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Bullying in the Church
Church bullies use their power to intimidate people, to close off discussion and to force group decisions to their liking. We need ways of dealing assertively, yet pastorally with them.

You're at a church meeting. The discussion begins to go in a direction that displeases someone. When it is clear they won't get their way, they go to the microphone and threaten to leave the church. The meeting goes silent. The decision is postponed to a future meeting.

If that's ever happened in a congregation you've attended, says Melissa Miller, you have experienced bullying in the church.

"Most of the bullying we hear about occurs in schools or workplaces," says Miller, a Winnipeg pastor and counselor. "But it happens in the church, too."

For Miller, bullying occurs when there is an imbalance of power and an intention to harm the person being bullied. In churches, bullying is often more subtle—church bullies use their power to intimidate people, to close off discussion and to force group decisions to their liking. Tactics they employ might include threatening to stop coming to church, or to stop giving if they don't get their way. They may also use the Bible as a weapon to override another's perspective. It can also happen when someone uses the pulpit or sharing time to scold or humiliate others.

"All this has the effect of silencing and disempowering people," she says, adding that the problem is compounded because Christians believe they must "turn the other cheek" or give in to make peace in the congregation.

"We feel powerless to stop the bullying, or to confront the bully because we feel that we should respond to violence with kindness," says Miller.

Sometimes pastors can be the bullies. At other times, it is the pastors who have been bullied by parishioners, she says, noting that some clergy in the United Church of Canada have called for a union to protect them from abusive members.

"We need to find ways to deal assertively, yet pastorally, with bullying behaviours in churches," says Miller. "We need to be equipped to handle these difficult situations."

"Experience and studies show that when bullying is addressed in schools, things improve—life gets better and the entire community becomes a kinder, more just and moral place," she says. "The same thing can happen in churches if we learn strategies like naming bullying behaviours, developing ways to disagree and ways to hold each other accountable for our behaviour."

For Miller, this includes creating codes of conduct for church meetings and developing personal codes for how Christians interact with each other—for example, being quick to listen, slow to judge and willing to negotiate.

"Stopping bullying isn't easy," she says. "But if we don't do it, it rips apart the fabric of a community."

For more information, and for tips on dealing with church bullies, contact Melissa Miller, counselor and pastor, at

John Longhurst is the director of communications and marketing at Canadian Mennonite University, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd., Winnipeg, Man. R3P 2N2.

Originally published on the website of Canadian Mennonite University, November 2006.




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