By Heidi Goehmann
Bullying: the words and actions that happen when one person acts aggressively or intimidatingly toward another person or group.
The topic of bullying has made many headlines in recent years.
Most of us have expanded our understanding of “bullying” beyond the exaggerated stereotype of the schoolyard bully.
Because of increased awareness in our culture, most schools, neighborhoods, and often places of employment have taken steps to change their policies and cultures to address bullying within their walls.
Still, we also know the threat of bullying will be a constant reality in a world infected by sin.
Bullying will continue until Jesus comes again.
This is a hard reality for parents, administrators, teachers and change makers, but we don’t stop trying to make the world a better place, just as we don’t stop praying “Lord, have mercy,” and “Come, Lord Jesus.”
When I was in graduate school, the local organization where I completed my clinical hours asked me to design a program that attempted to decrease bullying in a local school system.
This was at a time in the world somewhere between, “We know zilch about the dynamics of bullying,” and “We know tons about the dynamics of bullying, and there are eight curriculums available for you to choose from to address it.”
I dove into research articles and books to find out as much as I could. I learned enough to make me sad.
For instance, did you know 1 in 4 students admit they have experienced bullying?
Or did you know that most student bullying happens in middle school, just when our students are really digging into figuring out who they are and what matters most to them?
The most enlightening information I learned was also the most basic: It may take two to tango, but it takes three to bully.
Represented in the bullying triangle are the individual using power of some kind to threaten, intimidate or hurt another, the individual who is the recipient of these threats and intimidations, as well as the silent bystander.
As I started to piece together resources around the topic of bullying, it struck me how closely a student’s experience of bullying sounded to behaviors I was seeing or hearing about within congregations, particularly toward the pastor or other ministry staff.
Bullying behavior within a congregation can look like a number of things:
- derogatory or hurtful language when someone disagrees on an issue,
- assumptions and rumors spread about someone or something that did not happen or exaggerations of things that happened,
- intimidating posture or verbal expressions during meetings or events,
- talking over someone,
- dismissing ideas and suggestions from one individual in particular or a particular group, or
- harsh or resentful communication, possibly in person, but more likely electronically by email or texting or through a third party.
You may be nodding your heard in agreement as you read this, or you may be wondering if this really happens in congregations and thankful it doesn’t appear to happen in yours.
Either way, I’d like to share some suggestions for what we can all do to create congregational cultures where bullying cannot thrive or even survive.
Bullying is not in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But what can you do?
First, consider this reality: There will always be difficult people to love in our churches.
We want people who are difficult to love to know and understand that they are loved by God and saved by Jesus’ grace, because a church shares this knowledge with them regularly.
The church is the best place for difficult people because that is where they will hear the truth wrapped in love, in God’s Word and through His people.
Imagine how much more difficult people might be without the Word of God to guide them.
Then, ask yourself: Does my congregation have a bully?
We are called to love people, not to label people. We don’t need to holler “Bully! Bully!” at the next voters’ or council meeting.
We are, however, called to acknowledge and call to account behavior that is directly admonished in Scripture.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians about God’s perfect love certainly apply to how we interact in our congregational relationships as a family of God:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal … Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:1, 4–7)
Next: Speak up and speak out.
Remember the third person in the bullying triangle, the silent bystander?
Usually, that person is actually a group of people, and research shows that all it takes is one person to speak out to change the dynamics of the triangle and spread power around.
We change the world and our small corners of it by sharing God’s Word, which changes hearts and lives.
It’s a good thing when we say,
“I think we need to be focused on loving one another. The way we’re talking right now doesn’t seem like loving one another.”
“I’m concerned that this conversation or action doesn’t speak love, but instead is hurtful to someone.”
Back your words up with 1 John 4:7:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
We should be speaking truth, as well as love. Truth can be shared with kindness, especially among God’s people.
Last: Continue loving and continue speaking out.
Often, we’ll need to share the Word over and over again and speak up over and over again; but God does His work.
We can pray to Him to give us strength and courage in Jesus’ name, to remove splinters and planks from our own eyes so we can see clearly, and to move hearts to make every congregation a place of warmth and kindness, abounding and overflowing in His mercy and grace.
- Grace Place Wellness Ministries — Congregational Wellness Weekends
- Peacemaker Ministries — Conflict training and reconciliation resources and interventions for congregations
- KFUO Radio — Mental Health Mondays
- Concordia Plans — Wellness Programs
- Church worker wellness resources — lcms.org/worker-wellness