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.
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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