Bullying is fast becoming a national epidemic in the United States—and churches are not immune as settings where attacks occur.
According to national statistics from 2010, nearly one in four children in grades six through 10 is bullied in school. Cyber-bullying, attacking or harassing someone over the Internet or via cell phone, is also growing more common. More than 50 percent of teens and young adults reported being victims of cyber-bullying—and about the same percentage report they had engaged in it, according to www.bullyingstatistics.org.
Statistics on adult bullying are harder to come by, but it does exist, although adults are much more likely to be a verbal bully rather than resorting to physical bullying.
Deal with the situation
But what happens when the bully—adult, teen or child—is in the church?
"I have learned the hard way about the very negative impact bullies can have on a congregation," said the Rev. Laurie Haller, pastor of Aldersgate and Plainfield United Methodist churches in Grand Rapids, Mich. "I see it as the pastor's responsibility to deal with the issue directly and not let bullies take over the church."
A former district superintendent in the West Michigan Conference, she said people often react to bullies in the congregation by leaving the church.
"The power that bullies hold over good and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ is one of the prime reasons that many of our churches are unhealthy and dis-eased," Haller wrote on her blog in April 2011. Most people lack the "emotional intelligence" to deal with bullies, she added.
Haller offers some advice to pastors dealing with bullies in the congregation:
Try not to embarrass the bully in public. Instead, invite the individual to a private conversation.
Have another person present during the conversation to avoid "he said/she said" situations afterwards.
Point out to the bully the negative influence of their behavior. "Stress the importance of addressing each other in polite ways," Haller said.
Once they are confronted, it is up to the bully to change their behavior. "If they choose not to, you may have to invite them to leave the church," she said.
Clergy must also hold each other accountable when it comes to the pastor as bully. "When the pastor says, 'It's my way or no way at all,' then that's a terrible thing," Haller said.
Minister with all youth involved
When the bully is in the youth group, it is important to realize the situation creates ministry opportunities, the Rev. Sam Halverson said. He is director of youth and young adult ministries for the North Georgia Conference.
"The church can minister to both sides of the situation," he explained. That means not only being in ministry with the victim of the bullying, but (with) the bully him/herself.
"If bullying is taking place, the adult leader can help," he said. The first step, though, is creating "an atmosphere where all kids feel welcome to talk with adults about being bullied."
When bullying is occurring in the church youth group, leaders must realize that simply "cleaning it up" there doesn't mean the problem is solved, Halverson said. Bullying behavior that is clearly not acceptable in a Christian setting can often carry over to school or other areas—including social media.
"If someone is bullying another person at church, odds are that it is continuing online," said Chris Wilterdink, director of program development for young people's ministry at the General Board of Discipleship.
Cyber-bullying continues to grow. He recommends using the DVD "Cyber Safety for Families" by Paul O'Briant, available through Cokesbury, to help parents and youth leaders educate themselves on the issue. He also encouraged youth leaders to check with middle school or high school guidance counselors to see what resources they are using.
Hear both sides
Young people whose beliefs are at odds with those of their peers can also come under attack. "If someone says they don't believe in the virgin birth, you may get others saying they don't want to associate with that person" or acting out in other ways, Wilterdink said.
When dealing with bullies in the youth group, Halverson emphasized it is critical to be careful to hear both sides of the story. "I would talk to each person involved separately," he said, "and then, if necessary, bring the two together."
Halverson suggested having the individual conversations in a casual setting—perhaps on a Sunday night when the rest of the group is engaged in another activity—rather than scheduling appointments. However, he stressed, it depends on the situation.
Retreat and mission trip settings can also offer opportunities to address bullying, he said, "because this often involves the kids interacting or living together over time. They have to learn to get along."
Some bullying behavior in church may result from a person's misdirected attempts at leadership, Halverson added. "Bullying is about control. It can sometimes be that a bully simply needs to be redirected to a more healthy way of providing leadership."
Setting behavioral expectations is a good first step in helping prevent bullying behavior. Haller suggests using time during church meetings to discuss the topic, not electing bullies to positions of leadership and training clergy and laity in how to deal graciously with bullies and conflict.
Clergy need training
She also urged training for clergy in emotional intelligence, improving communication skills and practicing the gift of reconciliation.
"Clergy need to be spiritually mature," Haller said. "They can go a long way in diffusing bullying situations because, oftentimes, members of the congregation either don't have the skills to deal with it or simply want to avoid the conflict."
The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is editor of the Michigan Area Reporter and pastor of St. Ignace (Mich.) United Methodist Church.