. Curates therefore have a choice of put up with it or uproot. The same is even more true of congregations- easier to encourage a person to try another church than move the incumbent.

    • A good solution here would be to import more congregational elements, such as churchs electing their priest, and having the power to call a general meeting and depose them. This of course runs the risk of congregations bullying ministers, but safeguards (such as two-thirds majorities and right of appeal) could be built in.

      Certainly, many Anglican provinces give the congregation far greater say than England, whether directly, or indirectly via their elected vestry.

      Crucial is seeing bullying as structural, not just a question of individual morality. Yes, some people are natural bullies, who must be kept out of positions of power; others, however, get corrupted by their role, or are just too weak to do the right thing. The more power is dispersed, the less bullying you’ll see: concentrations of power invite it.

  9. I left my church a week before BAP, a group of parishioners wanted the incumbent out and I was seen as being in “his camp”, I have never felt so stressed and I worked as a doctor on relief camps for years. One could do nothing right, work was loaded on. I felt that if that was the C of E I didn’t want to comit to an organisation that allowed wholesale bullying.

    The conclusion is the vicar is leaving, numbers have shrunk back to those approved of by the in group. Financial worries are huge, giving has shrunk. For myself I’m a church tart, I go here and there, petrified to commit. I don’t want to suffer at the hands of “good” people. Others have said I’d have made a good vicar, I feel lost.

  10. The fundamental issues are not about tenure but about power and difference. Ask women about bullying in the church. Ask the minorities about bullying in the church. Ask disabled people, ask the mentally ill, ask LGBT people, ask people of colour. They will tell you what the problem is like.

    Such an obvious strategy is, however, never followed by an organisation that has almost no serious interest in equality and diversity. And you can’t solve the one without paying serious, committed, sustained attention to the other. At the moment the C of E thinks it can deal with both issues by making what it hopes are the right noises. Actions lag far behind.

  11. I just discovered this page and I am grateful for it because I am a recent victim of bullying in the Anglican Church. I am in the Diocese of Brisbane, Australia, and although notionally a “liberal” Anglo-Catholic diocese, the Diocese of Brisbane is the most intolerant I have ever been in if you do not tow the line. it is a very hierachical Diocese with the archbishop and bishops holding a great deal of power. I was operating a parish website at one stage and I asked my priest if he would like to provide me with his weekly sermons to publish so he could evangelise to a wider audience. He refuse because he was frightened that if he accidentally said anything even remotely/unintentionally incorrect he could face censure from the bishop.

    My problem though was at a small country parish in the Diocese. A new minister came in (the first female priest) and she developed a small clique around her. She and another woman in this clique started bullying anyone who did not bow to their agenda. They even fabricated blatant lies about people, threatened legal action through the church hierarchy and proactively concealed evidence of problems in the parish.

    Eventually, I just walked away as I was sick of the toxic atmosphere and also one of my parents was seriously ill so I wanted to go to a supportive church whilst this was happening.

    Now, a Royal Commission is happening into Australia into Child Abuse in institutions including the Church. The extent of cover-ups and bullying of abuse victims is being revealed in the Diocese of Brisbane and other diocese around the country. If they bully and intimidate vulnerable people to conceal their colleagues’ child abuse, it is no wonder that they bully other people on lesser issues.

    I agree that much more accountability is needed, both of bishops and of clergy. Proper mechanism need to be put in place to decentralise power and a watchdog who will listen to and spport the laity is needed.


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