You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. The senior pastor invited me into his office during the tail end of a meeting. Immediately I became witness to a confrontation that I should have never seen. With brazen execution, a parishioner pointed her finger at the pastor as she threatened to take her popular non-profit ministry and all the money raised somewhere else if the pastor did not give her what she wanted. Unbeknownst to me, I walked into a bully with my pastor as the victim. The scene was like the back room of a corporate company takeover. This prominent leader in the church clearly was leveraging her status and money to intimidate our pastor. Apparently, this leader’s spiritual good works allowed Machiavellian posturing. She got her way. But, people were hurt in the process. All of this happened unseen, as often is the case in spiritual bullying.
How to Deal With Spiritual Bullies at Church
We all rightfully look to our church community to be a safe place, a retreat into relationships that support, encourage, and challenge us. The family of God comes to worship together and live life together as we work for the mission of the Church—to spread the good news of Jesus and welcome sinners. We find grace, forgiveness, and hope. However, not all of us experience such a utopia. What happens when we are betrayed by the very church people we trust? We become deeply wounded, jaded, and confused. This is true when in any family abuse goes unchecked. Perpetrators in the church hide behind spirituality and can blindside us. Even the pastor at times is victim to this.
How do we deal with these spiritual bullies? I have identified four bullies and their tactics with counterpunch strategies to protect yourself and the church. These predators are not monolithically evil. This is what makes it such a difficult issue. These brothers or sisters in Christ are bent on bad behavior that often is done in their minds for “good” reasons.
1. The Spiritualizer.
“Hey, I remember you saying you were available to serve every other week on our hospitality team. Would not taking a break be against your call and commitment? After all, this is God’s work.” The Spiritualizer will use spiritual language to convince you to do what they want since your issue is not spiritual. They define for you what to be guilty about rather than empower you to decide that for yourself.
Counterpunch: Trust your own conscience and reasoning.
2. The Score Keeper.
“I’m your friend and pastor and have prayed with you through your sins and triumphs. Now, its time for you to help me out. Please sign up for another year. And, can you come mow my lawn, too?” Sometimes this bully will be super nice to you, only to cash in. You win chips, but they are not yours to keep! He or she keeps score.
Counterpunch: Do the opposite. Love with no strings attached. Keeping score gives a clue that the agenda is not entirely honorable. Take note of that.
3. The Intimidator.
“Oh, don’t you think it will look bad if you leave the choir while your marriage is going through a tough time? Doesn’t this show a lack of faith? I’m not sure we can be friends if you quit.” The Intimidator counts on you backing off and feeling terrible in order to serve their needs. While the Spiritualizer simply implies this through language, the Intimidator goes on the attack, reminding you of what you will lose if you don’t decide their way!
Counterpunch: Lovingly give yourself boundaries and distance to these guys! However hurtful and sad, some people just have to be kept at a distance.
4. The Patronizer.
“Of course you think God is telling you to move, but are you sure you can hear his voice? How do you know it is God speaking to you?” The Patronizer dethrones your sense of confidence in order to instill in them the right to be the gatekeeper for God’s voice. To put you into self-doubt is to keep you off your game and open you to their devices. This is very dangerous if not checked!
Counterpunch: You need brothers and sisters, not parents! Be an adult and seek advice that empowers you not destabilizes your ability to reason.
The primary strategy for dealing with bullies is not to play their game. If you pile shame on the Spiritualizer you become a bully yourself. The church does not need more bullies, right? However, unhealthy people need to be identified and sometimes mitigated for the sake of the family. They do not stop being your family, they just are not allowed into your leadership or given trust with the vulnerable.
What other strategies are there for dealing with spiritual bullies? Please share your experiences.