I was a little kid before discussions of bullying became so popular. These days parents can attend seminars or visit websites or read books about bullying, how to recognize and how to respond to it. In my day, mean girls picked on me and made me feel smaller even than I was, and no one paid much attention to it, and if I acted out in response, I invariably got in trouble myself.
That's how it was with bullies.
And adults who grew up in that era and before expect to be able to get away with their bad behavior just the way they did when they were in school. They expect others to be silent and sneak away and not to call them on their bullying. They know how to look innocent when the truly innocent party has finally had enough and blown up.
A famous book about churches full of bullies called them "clergy killers." They push and push and scheme and push some more, fully expecting that the pastor will either give in or go away or flame out, taking the focus off their own toxic misbehavior.They believe they can get away with it because pastors are supposed to be "Christian," in some nauseatingly sweet Hallmark style.
I've been the little kid who lost it. I've been the pastor on the receiving end, too, and it convinced me to move on, which was the right thing to do. I warned the Pastoral Relations Committee. "You have a problem," I told them. Because I felt physically threatened by a male bully much larger than I am, going to the church again produced anxiety until I left the job. I look back on the day when he came to my office, saying only that he wanted to talk to me about something, and I remember feeling uncomfortable about the appointment but telling myself I was being paranoid.
I was not. He assaulted me verbally, and I do not use the word "assaulted" lightly. At first I tried to manage the situation, but this bully had the smarts to realize he was being handled and call me on it. Once he accomplished that, he went on to insult my theology, my leadership, my personal qualities, my faith. He suggested I should become a Buddhist or a Unitarian, because I was clearly not a Christian.
He frightened me, and when it was my turn to talk, it was hard to know what to say or even how to speak with my heart beating so fast.
I'm proud of my former church. When the bully there took his theological complaints to the Chair of the Deacons, she stood firm on the decisions made by the church in a Visioning process. The united front presented by the leadership in my last month-and-a-half of ministry gave me confidence despite my remaining anxiety, and their continued keeping of the faith with each other effectively neutralized the bully.
I wonder sometimes how they did it. I haven't been very effective with bullies myself. Maybe we need to become very conscious of the little kid who lives inside each of us, to consider how that part of us tends to react (cry or run away or hit somebody!) and work with that part of ourselves the way we would with our own children or students if they faced a bully on the playground or in the classroom.
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. They make threats, demean their
targets, rally support and hope for a sly victory. Some present as
mean, while other present with a false friendliness that allows them to
get closer for the "kill."
And they can break the hearts and destroy the souls of churches if we do not tell them they must stop.