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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 OvercomingBullying.org. 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
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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