When you think about it, we can't possibly shame, threaten, manipulate or guilt each other into becoming "faithful" and "productive" church members -- yet sometimes that is what we try to do! Bullying at church is unique from other kinds of bullying, because it brings fear and insecurity into the context of personal spirituality. In the end, it works against the very things we are trying to accomplish. Addressing bullying at church is important, so that our places of worship are healthy for everyone.
So, Who's "The Bully?"
When threatening or angry behaviors are very direct and repeatedly come from one individual it's easy to say, "There's the bully!" But bullying can be subtle, and come in many forms. It can also be interwoven with good and positive experiences. The following questions can help us determine if bullying is at the root of "unsafe" feelings at church:
Do I routinely feel better or worse after my interactions with (a specific person)?
Do I repeatedly feel "I'm not good enough," or discouraged after our interactions?
Do I feel trapped? Afraid? Anxious?
Do I feel that my decisions aren't my own and only made to avoid "consequences?"
Do our exchanges leave me feeling intimidated, manipulated, dominated, pressured, and/or belittled?
Do I feel that gossip (or other forms of shaming/humiliation) is being used to control or punish me?
*Adapted from,"Leading as One" (See Footnote)
"That's Exactly How I Feel!" Now What?
It's okay to set boundaries -- even at church. When doing so, try referring to a specific incident, and then clearly identifying the behavior and why it's unacceptable. For example, (name the incident) then, "This is shaming, and it's embarrassing. I'm not okay with that." Or, (name the incident), "This is gossip, it's hurtful and damaging, and needs to stop." If it's difficult to clearly identify the behavior, such as when someone is trying to intimidate or manipulate, try being prepared with some good tag-lines. For example,"I'm not comfortable with this conversation," or "I appreciate your concern, but this is a personal matter." If the behavior continues, hold your ground. If it still continues, clearly state you'll involve others where appropriate. If the bullying is between teens or children, see the article,"Helping your teen through a faith crisis" -- sometimes, bullying can be one of the reasons.
What if "The Bully" is Me or My Family Member?
Any of us can mis-step for a variety of reasons. No one is immune! Sometimes the use of unhealthy or coercive tactics is a learned behavior and we are unaware. Sometimes we unintentionally cross over into forcing desired behavior due to the fear and over-anxiety we feel for those we care about. Sometimes we think we know best. We may have an idea of what we want our church to look like and how it should operate, and feel upset or threatened when our expectations aren't met. Whatever the case, empathy and a willingness to listen when someone is uncomfortable with our interactions can be an opportunity for growth. If a pattern of coercive or unhealthy behavior is brought to our attention, pondering the following can help point us to needed change:
Do I criticize... more than I compliment?
Do I insist others obey me because of the position of authority I hold?
Do others seem reluctant to talk to me about some of their feelings and concerns?
Do I attempt to guarantee my place of authority by means of manipulation or force?
Do I find myself setting and enforcing numerous rules to control others?
Do others appear to be fearful of me?
Do I feel threatened by the notion of sharing power and/or responsibility for decision making...?
Are others highly dependent on me and unable to make decisions for themselves?
Do I see myself as being the main source of inspiration for others rather than teaching them to listen to the Spirit and receive their own answers?
Do I often feel angry and critical toward others? - Adapted from H. Burke Peterson, “Unrighteous Dominion,” Ensign, July 1989, 7.
What if Bullying Amongst Church Members is Prevalent in my Congregation?
If you are experiencing this, it can be very painful and difficult. The issue may be a long established local church culture, or a few seeking to maintain control of congregants through bullying behaviors and established alliances. In either case, change may be difficult but it's not impossible. Confronting long-held patterns of behavior in a group can be incredibly stressful. Here are some ideas for dealing with a culture of coercion at church:
Pray for patience and humility. Ask God to help you not to "judge the judgers."
Avoid all or nothing thinking or only seeing other's weaknesses; look for the good!
Pray for God to help you speak up when appropriate. When clear thoughts come, and are accompanied by a feeling of peace, act on them!
Be an example of the change you wish to see. Avoid participating in gossip or other group tactics that shame, belittle or punish others. When conversations lean that way, state the positive things you see about the person/situation.
Pray for those who hurt you and your family members (Matthew 5:44). Be friendly and forgiving. If bullying becomes a pattern, and is causing repeated heartache, setting boundaries may be necessary.
When the opportunity comes, share examples of when you've seen people being loved "where they're at"- in their weakness and imperfections. If you have opportunities to teach, share examples when the Savior showed love and patience for those scorned by others (John 8:1-11).
Note: If you begin witnessing spiritual abuse by a local church leader, report it immediately to those who are in a position to address it. In the case of physical or sexual abuse, always report this to law enforcement -- no matter who it involves.
*Leading as One," by Mark E. Mendenhall, Hal B. Gregersen, Jeffrey S. O'Driscoll, Heidi S. Swinton, and Breck England