Church Bullying - opening our eyes to the darkness within

By Maria Dowling

By Maria Dowling

“I have something burning in my heart… and if I don't get it out, spontaneous combustion might be a real issue.”  VOX Views allows Christians in Ireland the opportunity to share their opinions on hot topics and important issues.  Here, counsellor and psychotherapist Maria Dowling looks at the problem of bullying within churches and Christian organisations.

After decades of working therapeutically with survivors of bullying, and extensive study of its dynamics, I believe that bullying has more potential to show up and do harm in the Christian church and Christian organisations than anywhere else in our society. 

Now, I wonder if I will pay the price for my candour in stating that?

Bullying is a vast, multi-faceted subject. Once I decided to write this article, I was daunted and even recoiled!  Would I see a temperature drop in my relationships as a result? Or perhaps a chastisement for causing discord and trouble?

Too often the church is a place of, “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil”. My concern is that many churches and Christian organisations operate with a veneer of integrity, truth, transparency and love. Honesty, fairness and an open door to process conflict lovingly is proclaimed. However, when bullying situations arise, the reality emerges as denial or cover up. “There is no badness here.” “We are God’s people and that could not happen.” 

The one who points out wrongdoing is the disturber of unity and that person must be controlled and silenced, or vilified and eventually, removed. As a response, this is also bullying.

There is a wealth of material available on the definition of bullying and its effects. However, many have a simplistic definition of bullying as visible, easily-identifiable behaviours against another to degrade, or cause harm. There are also naïve analyses of these behaviours as communication and management difficulties. 

However, I would define bullying as a systematic, continuous attack on the very soul and personhood of another, often covertly, to cause psychological, physical and emotional distress. Ultimately, this behaviour removes a person’s hope, joy and confidence in their value and purpose for God. It is an assault on the dignity of the unique image-bearing self of another. 

If it succeeds, the target is broken, disillusioned, isolated, motionless, hopeless and tormented. Where it doesn’t fully succeed, targets of bullying may be cynical about church fellowship and desperate to be heard and vindicated. 

People are permitted to bully others within the Church and in Christian organisations when the system can only respond in a way that is itself harmful. Where bullying is successful, there is an inversion of the truth and no openness to correction. What is wrong becomes right and what is right becomes wrong. The perpetrator becomes the victim and the victim or target is blamed. Truth is unwelcome and suppressed, and lies and deceit are supported and even condoned

I believe that bullying has more potential to show up and do harm in the Christian church and Christian organisations than anywhere else in our society.

While this is so in many organisations in the secular world, the voluntary and charitable sector, where churches belong, is deemed to have more bullying present than any other. Why? Because in this sector, presentation of the organisation and its people as “good”, altruistic and indeed “godly” is fundamental to the work of the organisation. To admit sinfulness and wickedness is terrifying to those who believe they are, or must be, a community that is set apart. The bullies within these communities of believers manipulate this fear to rally support against their target(s).

I am convinced that believing communities that courageously face the presence of evil among themselves, without censorship and with justice, have the most potential to become relevant good news to an unbelieving world. This relevance is demonstrated when the church is no longer considered too naïve, too ‘nice’, too innocent or too simplistic in its understanding of human nature, relationships and real life to meet the painful challenges people face in society every day. 

Relevance requires bringing the true personhood of God, His commitment to truth, love, justice, courage and faith, to depravity when it is in evidence in a Christian community situation.  Evil and depravity are evocative words. They belong with the term bullying. 

I believe that those who have experienced bullying in the Christian community and those tasked to address complaints have vital roles to play in the preservation and protection of our churches and Christian witness. Those who are bullied must seek counselling, education and support to recover and understand why they were bullied. They must do this, not only because it is healing, but because it enables them to understand who they are and what they must do. 

Those who protect and support bullies in the light of evidence are complicit and without excuse.

Very often a target is selected, because they are “seers” [they have discernment] and have moral character. They pose a threat to the bully. They may be competent, talented, insightful and wise. They may know that what the bully is doing is wrong and understand how it affects the wider community. Targets are often ‘whistle-blowers’, feeling compelled to speak up. They often seek to be protectors of what is good and right. 

Those with responsibility to assess bullying complaints must also educate and challenge themselves to face their own psychological and spiritual “blocks” to seeing the full picture of what is evidenced before them. It is not godly to shut down a situation simply using Bible verses out of fear, or to use one’s authority and power to protect a reputation or maintain a comfortable status quo. We are called to be courageous and often to uncomfortable change in the name of what is right and true. 

Those who protect and support bullies in the light of evidence are complicit and without excuse. Bullying allegations, however painful and uncomfortable, must be investigated in transparent, fair processes and, if found to be true, met with acknowledgement and accountability. 

These are redemptive matters; opportunities to protect our communities, our work for God and our witness. The work of God is inevitably impeded in any community where bullying is present. Denial diminishes churches and Christian organisations, their work and their witness. 

We need a new paradigm, where we acknowledge that power is always open to exploitation and abuse. Churches and Christian organisations are possibly more vulnerable to this, because they exist for the cause of Christ and are an affront to the enemy. We must not be so naïve as to think that our very communities cannot be infiltrated, deconstructed and rendered irrelevant from within. 

 

Maria Dowling is a professional counsellor/psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer, working in private practice in Sutton, Dublin with extensive experience in the area of trauma and abuse recovery.



Recommended Resources

CENTRES AND SUPPORT

Awareness Education Services
3 Cabra Grove, Dublin 7  - (01) 8388888

The Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre
Trinity College Dublin

The Irish Association of Christian Counsellors
www.iacc.ie

WEBSITES

BOOKS

  • Bullying in the Workplace, Home and School - Tony Byrne, Kathleen Maguire
  • Bullying: A Spiritual Crisis - Ronald Hugh Cram
  • Not of My Making - Margaret W. Jones