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Ministry Bullies By Alec Hill

The Reality of Encountering Bullies in Ministry

Recently, I drafted a list of bullies whom I’ve known over the years.

Schoolyard ruffians were easy to recall. They were usually big, not-so-bright, and angry at the world. Workplace bullies came next. Generally more intelligent and subtle, they used psychological and emotional intimidation rather than fists.

Webster defines “bully” as a “blustering, browbeating person who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.” The closest biblical word is “brute” used in Isaiah and the Psalms.

Workplace bullying is surprisingly widespread. Studies show that nearly half of us have either been bullied or witnessed abusive behavior on the job.

Sadly, Christian communities can be places where bullies thrive. Why? Perhaps it’s because we let our guards down when entering a “safe space.” Or because we defer too easily to those with self-assured authority. Or because we prize “Christian nice,” avoiding conflict at any price.  

Ministry bullies utilize a variety of tactics. They isolate targets, misuse confidential information, build secret alliances, threaten reprisals, falsely accuse, and spread rumors. Clever and controlling, they can – like wolves in sheep’s clothing – even be charming. And they come in both genders: sixty percent are male, forty percent are female.  

Our response to bullies depends greatly upon the role they play.

Bosses Who Bully

Since two-thirds of workplace bullies outrank their victims, this is where the most harm is done. With such an imbalance of power, what recourse do subordinates have?

At minimum, they should try to be honest on annual evaluations. I recall my frustration with a staff team that regularly gave high marks to their supervisor but later complained about how ill-treated they felt. Looking back, perhaps they didn’t feel entirely safe – pointing to the need for air-tight systems that ensure confidential feedback.

I once had a boss who, while normally affable, resorted to bullying tactics when confronted. Peers and I walked on egg-shells as we worked with HR to expedite his transition. It was dicey to say the least.

Sadly, most bullied staff lack such options. Surveys show that 77% escape via transfer, resignation, or dismissal. Like the young harp-playing David who was threatened by King Saul, they seek safety elsewhere.     

Co-Workers Who Bully

When we observe one peer maltreating another, we really have only two options. Either we can turn a blind eye or we can defend the victim. If we opt for passivity, we give our tacit permission for the denigration to continue.  

But Scripture clearly points in the other direction. The Psalmist writes: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and “blessed are those who have regard for the weak.” When we link arms with the vulnerable, we make the perpetrator’s conduct more costly. And, of course, we also open ourselves up to attack.

In the early days of email, a fellow employee regularly denigrated peers on line. But when he wrote a nasty message about a friend of mine, I decided to take him on publicly. When he read my reply, he was shocked and, like the Cowardly Lion, thought only of the pain that I had caused him. But his taunts stopped.     

Subordinates Who Bully

The most effective way to eliminate ministry bullying is from the top down. If the executive director (and board) make it crystal clear in word, deed, and policy that such conduct is unacceptable, organizational culture will tilt towards the good.

I must confess to having been too tolerant towards bullies in my career. Why? Both because I was overconfident in my ability to change their behavior and – to be honest – I was a bit of a coward. But by not acting, I allowed innocent staff to suffer.

Sometimes, firing a bully can do wonders for staff morale. As Solomon observed: “Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out. Quarreling and abuse will cease.”

Andy Crouch rightly criticizes executives who fail to curb bullies:

“They are unfaithful not by abusing their power but by not using it at all. They are like a slothful referee in soccer, who can spoil a game by neglecting his duties to rein in the unfair power-grabbing of overlords on the field…” 

Final Thoughts

Just as Jesus confronted the bullies of his day, so must we. Doing so prayerfully and courageously, we heed his words (“pray for those who abuse you”) and of those of Paul (“be patient in affliction…and not to repay anyone evil for evil).” Even bullies warrant our compassion.   

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Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity.

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