Bullying in the Adventist Church

By Jim Redfield

I have been aware of bullying for most of my life, but I never had the necessary information or terminology to identify, understand, or respond to it.  Two events changed everything for me.  First, I experienced bullying myself and, second, I agreed to help implement a bullying prevention program in Adventist schools. 

My whole perspective was changed when I discovered what it was like to be bullied and that there was an effective way to deal with it.  My heart goes out to the victims of bullying who through no fault of their own, find themselves bullied for reasons they do not understand. It is a subject that generates a lot of debate. But beyond the debate are real people who are trapped in a cycle of abuse (Yes, bullying is abuse) that slowly saps their personal sense of worth and value.  As pastors we should do everything within our power to provide help and healing to the victims of bullying abuse.  As agents of Salvation we also should reach out to the bullies as well to find freedom from their abusive behavior. 

Pastors and church leaders have remained silent on this topic and we should not be surprised.  Until we share a common definition and terminology that helps identify bullying behavior, we will not be able to discuss it in any meaningful way.  Until we share a common understanding of what it takes to change the behavior, our discussions will not lead us to attempt any remedy whether or not it has a chance of working.  When a pastor works alone to find solutions to bullying behavior directed at them or a parishioner—it rarely works.

Over the past thirty years, bullying prevention efforts in secular schools and work places have demonstrated success.  The bullying prevention effort in Adventist schools launched in 2012 has also demonstrated success, especially when implemented conference-wide.  Sadly, except for our schools, our Adventist church lags behind, failing to effectively address bullying behavior in our congregations, institutions and administrative entities. This bullying often leads to pastors moving, pastors leaving the ministry, members leaving their congregations, and parents removing their children from Adventist schools and Pathfinder programs. And the bullies? They are still around, looking for more victims.  

To understand the challenge of bullying in the church, a pastor must first have a definition of bullying.  The following definition was first developed by Dan Olweus, the first researcher in the world to study both the bullying behavior and the requirements for limiting and changing the behavior.  The National Institute of Health and other researchers in the field have now adopted Dr. Olweus’ definition.  The definition states:  “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” 
This definition consists of three components: 
1. Bullying is an aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative action.         
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time. 
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
The first component of bullying is aggressive behavior which can range from verbal abuse to physical abuse.   Many think that bullying is part of growing up and the targets of such behavior should just get over it and move on.  To draw such a conclusion to deny the fact that such behaviors have long term effects on both the person engaging in the behavior, the person targeted by the behavior, and those witnessing the behavior.  All three categories of persons, instigator, target and bystander can be affected. Adulthood is not a bully free zone.  Childhood bullies can grow up to be adult bullies. Individuals who practice bullying behavior will use it in any relationship, whether it is their own family or work places, neighborhoods, social groups, sports organizations, or congregations.    
The second element of bullying behavior is a pattern of repeated action that can often be spotted in cases of direct bullying.  With respect to indirect bullying, however, the pattern may be difficult to spot. Often the person carrying out the bullying behavior uses proxies.  The proxy may be seen as the instigator and only when the behavior is fully investigated does it become clear that the source is a particular person or group.  In this case, the bullying behavior continues because the instigator remains unidentified and the victims continue to be subjected to the negative behavior.

The third element of bullying involves an abuse of power. The person engaging in the bullying behavior enjoys having power and control over the other person.  Individuals engaging in bullying behavior are not interested in dialogue, compromise, forgiveness, or reconciliation. 

Bullying behavior often continues unchecked in congregations because pastors confuse conflict with bullying.  Conflict is what happens when people disagree.   The differences can be simple to complex. The differences causing conflict can usually find resolution using basic conflict resolution techniques of negotiation, conflict coaching, mediation, facilitation and restorative practice.

On the other hand, bullying behavior results from an intentional desire to exercise power over another in a hurtful way. The exercise of such power generates a feeling of satisfaction in the instigator.  For this reason conflict resolution tools and processes will not work in cases of peer abuse or any other type of abuse.

Every church is susceptible to having a member succumb to the temptation to use power over the others in a negative way.  God knows this temptation well and calls us to a higher standard in our personal relationships. We are called to love one another and to submit to one to another.  Love is to be the hallmark of our faith, the practical evidence of discipleship, and the ultimate mark of a trust follower of Jesus Christ – By this shall all men know that you are my disciples – If you love one another John 13:34.  Our God chooses not to control and dominate and, as the head of the body, invites us, to treat each other in the same way.

In our next article I will describe a model of how we can mitigate bullying behavior and create a safe environment for everyone.

Jim Redfield is a recently retired pastor living in, Northern California.  He is a mediator and conflict resolution professional with 30 years of experience. He is also a trainer for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and works as a presenter and trainer with the Center for Conflict Resolution in the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business, La Sierra University