Lately I’ve seen several articles about church bullies making the rounds on Facebook. They tend to point out the characteristics of a bully and offer some helpful strategies for dealing with – or working around – antagonists. A quick internet search brings up pages of similar posts.
Bullying in the church is real. I have been both a witness to it and a target of it. If you have too, then you know it is soul-sucking. It is exhausting. It affects our ability to minister to healthy people. We sometimes end up taking our pain out on the people closest to us. We may even question not just our calling, but also our faith. Maybe those doing the bullying don’t know how deep their impact is. Maybe they do.
My coaching clients often want to talk about their “bully” or “antagonist.” That verbiage is a shorthand. If I’ve met with the client before, those keywords tap into previous conversations so that we can move more quickly toward designing actions. Those words also give me clues to the client’s state of mind, though I must be careful not to assume too much or project my own experiences. So the label “bully” can be helpful in some contexts.
But I believe the term’s usefulness is limited. If we almost exclusively refer to a person as our bully or antagonist, it becomes difficult to see them any other way. We begin to interpret everything that person says or does through that identity. The hints of humanity get sifted out. Saying that someone bullies rather than that someone is a bully reminds us that the sinner is not his/her sin. Language matters.
I’m convinced that there are pastoral care needs behind every act of bullying. We might have been so wounded by the one bullying that we are unable to provide that care. We might need to set strong boundaries with that person to limit the damage s/he can inflict on us or on others. But as followers of a God who loves even the hardest heart, we must continue to look for – or at least believe in – the image of that God within those who hurt us. Because if we do not, then God’s image within us becomes more deeply buried.
Bullying is real, evil, and potent. But our power lies in grace. Not a cheap grace that makes any and all behavior acceptable, but in a grace that moves us toward wholeness for all.