It was 6 a.m. in Chobe National Park in Botswana, Africa. We had just entered the park when we came face to face with a most extraordinary sight. A wild dog streaked by us in the bush in hot pursuit of an impala. Following along in a jeep, we watched the impala change direction and the dog slowing down. Yes! The impala won, I rejoiced. After rounding a corner, it all became clear. The impala ran straight into a waiting pack of wild dogs, which dragged the impala right in front of our jeep. With methodical precision, they literally ripped the impala apart and ate it alive.
Our guide was ecstatic that we had the opportunity to observe such a rare occurrence and said that in 15 years of guiding safaris, this was the first time he had ever witnessed a “kill” this close. The 5 dogs devoured the impala in less than 10 minutes, after which they allowed 2 watching puppies to have their fill. While a group of vultures in the trees waited for their turn to pick at the carcass, the dogs suddenly became alert. Our guide said that a leopard was stalking the dogs, who were not about to lose their prize to a larger and more feared animal.
Mesmerized by the entire experience, I gained first hand understanding of the survival of the fittest. From the impala, to the wily strategy of the dogs, to the pups, the leopard, the vulture, and the hyenas, which we observed nibbling at the skeleton in the evening, the cycle of nature can be brutal. The weak, slow, ill, and injured are fair game for animals whose instinct leads them to kill in order to survive. On the other hand, when animals are not hungry, they do not chase down impala for fun, nor do they intentionally harm each other. What I saw at Chobe National Park was a peaceful co-existence within the circle of life.
Unlike animals, which are governed by instinct, we humans were created in the image of God to move beyond instinct to care for rather than destroy the weak, slow, ill, and injured. Because of God’s prevenient grace living within us, we have the capacity and the heart to overcome our sinful urges to mistreat, devalue, and harm the very least among us.
Unfortunately, we give in to our baser desires more than we’d care to admit. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 7, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it… Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Watching 5 wild dogs attack a poor impala turned my stomach, yet it is a natural and necessary part of nature. What causes my stomach to churn even more is encountering human bullies who intimidate, manipulate, and shred other people to pieces for no reason other than to flaunt power and satisfy damaged egos. This kind of behavior is a consequence of our separation from God and our best selves, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Bullies can be found everywhere people are. Yes, there are even bullies in the church. In fact, 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.
- Ted, the church treasurer, intentionally delays paying the pastors and staff, withholds ministry shares, and diverts special giving to the general fund. Why? Because it’s a way for him to exert power when he has little control over the rest of his life. No one has ever confronted Ted.
- Jan rules the church kitchen with an iron first. If you rearrange the cupboards without her permission, watch out! Don’t even think about throwing away expired food in the refrigerator without asking her. It’s easier to give in to Jan than risk her angry tirades.
- Jim has been the chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee for 20 years precisely because he can control the pastor, which he delights in doing. Ever wonder why no pastor has stayed more than 4 years in Jim’s church? When the pastor becomes trusted and beloved, Jim becomes jealous and “arranges” for a crisis that results in a pastoral move. No one has the courage to break the pattern.
- Amanda, the church council chair, has a way of intimidating people by her demeanor, words, and actions. Other church council members are fed up with her childish behavior, but no one will stand up to her. They simply stop coming, and nothing is accomplished.
- Holly has unilaterally decided to be in charge of the sanctuary. No matter how the worship design committee sets up the chancel with banners and other visuals for worship, they arrive on Sunday morning to discover that Holly has rearranged everything to suit her. The committee would rather tiptoe around Holly than confront her.
One of the biggest misconceptions Christians have is that when people ask Jesus Christ into their life and become a disciple, they will automatically give up their bullying ways. In reality, bullies may have a deep faith but still be emotionally immature and unhealthy.
Do you know any church bullies? Church bullies misuse power in order to silence, abuse, or hurt others. They relate to people through coercion, sarcasm, ridicule, blaming, fear, harassment, over-reacting, and manipulation. This can happen in many ways, including dominating conversation at meetings, sabotaging church council votes, wielding scripture as a weapon, verbally attacking others, withholding their pledge, and destructive gossip in the church parking lot.
We cannot deal with bullies until we first understand them. Bullies often slander others because they are jealous of and/or feel threatened by the competence of their victims. Bullies hurt people because they are hurting themselves. They often lack self-awareness and self-integration, carry baggage from their past, have low self-esteem, thrive on conflict, demonstrate a lack of inclusivity and sensitivity, and take authority which is not theirs.
Bullies target those who are vulnerable because they have often been bullied themselves and that’s the only way they know to relate to other people. They crave acceptance but only know how to get it by intimidating others. Bullies are obsessed with power and authority but are not self-differentiated enough to trust their insecurities to God and recognize that true authority comes from servanthood.
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes: men and women, young and old, clergy and laity. Of course, in order for bullies to thrive in our churches, they rely on both victims and bystanders. At times victims are not strong enough to defend themselves against bullies, so they usually end up quietly leaving the church in great pain without anyone knowing what happened. Other times victims leave because they tell their story, but church leaders either discount their words or refuse to confront the bully. Disgusted, they give up on church forever. The other actors in the drama of bullying are the bystanders, good “spiritual” people who do not have the courage or skills to speak the truth in love.
How do we break the cycle of bullying in the church and restore emotional health to our congregations?
- Provide training for clergy and church members to name bad behavior in gracious but firm ways.
- Ensure that the Nominations Committee does its work well. Every committee needs a strong capable chair who uses established processes such as a written agenda and decision-making procedures. This prevents bullies from hijacking meetings.
- Establish a church-wide conflict resolution policy that is widely circulated and followed (i.e. the Rule of Christ in Matthew 18) so that victims of bullying know where to go with their concerns and bullies are prevented from having their way.
- Do not elect bullies to positions of leadership.
- Offer classes on emotional intelligence, communication skills, and reconciliation so that all church members can grow in emotional as well as spiritual maturity.
Should church leaders ever ask a bully to leave the church? I don’t usually encourage a pastor or lay leaders to ask anyone to leave the church because I believe that, through God’s grace, all people can change, even bullies. However, when bullies know that their behavior will no longer tolerated, they often choose to find another church where they can wreak havoc.
I’ve seen 5 wild dogs tear apart an impala: a gruesome sight but a necessary expression of nature’s survival of the fittest. I’ve also witnessed a bully viciously attack a fellow church member: far more ugly because it runs counter to the image of God which is in each of our hearts. And praise God, I’ve observed church leaders break the power of bullies by their calm and direct response. May we all work together as the body of Christ to become healthy so that we can fulfill our mission to redeem and bring shalom to our world and all its people.