The Church Bully

by the Rev. Tim Fleck
St. Andrew & St. John, Southwest Harbor and St. Saviour’s, Bar Harbor

Tim-headshotWhen I was a child, I knew and my friends knew what a bully was: A bully was a kid who beat up or threatened to beat up other kids. The quintessential bully who comes to mind is the yellow-eyed coonskin-capped Scut Farkus of “The Christmas Story,” terrorizing other kids apparently just for the thrill of it (or at least so it seemed to his victims). The idea of bullying someone online or adults bullying one another in the workplace would not have made sense to us kids.

Recently, though, the term “bullying” has expanded to include all sorts of manipulative behavior or speech, not necessarily threatening physical violence, but using intimidation and fear to get others to do what one wants. The fact that bullying has sometimes been overused to describe any sort of behavior that we don’t like or any kind of speech that hurts our feelings doesn’t change the truth that real bullying does take place. Thank goodness that we live and work together in the Church, a place where bullying could never happen, right?

Sadly, the church is not immune from bullies. In fact, our churchy instinct to be nice, to be pastoral, to give one another the benefit of the doubt creates a perfect habitat for bullying. Physical abuse or threats are rare (although they happen), but there are other kinds of manipulation and intimidation. Let’s have a look at the natural history of some of our native church bullies:

The Financial Bully: This person lets it be known, either explicitly or tacitly, that his or her financial support for the church is contingent on getting his or her way. This is especially powerful if the parish is reliant on a small number of large givers, but can occur around even small sums of money. Ironically, someone perceived as a major financial supporter can be treated as a financial bully even if he or she is not: “We’d better not change that, because Mrs. van der Guilder might withdraw her pledge” – when Mrs. V has never indicated that she might do any such thing.

The Long-Term Bully: This person is similar to the financial bully, but the threat is not about withdrawing money but withdrawing long-term membership: “My family have been members of this church since it was founded, but I don’t know if I can stay here if you do X.”

The Indispensable Bully: This person has set himself up as the only person who knows how to do a particular ministry or meet a particular need. He or she may have others convinced that the church will not be able to function if he or she is not there, so you’d better not tick him or her off.

The Knowledge Bully: Similar to the Indispensable Bully, but using perceived superior knowledge as a weapon. Clergy are particularly prone to this kind of bullying (“I went to seminary, and I know what an epiclesis is, so just do what I say. You probably wouldn’t understand it, anyway.”), but it can also occur among those with any type of specialized knowledge that can be used to cow others: financial, liturgical, musical, or even knowledge of parish history.

The Emotional Bully: As a church, we are called to respond pastorally to our brothers and sisters in need. This bully takes advantage of that by making it clear that he or she will fall apart emotionally if things don’t go his or her way. This bully can also engage in all sorts of outrageous behavior, but need not be held accountable because he or she is perceived as emotionally fragile.

The Angry Bully: A particular type of Emotional Bully, relies on the fact that many church people cannot stand to see someone actually express anger, and will do anything to get him or her to calm down.
Have you experienced any of these types of bullying in church? This list is far from exhaustive. If you find yourself walking on eggshells around particular people or particular subjects, look around for the bully. If you experience someone engaging in behavior that would never be tolerated in another setting (insulting or belittling others, shutting down conversation, keeping secrets or having secret conversations about others, threats, emotional blackmail), you may be being bullied. If a group or person has been given the responsibility to carry out a task only to have their authority undercut, a bully may be at work.


Scut Farkus (right) with his sidekick Grover Dill

Of course, it’s one thing to identify bullying, but quite another to put a stop to it. In “The Christmas Story,” Scut Farkus gets his comeuppance when his victim Ralphie flies into a berserk rage and pummels him bloody. While perhaps satisfying, this is not recommended (in fact, it is not even satisfying for Ralphie: he is so overwhelmed by his own rage that he bursts into tears and has to be taken home by his mom).

The element of truth in the story, though, is that bullies usually can’t stand up to being challenged. Jesus gives us a pretty good plan for dealing with bullies in the church in Matthew 18:15-17:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

If it feels like you are being bullied, call the bully on it. He or she may not even be aware that his or her behavior is bullying. Check yourself, though, to make sure that you are not functioning as an emotional bully yourself when you do this, using your own feelings of discomfort to get your way. Are you uncomfortable because you are being intimidated, or are you just frustrated that things are not going your way? Is someone threatening you, or are they simply pointing out how you have hurt them?

