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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Are You Being Bullied?


Many ministers, male as well as female, have experienced bullying. We tend to excuse it—“every congregation has someone like this”—or think we caused it somehow. We may feel powerless if the member is important or seems to be tolerated by others. We don’t often talk about what’s happening to us because we’re ashamed or because we think we’re called to forgive bad behavior. But at work and at school, there’s a name for our experience and there are policies for dealing with it. It’s time we were clear about bullying in the church as well.

Consider, for example, the church member who, upset with the minister and church leaders, comes to church every Sunday and sits in the front row with duct tape on his mouth.

Or the member who insists that the minister never wear her glasses again the first time he sees her in them, who routinely grabs her arm rather than shaking hands, always hard enough to leave red marks, and who ultimately puts a hand on her side to physically push her in the direction he wants her to go.

Or the member who, unhappy with the minister’s performance, makes it known to her that he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Or even my own paltry experience of two members who decided to show their unhappiness with me by not talking to me and by pointedly exiting the sanctuary through my door every Sunday without shaking my hand.

What is bullying, and what is not?

Bullying Defined

Most up-to-date personnel handbooks have a definition of bullying. My own organization’s handbook describes it as “repeated inappropriate behavior, either direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted toward coworkers, customers, and vendors, during worked time.” The Society for Human Resource Management defines it similarly. The key components of most definitions include that the behavior is repeated (it recurs over time) and inappropriate (a reasonable person would see it as unreasonable). An additional element in some definitions is that it creates a risk to health and safety. Examples might include:

  • Abusive or offensive language toward you or about you
  • Glares, staring or other body language indicating hostility
  • Comments that are intended to humiliate or belittle you
  • Excessive monitoring of your behavior
  • Consistently ignoring you in front of others
  • Unwelcome and inappropriate touching
  • Yelling at you
  • Stalking
  • Unrealistic work demands
  • Public reprimands
  • Accusing you of errors or misconduct that cannot be documented
  • Making you the butt of jokes
  • Threatening you with harm, directly or indirectly
  • Constant criticism
  • Withholding information that you need to do your work
  • Encouraging others to behave in the same way

Note that bullying behavior does not have to cause physical harm. We are not talking about the infamous schoolyard bully who knocks someone down to take their lunch money. The member who came to church every Sunday (“repeated” behavior) with duct tape on his mouth (“inappropriate” behavior) was engaged in bullying.

One of the marks of bullying is the effect the bully has on his or her victims. They often report mental and physical reactions such as:

  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep disruption
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Digestive or heart problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Reduced concentration and decision-making ability
  • Loss of self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Depression
  • Poor relationships with family and friends

What Is Not Bullying?

A single incident of unreasonable behavior is not bullying, although any incident should be documented since it may be the first in a repeated or escalating pattern.

Also, reasonable behavior that is designed to clarify work responsibilities or to evaluate performance is not bullying. For example, an annual evaluation by your congregation’s board is not bullying, even if it causes you all the physical symptoms listed above. A board may choose to set realistic and achievable new performance goals for you, create appropriate deadlines for the performance of functions necessary to your job, change your job description to conform to the church’s stated goals, or take disciplinary action, including termination, when appropriate and justified, without having engaged in bullying. If, however, the board were to engage in a pattern of setting new and unachievable goals every month, this could be construed as bullying because it is repeated and unreasonable.

What Are Your Options?

First, every congregation should have a bullying policy that includes the following:

  • A clear definition of bullying and a list of examples (for the enlightenment of members who are reluctant to think the worst of fellow members)
  • A statement that bullying behavior by any member or staff person toward any member or staff person is unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstances
  • Encouragement to report any instance of bullying and clear direction about to whom it should be reported
  • A promise to treat all such reports seriously and investigate them promptly and impartially
  • A promise to protect any staff person who reports bullying from being retaliated against by another staff person or a member
  • A clear statement that, if someone is physically threatened, a no-contact order will be pursued
  • A clear statement that any member who engages in documented bullying behavior may be removed from the rolls of the church and any staff person who engages in documented bullying behavior may be terminated

Bullying is not usually about you. It’s about someone else’s need for dominance and control. Stand up to the bully, be clear about the offensive behavior and insist that it stop, document your experiences, report them to your board, report them to your judicatory, and insist that all appropriate policies be followed. And if the culture of the congregation is such that it simply can’t bring itself to confront the bullying behavior, then leave.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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