Minister to the bullied — and the bullies

From youth pastors to college chaplains, churches can play a role in combating bullying

Once upon a time, bullying was a fight on the playground or a "mean girl" refusing to share a seat on the school bus. However, cyberbullying has amped the problem significantly.

The National Crime Prevention Council reported that almost half of teens they surveyed for a 2011 report experienced some form of cyberbullying in the previous year. An October 2014 Pew Research Center study said that young adults, specifically young women, experience more harassment than any other demographic.

Churches may be in a unique position to help.

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, reports that only 5 percent of young people her organization has surveyed would tell their parents if someone were bullying them online, but one-third of them would confide in another trusted adult.

"A youth pastor could be the most likely person they will trust. So we have to prepare them to be the trusted adult," Aftab said. "You have a precious few minutes to do it right, and if you do it wrong, you'll never hear from them again."

Aftab, a United Methodist, said the best way churches and faith-based organizations can influence young people is to talk to them in a way they can relate. "We need to encourage the kids within the church to tell their stories, so their peers can support them," she said.

"From a United Methodist perspective, we have the Three Simple Rules, one of which is, 'Do no harm.' That includes social-media outlets we participate in," said the Rev. Mark Bray, senior pastor of Summer Grove United Methodist Church, Shreveport, Louisiana.

One would think teens would stop picking on each other when they get to college. However, according to a study conducted in 2008 at Union College in Schenectady, New York, 82 percent of students surveyed had witnessed bullying on campus. Every study participant also said bullying in college occurs at a higher rate than in high school.

'What people really want is to belong'

"I see ... students bringing old pain with them," said the Rev. Paul Clark, chaplain at United Methodist-related Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. "Whether they have been bullied or are the bullier, old patterns resurface."

Clark acknowledged that one of the biggest triggers for desperate behavior is loneliness. "What people really want is to belong."

Bullies also use cellphones and computers to intimidate and coerce. It can range from making a full-blown physical threat to posting an embarrassing photograph.

"Cyberbullying amps up the attention paid to someone who is different," said Brent Harger, assistant professor of sociology at Albright. "Bullying becomes very public."

"Students have to understand anything you've ever posted online is still there," said the Rev. Joseph McBrayer, Wesley Fellowship director and doctoral candidate at Emory University in Atlanta.

He described instances of students having messy breakups and posting inappropriate comments about each other on social media.

Clark said schools like Albright have zero tolerance of hateful behavior toward other students. Albright offers everything from an early-alert process and non-violence training to spiritual direction classes and student "check-ins."

"We are a United Methodist college," Clark said. "I consider my place here to be crucial in bringing a spiritual presence and healing."

Adapted from umc.org articles by Susan Passi-Klaus, a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, and Joey Butler, multimedia editor at United Methodist Communications.