If that doesn’t work, try taking a small group – ideally people who are trusted by the bully as well as by you. Again, though, make sure that you are not bullying in turn: “I’ve got this whole group of people here who back me up, so you’d better back down.”

One hopes that bullying does not rise to the level of needing to be called out before the whole church, but when the behavior of one person or a small group threatens to sabotage the ministry of an entire congregation, it may be necessary to tell them in love that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, even in church. This is not a matter of saying that the church doesn’t love them unless they straighten up (remember Jesus’ attitude toward Gentiles and tax collectors?). This is a matter of being together in one Body, and working to make sure that every member of the Body has the opportunity to live up to the image and likeness of God in whom we were created.

— reprinted with permission from the June 2014 editions of the St. Saviour’s Voice and The Net Tender


Filed under Diocesan Life

14 responses to “The Church Bully

  1. Holly Tornrose


    I thought you would find this blog post interesting.


  2. Diane

    Excellent article. The worst kind of bully, of course, is the dishonest one who talks behind people’s backs and tries to ruin reputations, even stooping to outright betrayal. I’ve worked in churches for nearly 40 years and have observed this three times. The church is rife with sin and evil. Or, as my spiritual director says: “Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to earth, and what he got instead was the church.” Still ministering after all these years — because what else is there to do? 🙂

    • Diane

      I should add that I agree with Steven: priests and bishops must be trained to have the backs of those who are bullied. Too many clergy and lay staff are eventually let go because bullies get their way.

  3. Lauren

    I think the worst kind of bully sometimes not easily identified because of manipulation is the the priest themselves. Sometimes we only see what we want to see because the truth would hurt us too badly.

  4. One form of bullying not mentioned is the “educated” bully. This often occurs in discussions about changes in worship, such as the minisitry oif music. I recently witnessed an online dialogue in which several ministers of music were invited to engage in discussions of how to improve a particular denomination’s hymnal. One music educator seemed to take the stance that congregational input — particularly input from lay members of the congregation — was not required or at least lay members should defer to a high committee, largely filled with people with degrees in music education and divinity degrees and that it would be “dumbing down” the music to consider the opinions of members who did not have degrees in music or religion or who found some hymns difficult to sing because the hymns were difficult or the congregants had limited musical ability. I’m sure the members of that committee didn’t mean to come off as arrogant or unsympathetic to congregational limitations and needs but the term “dumbing down” (or equivalent phrases) WAS used in the discussion and the dialogue seemed to degenerate because of that. Education is a beautiful thing, but it should not be used — even inadvertently — as a tool to intimidate the opinions of others. God loves people with college degrees as much as his children who only have high school diplomas or General Equivalency Degrees (GEDs).. And the opinions of people “who don’t know much about religion or music, but who know what they like” should be valued as much as the people who can cite authoritative studies by prominent experts in the fields of theology, church music and religious outreach.

  5. Kyle Manel

    I find quite a plethora of bullies in my local congregation, but I have difficulty recognizing with the “they are easily cowed” suggestion.

    On the contrary, in fact I find they are awfully tactile and capable of creating significant upheaval if they are not supported in the endeavours they choose.

    I have been looking for a way to provide my own skills at mediation to my congregation, but have been unsuccessful at finding a time/place/situation to do so as the bullies here tend to hold their punches for business meetings and don’t provide information regarding their own agenda(s) before hand, which leaves the congregation reeling to some unexpected potential threat that may be around the corner if we don’t follow their advise. In this regard it does appear to be a “Knowledge” bully, and the knowledge they draw from is legitimate, but the only purpose of such knowledge is to insight fear, mistrust and confusion in all information but their own.

    I enjoy resolving conflict with effective and active discussion, but this bully(s) do not attempt to provide further validity. This may seem like a way to invalidate them, however their information is legitimate, it is just presented in a very negative, non-cooperative way with no suggestions provided to resolve it AND when someone provides a suggestion, they shoot them down with what appears to be proven legitimacy (as their initial argument was valid).


