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24 Aug '11

Church bullies

Many of my most read blogs have to do with relationships within the church and behaviors that are problematic, toxic and which actually destroy the very ministry results that we long to see.  Recently, as a result of one of these blogs I received the following two questions from one of my readers who is on staff in a local church and close enough to the inner workings of the church to know what is happening. Here are his questions:

"What I do not understand is why pastors feel that they need to allow an individual to be repeatedly belligerent to them? Repeatedly derogatory, accusatory, disrespectful, etc.?  Repeatedly approach as a bully?

Unfortunately, I have also seen the belligerent person be the local ministry head who is "attacking" the other members of the staff on a consistent, random basis as to who is the scapegoat for the day.  In this situation it is not a pastor who is doing the attacking but a manager in a Christian ministry."

Let's take the first question first. Here a pastor is mistreated by  an individual in the church, someone whose actions are that of a "bully" but is not able to say "You cannot treat me this way." Why do pastors put up with behaviors which would never be acceptable in a healthy secular workplace?

Having been in those shoes I believe that one of the primary reason pastors don't put their foot down is that they don't believe that they will be backed up by their board if they do so. Pastors should be able to say to a bully, "Joe, you cannot treat me like this and if it happens again, we will have no further conversations without a board member present and I will share with the board what is happening in our conversations. While you are entitled to your opinions, you cannot pressure me with them nor can you treat me in a disrespectful manner. I don't treat you that way, I don't speak to you that way and it is unacceptable in God's church for you to do that with me. So we will never have another conversation like this without it going to the board and without a third person present." 

In order for a pastor to be that defining he needs to know that his board will back him up - completely. Unfortunately, weak boards are often cowards when dealing with bullies in the church. They are afraid of them and often will not confront them. That is why church bullies (often former leaders) get away with unconscionable behavior that is toxic to the church as a whole. And, why pastors are often helpless to deal with the behavior. If the board will not back them up, they will eventually give up or choose to leave. Usually the bully knows that the board will not choose to confront them and sometimes is on the board.

Here is the thing about church bullies. When confronted they usually run because they hate accountability. Boards need to agree that there are certain behaviors that are illegal in the church - they violate Scripture. Read Ephesians on relationships or 1 and 2 Timothy on dealing with contentious behaviors. One of the responsibilities of leaders is to protect the flock from divisive behavior and that is exactly what this is. Boards that allow such behavior and don't protect the pastor from bullies ought to resign and let someone who will lead. It is that simple. Often, because boards will not act, good pastors simply choose to leave and the scenario plays itself out over and over and over.  I know a church well that has played this scenario over for over 30 years now.

If I were a pastor today I would confront such behavior as suggested above and if my board chose not to support me in this I would resign. No pastor can be successful in a situation where toxic behavior is not addressed. Churches get what they deserve in terms of leadership. Good leadership brings good ministry. Poor leadership brings poor results. 

If the board is willing to support the pastor against toxic behavior but the pastor cannot confront a bully, the board needs to step in when they hear about it and deal with it for him. One of their roles is to protect the pastor. But in the end, it is the board that either allows bullies to operate or not. By the way, bullies are often perceived as "influential" in the church which is why boards will not deal with them. In the church, one does what is right whether the offender is influential or not. You deal with it biblically (Matthew 18) but leaders must deal with it and will answer to the Lord of the Church for how they do or do not handle it (2 Peter 5).

The second question suggests that the bully is a manager of a ministry. In my world, this individual would be dealt with very quickly and we would let him/her know in no uncertain terms that this behavior is unacceptable and incompatible with who we are as a ministry. Remember that behaviors we accept among staff, leaders or pastors are seen as normative in the church. In allowing toxic behavior to exist at that level, you are condoning toxic behavior at the congregational level. Again, I would suggest a failure of leadership for this behavior by a manager of a ministry to be tolerated by staff and board. 

Sometimes, by the way it is the senior pastor who is a bully, who has an agenda that is his and forces the board to accept that agenda. This is equally unhealthy and unacceptable as leadership in the church is a shared leadership of godly individuals. No one individual should have the power to force others to do their personal will. Healthy boards insist that the directional decisions of the church are corporate decisions, not just that of the senior pastor. Weak boards accede to pressure whether from a pastor or other bully in the church. In either case, it is toxic, unhealthy and wrong.

If you look at the "popular blog listing" on my blog site it lists the top ten blogs in the past thirty days. At any time, many of these have to do with dysfunctional relationships in the church. The problem is ubiquitous and boards have a lot to do with the problem. I predict this blog will end up on that list quickly because there are many bullies who are given free reign in many churches. It is time to call a halt to behaviors that diminish the name of Jesus in the very institution that is designed to lift His name high. If you have such a problem please, in the name of Jesus, deal with it. It is His reputation that is on the line.

For more help on this and related issues, pick up a copy of my book, High Impact Church Boards in paperback or on Kindle. It deals with the real life issues churches face.