The carnage of bullies in the church is significant. Yesterday I was in an intense discussion at a coffee shop in Canada with three other individuals regarding my blog, "When Church Boards don't Confront Bullies," a woman at the table nearby was listening. As she left, she came and introduced herself and told the story of how her large church in Calgary had been destroyed by a church bully and gave us a book recommendation on narcissists in the church. She was right on three counts. One bully behavior is classic narcissism. Two, it has the power to destroy churches. And three, church leaders are notoriously bad at dealing with the problem. And when they ignore the issue, the damage is significant.
Bullies are chameleons. They try to look spiritual and concerned. But their behaviors are destructive, toxic, and hurtful. Don't be fooled!
Boards don't deal with church bullies because they are intimidated by them. That intimidation is a form of control by bullies, and it provides them license to continue their bad behavior. As we will see in this series, and as we have experienced, the bully can be a pastor, a board member, or another individual in the congregation. Intimidation is their method of operation, and the response of many church leaders is passive acceptance of their behavior because they are cowed by that intimidation. Don't be!
How then do we effectively deal with those who create division and discord in the church?
First, we need to be clear that there are behaviors that are not OK in the church or, for that matter, in any healthy organization. They include slander, malicious gossip, character assassination, lack of accountability, the need to have "my way," working behind the scenes to divide and conquer, unwillingness to resolve personal differences, operating in the shadows where one can create doubt, distrust, and division without being accountable for their actions, and the list could go on. See my blog, "How to Spot a Bully in the church."
Bullying behavior in the church is not very creative. It is, at its core, pure intimidation. Bullies are often arsonists in their behavior. They light fires of mistrust, create doubt, and slander others in private conversations and then deny and lie when confronted. But the behaviors are pretty consistent - often hidden in "spiritual" language, which is not spiritual at all but is evil because it destroys people, manipulates to get its own way, destroys the unity we should have in Christ (Ephesians 4), and reflects the Evil One rather than Jesus.
So the first step in confronting such behavior is to simply be clear that these behaviors are not acceptable and must stop. This is the job of church leaders. Whether it is a friend of theirs, a long-time acquaintance, or someone with money and power - it does not matter. These behaviors are wrong, and if you claim the Scriptures as your guide, you cannot ignore the obvious: This is sin, it is wrong, and it hurts the Body of Jesus.
Bullies in the church believe, often rightly, that you will not confront them. You must! They must know that you are aware of their behavior, will not tolerate it, and that it must stop. Period. Bullies will deny, excuse their behavior, tell you that they only want God's best, point the finger at others, and try to intimidate you and divide you as leaders but don't fall for it. They must know that their behavior is wrong, and will not be tolerated, and if they continue, there will be consequences.
Here is something to remember. Bullying behavior is underhanded behavior because bullies are often cowards at heart. Cowards use underhanded tactics and run from accountability. They will be surprised when church leaders are clear that this behavior is not OK and will not be tolerated. They may try to divide you and talk their way out of it and can become angry when confronted. None of that is indicative of a humble, Christlike attitude. In the best-case scenario, they respond with humility and repentance. Often that will not happen. Regardless, you must protect the unity and health of the body, and that means that this behavior will not be tolerated.
They need to know that you will not tolerate their bad behavior. They also need to know that you will not back down. Not now, not ever. Leaders who are not willing to hold bullies accountable should not be in leadership because they are not protecting the flock.
What happens if the behavior continues and they will not be accountable. You have already been clear. You have reasoned with them. You have clarified what is acceptable and what is not. If they persist, you simply tell them that if they continue, you will follow the Matthew 18 model and put them under church discipline.
In my experience, bullies, often run when they realize that you will not back down. They hate accountability, and if you make it clear that you will hold them accountable, they will often leave the church. You hope they will change their ways, but if they don't, your job is to protect the flock, and that means that you will not shy away from public disclosure of their behavior, and that is the one thing they are deathly afraid of because they work in the shadows rather than in the light.
Here are the objections you will hear from being clear on acceptable behaviors and holding them accountable for those behaviors.
One: They are long-time acquaintances, and I don't want to offend them. What you are saying is that you are willing for others to be hurt and the body of Christ compromised because you don't want to hold someone accountable for their behavior. That is a terrible bargain to make if you are a church leader.
Two: They are really good people and have done many good things. This is not about whether they are good people or not. It is about behaviors that are sinful and destructive. No matter how many good things they have done over the years, their bullying behavior is not OK and should not be tolerated.
Three: They are big donors to the church, and we cannot compromise that. I am amazed at how often this comes up. What we are actually saying here is that bad behavior will be tolerated because we need the individual's money. Do you think Jesus thinks that way? Let me say this. Often their supposed generosity is a perception they want you to have, but it is not a reality. Regardless, it is not a license to hurt the body.
Four: Others might leave if they leave. So let's be real. People will leave if you don't deal with them because they create a toxic culture. Your job is not to ensure no one leaves but to ensure that the body is healthy. Toxic behavior hurts people, and the church is meant to heal rather than hurt. Other people will make decisions about where they want to attend. If people leave because they take up the offense of those you have held accountable, so be it. That is their decision. Your job is to create a healthy environment, and the more healthy it is, the more people will be attracted to it. If you want to kill a church, allow toxic behavior, and it will die. It may be a long slow death, but it will die. Remember that if you are unwilling to hold bullies accountable. In that case, you have simply signed the church's death warrant.
Five: I don't want to rock the boat. What you are really saying is that you don't want to lead. And that you are willing to let the bully rock the boat while you remain passive.
Six: Are we not just overreacting? When you have bullies in the church, there is often a pile of bodies in their wake. If you want to know if you are overreacting, ask those who have been the targets of your bully. They have been hurt, many have left the church, you may have lost a pastor because of them, and there is a great deal of pain that has been felt. And look, you would not allow this behavior in your business, but you are willing to allow it in the church? Paul was clear on behaviors that are not acceptable in the church. Was he overreacting?
There are all kinds of reasons not to confront bad behavior in the church and church bullies. In the end, choosing that route will destroy and hurt your church. Don't go that route. If you have a bully problem and have not confronted the individual, what excuses are you using? And what behavior are you allowing to be perpetuated in your passive acceptance of their behaviors?
If you need outside counsel to navigate a difficult church bully, get that help. But don't ignore the issue. Lead as God has called you to lead. In the best case scenario, you help a bully move to health and humility. If not, you protect the flock from their behaviors. In either case it is a win and the alternative is a loss.