It was five minutes before worship, and I was greeting people at the sanctuary entrance. The contemporary service was about to begin when a gentleman who usually frequented our traditional service came through the door. After seeing the stage (drums and guitars added, and traditional worship furniture removed) his face was red and he fumed with anger. He proceeded to berate me and another staff member, saying, “You have no right to move this stuff!”
Right there, in the doorway to the sanctuary, he yelled at us before worship as heads turned and a first-time guest family looked on in dismay. He even tried to start placing back certain items that had been moved off the chancel. I made a snap judgment and quickly stood between him and the sanctuary door as he tried to enter with items in hand.
He was a retired career Marine, and although I was pretty sure he could have whipped me eight ways to Sunday, I felt compelled to place my body between him and the sanctuary doors. Not quite knowing what came over me, I said: “If you want to shout at or even fight with me, it’s not going to happen here right before worship. You need to leave right now.”
The few seconds of silence that followed seemed like an eternity. The man looked around sheepishly and tucked tail for the parking lot. It was time for worship to begin, and I immediately walked to the front of the sanctuary, cut on my microphone, and said, “Welcome to worship! We are so glad you are here this morning!”
Bullies in churches come in all shapes, sizes and political bents. They can be young adults, old or middle aged. They can be from any economic status or social background. They can represent any race, gender or other identity. Bullies never look the same from one church to the next, but their actions and tactics are surprisingly consistent.
Here are four ways to identify a bully at church:
First, when confronted about their behavior or when challenged they will almost always blow up. They will snap back or storm out of meetings. I’ve had bullies cuss me in my office, leave meetings in a huff, poke my chest with their finger. Here you have to remember that the outburst is not about you as a leader, but a display of fragility on the bully’s part.
Second, if a bully is unwilling to change his or her behavior once confronted, the bully will do everything necessary to maintain the position. This may include backstabbing, passive aggression, trying to pull others down with them, up to the point of leaving the relationship in order to avoid changing their unhealthy behavior. Again, you have to remember: It’s not about you. If the bully leaves the church because of unwillingness to change and repent when confronted, that’s a good thing, because the church will be healthier for it.
“Healthy churches and healthy church leaders are not controlled by bullies.”
Third, if the bully leaves (especially if they take others with them) people will think you ran them off. In fact, the bully will tell people this is so. There is largely nothing you can do about this, and it is part of the cost of leadership and of getting the church healthy. Even if the bully doesn’t participate in the weekly life of the church, don’t be surprised if, in desperation to maintain influence, he or she shows up for business meetings just to be contrary. Most churches don’t have a way to deal with this, but when it happens consistently, others will begin to see the situation for what it really is.
Fourth, over time, after the bully is confronted (which may take more than once), you will see a pressure valve release in the church as people realize they do not have to make every decision according to what the bully demands. There is great freedom in getting to this healthy spot, because that’s when progress can really happen in a church.
Many may wonder: What if the bully is in leadership? This may prove especially difficult if the bully is a pastor, deacon, committee member or trustee. Standing up to a bully who is a leader is always a difficult task and fraught with potential risk.
It may not be possible, but if the bully is in leadership the pastor may need to think about removing himself or herself from the situation — or finding different employment if the church is not willing to deal with the bully. I once confronted a bully who supervised me and immediately began looking for other work. I left for another position for my own mental health, and it was another two years before the church was willing to deal with the bully by removing the individual from her position. My documentation of my own encounters with the bully, however, opened the eyes of others and gave them the courage to begin dealing with the situation, even after I left.
Confronting church bullies is not for the faint of heart, and it can be taxing mentally, relationally and even physically on church leaders. Healthy churches and healthy church leaders, though, are not controlled by bullies, and whatever the price it’s always worth the cost to break free.
Jonathan Davis is cofounder of the Healthy Churches Institute and founder of the Small-Town Churches Network, helping rural churches thrive in the midst of 21st century change. He provides coaching for individuals and organizations around leadership and vision issues and helps organizations dream about what it means to flourish in the new cultural paradigm.