  6. Is ‘Blackballing’ someone a form of bullying? How do you deal with that?

  7. anonymous

    I find that at my church we have this group that sits in the back and makes sighed comments at the pastor’s sermon, they mock when someone that it part of the service like the organist makes a little mistake. They are so hypocritical, I don’t see any of them learning how to play an instrument or taking part of worship. It turns away people that come that are interested in worship at our church because they hear such nasty and negative things. I even find that I don’t want to go to church because of it. It is like the stereotypical “clique”, even though they are not just females. It is just rude. They make it so that I love God but hate church.

  8. A recommended read is “Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Freidman. Gave me the tools, not to “stand up” to the bully (I was already doing that), but to inoculate the congregation against the effects of his bullying of them. It worked; he finally realized that he wasn’t going to get away with it anymore, and he and his wife left the congregation.

    No one counted this a “victory” (in terms of winning, or of “beating” the bully). However, in Friedman’s terms, the bully was finally able to make a decision on his own about taking care of himself, instead of demanding that the pastor or the congregation take care of him (by giving in to his demands all the time).

    It was never easy, but it was important that we did what we did.

  9. I think you may be missing something here. It seems to me that EVERYONE would fall into one or more of the categories you mention when there’s a disagreement. What is the difference between speaking up just to “get one’s way” and bringing forward a legitimate concern? You seem to fall on the side of “you’re right as long as what you are doing is not sabotaging the ministry of an entire congregation.” But there’s a danger there of determining a correct course based on what is the most popular opinion. Sometimes, however, the minority voices have a lot to teach us.

    In the long run, I think the value of recognizing these patterns is not in figuring out who is doing the bullying but rather in recognizing our own fears. We may be afraid to stand for something because someone might leave, might be hurt, might stop contributing, or other things you mention. And those things may indeed happen, but we don’t need to fear them. So the conclusion, I think, shouldn’t be to go and call out someone’s “sin” because they aren’t following the group. The conclusion should be to look within ourselves in the midst of disagreement and ask, are my actions in alignment with my values? Are we on the right track? If so, then there really isn’t anything to fear.

    If you’re on the other end and you are the minority voice, the same question applies: am I on the right track? Or am I acting on my own fears? If you’re on the right track, it’s not a threat to withdraw from a group that doesn’t share the same values. It’s just acknowledging that your skills, time, money, and self respect would be of better use elsewhere.

    • The Rev. Tim Fleck

      Hi, Martin,
      I don’t think bullying has to do with disagreeing with the group; I think it has to do with how we behave when there is disagreement or the possibility of disagreement. Do we converse and even argue constructively? Or do we throw a tantrum, make threats, and use intimidation to shut down the conversation? I’ve known congregations and individuals who could lovingly and eloquently disagree, even long term, and yet stay in relationship. And I’ve known congregations where one individual, even an individual who agrees with the majority, is allowed to sabotage the process.

  10. Steven

    Thank you for identifying the types of bullies that infest our congregations. The one thing I would add is our judicatory leaders (bishops, superintendents, etc.) need to be there to have our back for us when bullies get confronted. You’re right that we must be aware of our own stuff so that we aren’t being bullies ourselves, but bullies have been known to manipulate bishops to get what they desire. And if bishops aren’t trained or experienced they won’t hesitate to react and refuse to hear the clergy’s side of the story.

    Also many bishops fear these bullies as well because they fear a loss of $$ in benevolence. “If Mr. and Mrs. X is angry they will leave that parish and their financial support which sustains that parish will be gone and in turn that parish cannot sustains us.”

  11. Kay

    We had a real bully who was just awful to our priest. Our priest said that Bully behaved like that because he was in pain, but his discomfort when attacked was visible. Every Vestry meeting turned into a bombastic bullying session. Someone always would voice disagreement, to no avail. Finally, we got together and said that when one of us disagreed, every other person had to voice disagreement, too. He was gob-smacked–it never occurred to him that he was not a hero. Finally, he settled down. He actually began to enjoy himself. Go figure.

  12. I really recognize the situation. I am thankful that you’ve outlined some of the archetypes. Very helpful.

    And I struggle with this: if we were even able to recognize it for bullying, we might STILL excuse it as “only a little bullying.” Much as the vision of the bully we have is so clearly (physically) abusive, we undersell the emotional abusiveness of others. Particularly those who see themselves as relatively powerless.