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Bullying in the Church

What I Know About Church Bullying


By Margaret W. Jones, Ph.D.

Anton Hout asked me to provide “as much background and information … as possible” about church bullying. I froze. What do I know about church bullying? I haven’t conducted any research and in September, 2003 when I started writing “Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches” I was unable to find any data based on solid research of churches in the social science literature. All I had to go on were my observations of my own experience, the reports of my therapy clients and my experience treating sexual abuse survivors.

At first I didn’t even recognize the mistreatment I suffered in my church was a form of bullying. I thought bullying ended when I graduated from high school. After I was expelled from my third church in the town where I live, I kept trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I get along with people? Only when I was watching a television news show on schoolyard bullying did I recognize that I was being bullied. Since the Columbine shootings, there has been a lot of research on bullying in schools. This research indicates kids bully kids who are short, introverted, poorly dressed and often intelligent.

Since I didn’t have any control over those traits I wasn’t responsible for being picked on in school. In fact, without the support of teachers there was little I could have done to stop being bullied. But what about now that I was an adult? Was I responsible for somehow instigating the attacks? As I read about bullying in general I learned that like most abuse it is motivated by a desire for power and dominance. It was my vulnerability created by past childhood abuse that made me an easy target.

Bullies often secure their alpha position by demonstrating they can defeat someone who is more talented and intelligent than they are. They are often jealous of their victims who they believe don’t deserve what they have achieved. If a bully feels threatened by the competence of their victim rather than challenge them directly the bully may start slandering their victim and encourage others to do the same. The bully targets individuals who are vulnerable due to some recent stressor like the death of a parent and/or who prefer collaboration over competition. Likely targets for the bully may be someone who is kind and meek or maybe someone new who hasn’t had time to establish alliances.

After being expelled from church I learned that a high percentage of those bullied in church have histories of being abused as children. This isn’t because they have some serious personality disorder but rather because they never learned to effectively defend themselves. During my childhood I learned to avoid abuse by withdrawing and becoming invisible. While this is the only safe strategy available to a child against an adult it leaves them vulnerable to the bullies in the schoolyard. Like the proverbial new kid on the block who must fight to establish his position, victims must learn to push back in some way. The dilemma is figuring out how to do that without sacrificing your own values and becoming like the bully.

Church bullying more closely resembles mobbing in that it usually involves several people against one person. While one person has bullied me at work, in my church experiences and those of others, church bullying has involved the minister and those closely allied with him or her against a target. The minister encourages others to shun and gossip about the target. Once the bullying starts there is little the target can do to stop it.

The bullies can be relentless. Although they shunned me during coffee hour they publicly hugged me during the peace even when I asked them not to. When I complained they were violating my personal space, the pastor scolded me for my insensitivity and lack of forgiveness while insisting no one had done anything to harm me. Nothing I did worked. The bullying only intensified until the only solution was to leave.

To make matters worse, once I fled my congregation, I was not able to become a full participating and accepted member of another church because my adversaries secretly contacted my new church to “warn” the pastor about me. I was relegated to the margins, a social pariah. After all what decent person would be expelled from a church?

While workplace bullies often use the company’s policies and procedures against the target, churches use the Bible. Matthew 18: 15-17 is a popular verse used to justify expelling someone who is accused of committing a sin and remaining unrepentant. In my case, I wasn’t even told what sin I was charged with. Everyone sins so what made my sin so grievous that God condemned me and didn’t want me in His church? If God doesn’t want you, who will?

Faced with that kind of condemnation, victims of church bullying may become depressed and suicidal. They may develop post traumatic stress disorder and become reclusive. The impact is the same as other forms of trauma including workplace bullying, physical and sexual abuse and war. The victim is no more responsible for his/her injuries than a person who is mugged on the street. It is an injury caused by psychological and emotional assault and extreme stress.

I want to thank Anton for allowing me to post this to Not of My Making is a personal documentary of my experiences in school and in church. It is available from Amazon or you can buy it directly from Pluck Press.


Not of My Making
Margaret W Jones PhD

Coming from a childhood marred by abuse and neglect, Margaret Jones sought comfort and safety in a community of faith. When conflict erupted within her congregation, clergy diverted attention away from their own mistakes by calling into question her emotional and mental stability. This is the story of one woman's courageous struggle to recover from spiritual abuse and find justice for herself and her family.



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