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Hallo again to all.

Bullying in church. We've all seen it; many have experienced it. We've seen parishioners bully clergy, we've seen clergy bully parishioners. If you wait long enough, bullying involves every role in a congregation, though not usually every person.

Bullying has always existed. In recent years it has been discussed more, but there have always been bullies. At the moment there is a lot of talk and emotion about bullying and bullies, but there is not a great deal of guidance available for how to deal with them. Perhaps the peak of the public attention given to bullying was the USA prosecution of an adult for the online bullying ('cyberbullying') of a 13-year old girl that ended in her killing herself.

A couple of years ago, Lutheran pastor and blogger Erik Parker posted an essay '12 reasons why it is good to be a church bully'. We read it at the time, and empathised with much of it, but we didn't know quite how to respond or what to say or advise. Eight months later, Pastor Parker wrote a followup essay '12 signs you are dealing with a "church terrorist" and what to do about it'. He later added a note that he thought he ought to have used the word 'antagonist' and not 'terrorist', but we note he didn't revise the vocabulary of the original essay. He noted 'Church Terrorists are people who hold churches and communities hostage in order to get their own way. Different than bullies ... who hurt and abuse communities, Church Terrorists are only concerned with getting their own way and taking care of themselves.'

In our own (somewhat limited) experience, the most common form of church bullying is financial. People who give lots of money to their churches inevitably develop a sense that they deserve some sort of special treatment in return for all of that money. The threat of 'do what I demand or I will stop my generous donations to this parish' is sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit. 'Do it my way or I will walk out'. Our News Centre this week carries a report that GAFCON leaders are threatening to walk out of the upcoming Primates meeting in Canterbury unless GAFCON gets its way on issues of sexuality. That's church bullying on a global scale, but philosophically it's the same as the family whose donations have for years been a big part of the parish annual budget making demands on parish life.

We've learned from watching the progress of the US dioceses and parishes from which large groups broke away that a smaller diocese or a smaller parish is in no way a weaker or less Christian group. It seems to be better to let bullies break away than to continue to tolerate their bullying.

The excellent book 'When Sheep Attack' by the Revd Dennis Maynard* is a discussion of the bullying problem from the leader's point of view. We've seen a thoughtful summary by an observant Anglican attorney about policies and means for members of a leaderless parish or diocese dealing directly with church bullies and church terrorists (though she uses neither term). We are working with her to publish those observations as an AO Essay, but we include (with permission) a snippet or two. The essence of her advice is to bring it all into the light. Secrecy is one of the bully's primary tools. If threats are issued, make them public. Bullies don't seem to like to have their bullying behavior publicised. Two excerpts:

It helps to have a plan for individuals to speak up on behalf of those who are getting the brunt of the nastiness. A group might put together some sort of event (potluck? recognition during a service?) to show appreciation for victims of bullying.

A systematic approach to addressing this sort of misbehavior could be as simple as announcing that we owe each other a duty of civility and that words have the ability to demoralize people. That sniping and random criticism are not loving behavior. This could give people the language we need for speaking up.

A final quote:

Taking abuse is isolating and demoralizing. Nobody can put up with that kind of abuse indefinitely, at work, in volunteer groups, or at church. Even Richard Nixon eventually resigned.

The GAFCON situation is, of course, more complicated, because each side has over time engaged in bullying. At the moment it's the GAFCON bishops doing the bullying while refusing to take offered money, but they had decades to watch and experience being bullied themselves. We'd call it a no-win situation, but we don't even know what it means to 'win' here. The scars of colonialism heal slowly, don't they?

Oh, and we almost forgot to mention it. This week is Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas. The Feast of the Epiphany was generally translated to 3 January this year, but an alarming number of parishes are holding their Twelfth Night celebrations on this ninth night. We haven't tried to bully them into doing otherwise.

See you next week.


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3 January 2016

*There is another book with the same title, written by evangelical pastor Mark Conn. We have not read that book and cannot express an opinion about it.

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