Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Church bullies

Author and ministry coach Eddie Hammett is currently working on an article about church bullies.  For the past few weeks he has posted an occasional article on Facebook regarding church bullies and asking people's opinion on how to deal with them and why more churches seems to ignore them.  One person responded that many churches see pastors as Bic pens:  they are inexpensive, easily replaced, and won't be around long anyway.  When the bullies attack the pastor the church allows it to happen because of the low value they place on pastoral ministry.  Another person replied that, in her opinion, most churches ignore the church bullies in an effort to keep the peace in the church.  I think both perspectives are valid.  Unfortunately, both are also symptomatic of short-term thinking with disastrous long-term results.

When churches devalue their pastor it has an impact on everything that happens in the church.  There was a time when pastors were among the most respected persons in a community.  People sought their advice on many matters, not just on spiritual issues.  There was a level of respect and authority granted to the pastor because of his or her position.  I have written elsewhere that in smaller churches a pastor must earn the right to lead a congregation and such a right is usually given only after the pastor has proven himself or herself faithful for a period of time.  While that is true, there should be some measure of respect given to a person because he or she has accepted the call to pastoral ministry.  That respect is often lacking in many churches today.  That makes the pastor an easy target for church bullies.  What these churches fail to realize is that when they repeatedly abuse pastors word gets around and it becomes more difficult to find someone willing to serve in such a place.  The pool of available pastors can dry up rather quickly for such churches.  What they also fail to recognize is that such action is contrary to Scripture that admonishes churches to treat their leaders well (Heb. 13: 7, 17; 1 Thess. 5: 12-13). Dishonoring Scripture is never a good thing for a church in either the short-term or long-term.

In some of my books I've quoted Tom Bandy's comments in his book Fragile Hope about church controllers which, in my opinion, is the same thing as church bullies.  He believes controllers may only make up 20 percent of a congregation, but they are given an enormous amount of power because the Christian church has joined the cult of harmony.  Too many churches value harmony over truth or mission.  They want peace at any price, so the 80 percent of the congregation will not stand up to the 20 percent that are acting like bullies.  In effect, they give the 20 percent veto power over any effort to move forward, and even worse, they allow the controllers to bully anyone who would stand in their way.

Several years ago a pastor friend of mine left his church after serving there over 20 years.  He left with great sadness and a lot of unfulfilled dreams.  One of his comments to me was that one of the biggest problems in that church was that it was filled with nice people who were not willing to stand up to the ones who were not so nice.  Perhaps 20 people in a congregation close to 300 were holding the church hostage to their own agenda, and the others were allowing them to do so in a misguided attempt to preserve peace.  The long-term effect is that they lost a very good pastor and have spent the past 10 years trying to return to where they were when he left.  They are still not there.

It is important to also point out that the desired peace doesn't really happen anyway.  Things might quiet down when the bullies get their way, but they will heat up again the next time the bullies feel threatened.  I've seen churches repeat this pattern again and again and wonder why they never seem to be able to move forward.  As a very young deacon in a church I was speaking one evening prior to our meeting to one of the older deacons.  He said, "I just don't understand why every time we start to move forward as a church something happens to derail it."  I thought to myself, "Take a good look in the mirror and at your wife and you'll see part of the reason," but I said nothing.  I should have.

To substitute short-term peace for long-term ministry is a poor substitute.   Church bullies must be called out and their actions addressed.  They must be told that future actions will have consequences.  When I've seen church leadership do this in the past the bullies usually threatened to leave the church, and at that point the leadership is tempted to back down.  Who cares if they leave?  We place too much value over not losing someone not realizing that we are already losing people.  Would you rather lose the bullies who will continue to create problems or the people they are running off by their dysfunctional behavior?  They will have to decide for themselves how they will respond to the church leadership's ultimatum to stop their negative behavior, and if they decide to leave that will be their choice.  I have to say that when church leadership has stood firm against church bullying the church began a time of significant growth because one of the barriers to such growth was removed.

I am really looking forward to Hammett's article on this topic and hope he publishes it soon.  I pray that many church leaders will read it and find some helpful advice if this is something they are dealing with in their congregations.

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