Bullying – on the playground and in the pew

bullyWe’re paying more attention these days to the subject of bullying. Maybe we’re just more sensitive these days, but more likely it’s because the problem is getting worse. Kids’ participation in social media means that they are exposed to more of their peers, and therefore more bullies. Not only that, but the dynamics of electronic communication lend themselves to bullying. (If you don’t believe me, just observe the “discussions” that happen in blogs and message boards for a while … notice how the level of discourse quickly devolves into name calling and snarky comments.)

Bullying doesn’t just happen among kids … adults do it too. In fact, some would argue that kids are doing it more these days because it’s being modeled more these days by people like us. This is really sad when you think about it … especially when you think about it happening in church.

And it does happen in church, doesn’t it? Does it ever! I see it a lot. Sometimes people lash out because of insecurity, sometimes because of fear, sometimes simply because of pride and a desire for power. Sometimes people use bullying tactics under the guise of exercising spiritual authority.

You’ve maybe heard the story of kids who are playing outside, while their moms is working in the house with a window open. She hears them yelling and name calling, and decides she has to intervene. She calls out the window: “What are you kids doing?” One of them responds: “It’s okay mom, we’re just playing church.”


Dr. Louise Hart on Bullying

There’s a great article in a recent Hazelden newsletter about bullying, which is an excerpt from Dr Hart’s new book on the subject. I’m going to quote it at length here, because she does such a great job at describing the characteristics of bullies and their victims. As you read this, see if you can identify any of this in behaviors you see in your church:

Characteristics of Bullies
Bullying refers to words or actions expressed to gain power over another person, as in the saying “Might makes right.” This urge to dominate, to be superior, underlies child abuse, date rape, domestic violence, workplace violence, and hate crimes. The need to dominate contributes to the imbalance of power.

Bullies can be characterized in a number of ways:

  • aggressive bullies who are hot-tempered, strong, impulsive, and confident
  • passive bullies who are insecure and have personal problems; they tend to follow the lead of aggressive bullies
  • bully-victims who have been bullied, then bully others
  • pure bullies who are well adjusted but just enjoy dominating others

Some bullies are children who themselves have been bullied, although that’s not true for all. For some, bullying might be a way of dealing with situations at home that they’re having trouble coping with. For others, they may have poor social skills or learning disabilities, making it hard to fit in with other kids; for these children, bullying provides a sense of control to satisfy their own sense of powerlessness.

Characteristics of Targets
Any child can be bullied, but there are often some common characteristics of targets:

  • passive victims who are anxious, fearful, and socially withdrawn (sometimes with good reason), making them appear vulnerable.
  • Experts have named many types of passive victims, such as: –vicarious victims who feel vulnerable, sympathetic, and guilty when there is bullying around them –false victims who feel they are being bullied, even when they are not –perpetual victims who have been bullied so much that it becomes part of their psyche
  • provocative victims who arouse negative responses from those
  • around them
  • bully-victims (see above)


School Principle Ron DeBoer writing about bullying

Another great article on bullying just came out in The Banner, written by school principle Ron DeBoer. Listen to his recommendation for  how schools need to deal with this:

Schools need to develop deliberate strategies to both prevent and respond to bullying. Schools need to communicate clearly to parents that no forms of bullying will be tolerated; they need policies and processes with escalating consequences for bullies. That may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often adults in a position to respond to bullying don’t acknowledge it as anything other than a teenage rite of passage.

Good stuff. I agree completely. But it also makes me think: WHAT ABOUT CHURCHES?

Read DeBoer’s paragraph again … and this time substitute “churches” for schools. Do you agree? Do you think that churches need to take more of a stand against bullying in all its forms? I do.

Stepping up our commitment to fight bullying

I’m working on a book right now about Overloaded Leaders. One of the reason for pastors being overloaded is that they get burdened by dealing with conflict … including conflict that is directed at them. One of the important — but often overlooked — tasks of church leaders is to protect the community of the church. The church needs to be a place that is safe and loving. When people violate standards of love by gossiping, criticizing, name-calling, and general intimidation … it’s time to step in.

We can talk more about “How” and “When” to step in later. But right now the most important issue is this: do we agree that it’s an important issue? Do we agree that it is our job to protect community health? Are we willing to make that an important part of our task as leaders?

If pastors agree to this, then the next step is to ensure that they are not alone in that conviction. This needs the ownership and commitment of boards and councils (which are, unfortunately, often the places where we see bullying behaviors in churches!). Deal with that by teaching, intelligent confrontation (when necessary), and sometimes just holding on until some destructive “leaders” end their terms on the board. Then, when the church leadership can be united in its commitment to healthy relationships — and no tolerance for bullying in the church — then the community can be much stronger, more united, and more fruitful in ministry.


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