Dealing with church bullies

A bully is someone who “habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those they see as vulnerable.” Perhaps surprisingly to many, churches are not immune to the threat of bullies.

There are, in every congregation, people who tend to want to baptize their unhealthy behavior in the language of “I’m a lead, follow, or get out of the way kinda guy.”

There are also subtler forms of bullying that include the quiet gossip who makes it their mission in life to call their list of usual suspects in order to bring their “feedback” to the pastor or session.

This list is usually taykor made to correspond identically with their own preferences. They can then say, “people are saying…” and thereby influence leadership decisions in a direction they perceive as favorable to them.

Bullies like this can make ministry seem like a root canal. They often wear down ministers through a campaign of attitrition.

Thom Rainer offers nine traits of church bullies:

  • They do not recognize themselves as bullies. To the contrary, they see themselves as necessary heroes sent to save the church from her own self.
  • They have personal and self-serving agendas. They have determined what “their” church should look like. Any person or ministry or program that is contrary to their perceived ideal church must be eliminated.
  • They seek to form power alliances with weak members in the church. They will pester and convince groups, committees, and persons to be their allies in their cause. Weaker church staff members and church members will succumb to their forceful personalities.
  • They tend to have intense and emotional personalities. These bullies use the intensity of their personalities to get their way.
  • They are famous for saying “people are saying.” They love to gather tidbits of information and shape it to their own agendas. 
  • They find their greatest opportunities in low expectation churches. Many of the church members have an entitlement view of church membership. They seek to get their own needs and preferences fulfilled. They, therefore, won’t trouble themselves to confront and deal with church bullies. That leads to the next issue, which is a consequence of this point
  • They are allowed to bully because church members will not stand up to them. I have spoken with pastors and church staff who have been attacked by church bullies. While the bully brings them great pain, they have even greater hurt because most of the church members stood silent and let it happen.
  • They create chaos and wreak havoc. A church bully always has his next mission. While he or she may take a brief break from one bullying mission to the next, they are not content unless they are exerting the full force of their manipulative behavior.
  • They often move to other churches after they have done their damage. Whether they are forced out or simply get bored, they will move to other churches with the same bullying mission. Some bullies have wreaked havoc in three or more churches.

There are few things as destructive to healthy congregational life as unchecked bullying.