By Susan Lawrence
Schoolyard bullying has become a hot topic in the past decade. Teachers, administrators, and students are trained to recognize and respond to warning signs and to confront the people and behaviors involved. Perhaps our ministries need to follow their lead. If you’ve been involved in ministry, you’ve probably seen the effects of bullying. Just because we grow up doesn’t mean we outgrow meanness, control issues, and insecurities. Just because we follow Christ and serve with others who follow Christ doesn’t mean we’re no longer susceptible to human struggles. Let’s put a plan in place for recognizing and responding to the warning signs in order to stop bullying.
Bullying is aggressive behavior and an imbalance of power or control. Bullying is not synonymous with authority, supervision, or assertiveness. Authority figures can bully those under their care, but a volunteer can also bully paid ministry staff. While sometimes assertiveness is justified to get things done, it can turn into bullying. Unfortunately, we justify bullying under the guise of leadership or boldness. To recognize bullying, watch for the following.
Bullying is repeated over time.
When an aggressive display of imbalanced control is repeated over time, it’s bullying. Bullying often begins when the bully attempts to embarrass or shame someone, and when she sees it works, she’ll try it again and again for her own advantage.
Bullying can take several forms.
Ministry bullying is often verbal, such as teasing, even when we know the teasing is hurtful. Ministry bullying can also involve intimidation. “Go ahead and move forward with that idea if you want. You’ll only be hurting yourself.” Ministry bullying also manifests itself in exclusion – neglecting to invite someone to a meeting or include her in a decision-making process.
Bullying is often rationalized.
Because ministry bullying is often connected to leadership, you might hear such excuses as “She made her choice. And choices have consequences.” “She just needs to grow up and deal with the reality of ministry.” Sometimes such statements might be true, and holding someone accountable for choices is essential. But bullying isn’t accountability; it’s aggressive behavior with an imbalance of power or control.
Once you suspect bullying, it’s important not to prolong the behavior.
Prayer is your most important tool. Prayer places you (and the situation) under God’s authority. While He’s much more familiar than you are with the situation, taking it to Him builds trust that He’ll take care of the details and guide you in your responses. Accessing God’s peace, courage, and direction is the best option in any situation.
It’s easy to run to the rescue of a bully’s victim, but it’s important to avoid responding emotionally. Avoid assumptions. Gain respect from people involved by asking questions. Try to understand the big picture. There’s likely more to the situation than you’re aware of (or will ever know), such as past baggage, personality conflicts, or personal issues. Let God guide you to the information He wants you to have and to allow you to see the truth of the situation.
Act with love
If God leads you to action following prayer and gathering information. He’s going to lead you to respond with love. That’s how God works. Keep in mind that God’s love is not always the “feel good” love, it’s confrontational. God’s love is whatever is best for His will and it will stretch us. But God’s will is exactly what we would choose if we could see all God sees. Listen and trust God’s guidance even when it’s difficult. Forgive. Confront. Discipline. Show mercy.
When immersed in ministry, you can begin to see the role you – and others – play in it. But God’s stage is much bigger and He’s the only star. When our perspective is distorted, and the perception of power and control is imbalanced, we’ll experience bullying in ministry, which takes the focus off of God.
Instead, let your ministry glorify God. Build healthy relationships and watch for warning signs of unhealthy behavior and attitudes. When we do ministry God’s way, we’ll all stand together in ovation as the curtain falls.