Bullies don't exist
At least that's the viewpoint held by some who think that the intentional harm they cause to others is just what happens in the course of a day's work or in the course of human relationships. And yes, we who live in community together do things to each other through thought and word and deed that hurt others.
Bullying, however, is another matter. Bullying by adults covers a range of behaviors from teasing which gets out of control (i.e. the person being teased has said or indicated that it's troubling, but the person doing the teasing refuses to stop) to serious criminal activity like verbal threats and physical assault.
A troubling truth is that every organization, including the church, has those within it who are bullies. This gets some air time at Dirty Sexy Ministry because of work we're doing in the Diocese of Lexington that looks at deeper issues as we strive for healthier congregations. The work we do in the church around sexual misconduct and safeguarding our children is good and worthwhile, yet many of us have wondered aloud how can we identify and intervene BEFORE horrible things happen, before relationships are damaged beyond repair, before the breakdown of community is so vast and deep, and before souls are broken and misconduct charges filed. How can we help people be aware of their behaviors that are damaging to another? How can we give voice to the emotional pain almost always drives bullying behavior? How can we help us all better respect the dignity of every human being?
One of the first observations is that many people either don't know what bullying is or refuse to admit it exists in the church. Bullying is, in short, repeated actions that cause harm to others through verbal manipulation, intimidation, gossip, psychological assualt, and even physical assault. Most bullying behavior is extremely covert and subtle. Studies of people who engage in bullying behavior show that they use verbal and/or physical intimidation, that they demean others to promote themselves, and use guilt as a way of manipulation and control, and they are obsessed with authority (their own and others).
A sickness of bullying to the system (and it is something that a system/community allows and even encourages) is how people who bully act out their need to promote themselves and their obsession with authority. To quote an article written by the newsletter of the Society of Mary and Martha: Bullies are often superficially charming people who boost their own poor self-image by dominating others. This domination is not loving to another, and it is almost always detrimental to all the people involved. When the person who is being bullied speaks of these uncomfortable feelings or simply begins to act out, another level of damaging behavior begins. When another is percieved as a threat to that dominance, the bully will systemically undermine that person's confidence, reputation, and self until that person complies or leaves. Or, as a clergy therapist friend says, "When you don't bend to a bully, s/he spends time convincing everyone that you are incompetent, immoral, and insane until you actually believe you might be."
Bullies are a magnified example of how our own hurts and wounds can hurt and wound others. Most bullies don't see their actions as bullying; they may not even be aware of just how damaging their personal actions are to others. Perhaps a first step to healing may be admitting that there are bullies in both clergy and laity and, even more difficult, admitting that all of us are capable of bullying others. I've yet to meet a person that didn't have places in our self-image that were sensitive and lacking. I've yet to meet a person that didn't, on some level, have issues with authority and issues with misuing it at times. I've yet to meet a person who didn't crave acceptance and attention, and who didn't coerce someone to salve that craving.
So part of our job is recognizing the potential for bullying behaviour within ourselves, listening very carefully and prayerfully when someone describes being hurt by our words and actions, and working to heal our own pain instead of inflicing pain on others.
Yet there remain those people whose interior damage is so painful that they may not be capable of offering it for healing. What do we do then? I wish I had some sassy comment or observation to make, but I don't. I hope that as the Church gets braver, we will talk more openly about bullying and work more dilligently to address it. I hope that when those in authority hear someone say that s/he has been bullied, they hear it with utmost sensitivity and concern and do something other than blame the victim or dismiss bullying as "whining" or "something that happens to everybody." I hope that we who are leaders, both clergy and lay, will do more to educate ourselves on types of bullying and be commited to do our own spiritual work to acknowledge our wounds.
I hope that the day comes when I no longer hear stories how bullying in the church broke people's hearts.