By Jim Redfield
Editor’s Note: Please review Bullying in the Adventist Church before you move on.
The last place you would expect to experience bullying behavior is in the church. There is so much in the Bible about how we are to treat one another that you would think a church would be the kindest, most loving, accepting, emotionally safe place you could ever imagine. In reality many of our churches are anything but safe. Yes, we have good intentions. Yes, we have read the texts about kindness, love, caring, and compassion. Yet it seems like we are unable to connect our heads with our hearts, or our behavior with our beliefs, thus slipping into the “knowing to do good but not doing it“ syndrome and our disconnection becomes sin. James 4:17 NLT
So what help can pastors offer themselves and each other when they are bullied? Seven things:
One: Do not let anyone steal your faith and trust in God. If you haven’t already started a personal study on bullying in the Bible here are a few texts to get you started. Please read them right now before you continue reading this article. Romans 8:35-39, Hebrews 13:5-6, Deuteronomy 31: 5-6, Matthew 5:43-48.
Two: Select two or three trusted friends whose counsel you value highly and start meeting with them on a regular basis. You need them for both moral support and accountability.
Three: Document the bullying behavior. Negative actions are not always bullying behavior. If you are in a fight, meaning a disagreement among equals, as painful as it may be, it is not bullying. It is also possible that you may be caught up in some rough play, meaning sparring of sorts that you are not able to emotionally deal with anymore. While rough play may be causing you pain, it is not bullying. Both fighting and rough play should be dealt with but they are different problems and are not bullying. Review the definition of bullying behavior and its three components.
The documentation takes the form of social mapping. Do you know the identity(ies) of the congregant(s) engaging in the abusive behavior? How have you identified these individuals? What are the specific behaviors and when did they occur? Where these behaviors directed at you openly or indirectly? (see first article)
Document everything you can and support it by saving voice mails, emails, texts, social media comments, notes, letters, memos, and exact words. Go back in time when you believe it all started. Write down as much as you can remember. Dates, times description of behavior, help document whether the behavior has a pattern and whether the source is one particular person or group of people. Write down how the behavior has made you feel. Has the behavior changed? Note if the behavior is getting better or worse. What is the nature of the bullying is it psychological, physical or something else? Are you being demeaned, humiliated, excluded or made to feel stupid? Has your health declined since the bullying started? If so, in what ways? Have you experienced any changes in family relationships? How do you feel about yourself? With respect to your social life, has the behavior interfered in it? Have you lost friends? Do people avoid you when they see you coming? Write down every change in your life even if it seems insignificant.
Four: Be clear about what kind of bullying you are experiencing. There are two kinds: Direct bullying which is obvious and more in the open, and indirect bullying which works mostly in the shadows behind the scenes. One of its most effective tactics is the insinuation of doubt. Introducing doubt into the minds of others about the character, reputation and credibility of the target using lies and innuendos can effectively destroy someone without them actually knowing who did it. All of this brought to us by none other that Lucifer, the original conceiver of this diabolical process. This weapon of destruction is still used today, even in the church.
Five: Research shows that people in positions of authority must intervene in situations of peer abuse. Principals must intervene in cases of bullying among students, and bosses must intervene in cases of bullying among employees in the work place. Schools and work places both offer environments that have clear lines of authority.
In the same way, conferences have a clear line of authority regarding pastors who bully their members. Conference administrators can discipline and even fire a pastor for bullying behavior. On the other hand, conference leaders do not have the authority to discipline or remove a member who is bullying their pastor, because there is no clear line of authority to “hire or fire” members. Only the local church can discipline members.
Six: We need to accept the sad truth that anyone can succumb to the temptation to use power in a negative or hurtful way. It should come as no surprise that members give in to the temptation to abuse the power shared in our day to day lives and ministries, therefore as pastors we should expect to see such abuses as Satan tempts our members to abuse that power in the general operations of our communities of faith.
Seven: Think through what your exit strategy will be if you cannot overcome the bullying behavior. This includes exploring your options – all of them. Take your documentation to your Ministerial Director and asking what he and conference administration are willing to do for you. Explore taking on a church in another conference, going into other lines of ministerial work, or worse case scenario – step outside of ministry altogether. Whatever your decision, be proactive, positive, and upbeat. If you leave with your tail between your legs, your options will be severely limited.
What is Needed in Our Denomination?
All of this sounds discouraging, because it is. Unless and until our denomination is able to candidly discuss peer abuse and expose these behaviors to the light of day, the behavior will continue unchecked and individuals targeted by the behavior will have little recourse but to move on. (Please note that I am not discussing behavior which crosses the line to legally actionable behavior, either on a civil and/or criminal basis such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or a violation of civil rights.)
Abuse processes are real and they affect our congregations and they affect us as pastors. We can no longer pretend they don’t exist and we must be willing to discuss and respond to them. There are no easy answers but we are charged by Scripture to ask for both knowledge and wisdom, and are promised that they will be given to us. We are also promised the Holy Spirit who will give us the power to live in accordance with God’s will.
In 2002, our denomination published the “Seventh-day Adventist Call for Peace” and in it declared our denomination’s understanding of the great controversy as the source for war, abuse and conflict in our world. It also identified our belief in Jesus as the Prince of Peace, and called on all Seventh-day Adventist pastors and educators world-wide to study, preach, and teach peacemaking.
Through the Center for Conflict Resolution at La Sierra University, I have been working on developing a proposal for a conference ombudsperson policy and procedure that could be piloted as a means for a conference to respond to bullying and other types of problems that present themselves in the day-to-day life of our denominational and congregational life. If you want a copy of the guidelines, just send me an email request. Here is my contact information: Phone 530-464-4114. Email email@example.com. I live in Northern California.
A Personal Note
There is more that we don’t know than we do know about how to address bullying in the church. Our churches are highly diverse as they should be. But that very diversity is what makes it so difficult for all of us to get along, to love and respect each other to protect each other love one another as God has loved us. We have more tools, more information, and more research than ever before about bullying in general, but how to apply it in a Church that is our greatest challenge. It requires wisdom, prayer, clear thinking, and reliance on God. Please join us with your prayers, questions, observations, and wisdom.
If you’ve been bullied in the past, please share your story with me. I believe we can learn a great deal from your experience that will help others.
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
By Jim Redfield