I Hate Church Bullies

This is a guest post by Sam Riviera. He spends most of his time and energy caring for others in his community so that through his life and actions they might see Jesus. He has also written “14 Reasons I Never Returned to the Institutional Church.

If you would like to write a guest post for this blog, check out the guidelines here.

church bulliesWhen I was in first grade I told my mother that one of the boys in my class was picking on me. Much to my surprise, my mother taught me how to protect myself. She taught me how to hold one arm in front of me to ward off blows while holding a balled-up fist behind it ready to throw a good punch if someone decided to punch me first.

Only many years later did I learn that no one dared pick on my mother when she was a kid. After mother taught me how to protect myself, no one dared pick on me.

If only it were that easy to respond to church bullies! A few well-placed punches and all the church bullies would stop bullying us for fear of suddenly acquiring a flattened nose.

How do we identify a church bully? Why do they bully? How can we best respond to them? (Even though they might deserve a flattened nose, I don’t advocate that response.)

How Do We Identify A Church Bully?

Church bullies usually give themselves away by what they say. Often, they might say things like this:

“A Christian would be at Wednesday night prayer service.” (I worked evenings.)

“A Christian would go to that Sunday school class.” (It was horrible. I’d have preferred going to the town dump to shoot rats.)

Then there was the fellow who literally tried to physically drag me to an alter to “get saved”. When I protested that I didn’t need to get saved a second time, he pointed out that I had missed church the past two Sundays, proving I wasn’t a Christian. (We were out of state, which he would have known if he had bothered to ask.)

“All Christians will vote for ________.”

“The Bible (or God) says _______” (Followed by the speaker’s opinions. My friend Kathy Escobar calls this the “Bible card” and the “God card”.)

“The Lord told me to tell you_____” (Clearly implying that God talks to them, but not to me.)

There are many additional “color of authority” situations, where the person, under the “color” of their position in the church (be it pastor, elder, staff member, Bible study teacher, the “I’ve been a Christian for X years” people, the “I’ve studied the Bible for X years and know what it says” people, or whatever), attempts to impose their opinions and wishes on those over whom they somehow attempt to assume “authority” and control.


Why Do They Bully?

Church bullies behave as they do for a variety of reasons. I’ll mention a few reasons I’ve seen and in the comments section perhaps you can mention reasons you’ve seen.

First, church bullies are often people who love to be in charge. They like controlling people. They imagine themselves to be great leaders who are in a unique position to tell others how to live and what to do.

Second, church bullies almost always like feeling important and knowledgeable, be it about how the church should be run, what God and the Bible say, and how other people should think, live and vote.

Third, many church bullies are very insecure. Bullying other people seems to “prove” to them that they really are smart, buddies with God, and very knowledgeable about how most things should be done and how life should be lived.

In this third category I include those whose personal lives are out of control. In real life, their marriage is in a shambles, they’re having an affair, addicted to pornography, stealing from their employer and so on. Of course they believe that their situation is a “one-of-a-kind” exception to the rules they try to apply to everyone else. If they can’t control their own lives, at least they can control the lives of others. (We often discover their underlying issues many years later.)

Fourth, occasionally we encounter church bullies who are actually mean, evil people, pretending to be otherwise because they’ve found a place (church) where they can get away with their need to bully other people.

All of these bullies, however, choose churches as places to ply their trade because they’ve discovered that many churches allow them to bully. Those churches seem to believe (often they’re convinced by those who bully), that they should tolerate the bullying because that is “the Christian thing to do,” “their Christian duty.”

Attach a Christian-sounding description to the bully’s behavior (admonishing, instruction, correction and so on), and a Christian title to the bully (pastor, teacher, elder, deacon, “our beloved brother in Christ” or whatever) and suddenly they can almost do no wrong.

How Can We Respond to a Church Bully?

The method that most often works in my experience: Ignore church bullies. Most of them will eventually give up trying to bully us and move on to those who allow themselves to be bullied.

Bully PosterIf the bully will not give up, confront them. Clearly tell them that their behavior (describe it briefly) is unacceptable and we will not tolerate that behavior. Explain what we will do if they do not stop the behavior immediately. That might include talking to the pastor or other leadership. If the pastor or other leadership is the bully, it may include talking to their peers in leadership.

Confronting church bullies can be terrifying for some of us. If the bully has done his job well, those being bullied will have been taught that confronting the bully is akin to punching God in the nose: God’s going to get really mad if you punch him, and if you confront a church bully.

There are situations where the bully has solidified his support among those he bullies. He has convinced them that he is always right. Anyone who opposes him is opposing God and the Bible (a sure mark of a church bully). In those situations, the best plan of action may be to leave the group.

I have heard the advice that one should always tell the church their reasons for leaving. In many situations that is good advice. However, in those cases where we have seen the church bully (bullies) continue to bully from afar those who have left (spreading false rumors about them and why they left), we would be wise to give no explanation. Even if we give no explanation, we should not be surprised if the bully invents an explanation and gives the church that explanation.

Really, I don’t hate the person who is a bully. I hate their behavior, not only when it is directed at me, but also and especially when it is directed at others. Similarly, I hate the behavior of those, including churches, who allow the bully to ply his trade. Shame on bullies and their supporters for driving people away from churches and away from the Kingdom!

This is not a comprehensive list. In the comments please tell us about successful ways in which you have dealt with a church bully.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic. This post is not the last word, but hopefully will begin a conversation. Where, when, or how have you seen church bullies in your life, and what did you do about them, if anything? 

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  1. Sam says

    Check back on Jeremy’s blog after the first of the new year. We hope to have a forum set up within a couple of months where people who have been bullied can tell their stories, and a forum “facilitator” who will facilitate the ensuing discussions. Of course anyone who has been bullied and found ways to deal with the bullying can also comment.

  2. Amanda says

    The past three and a half years have brought such sorrow to my heart for similar bullying sited here by others. I had never experienced nor considered it so much as having borne the pain and sorrow associated with a particular bully in my congregation. After several disparaging comments and unkind words to me personally, and unwelcoming words regarding me and my family as new to the area, we had purchased a home or otherwise would’ve not renewed our lease. As time progressed it began on our 4 year old son, and has continued on he and now our daughter. He is resilient and seemed to notice the ostracizing but let it roll off. As his mother, watching the children’s leaders treat my family this way was disheartening– even heartbreaking. But in a effort to forgive and recognize an opportunity to gain strength and rely on Christ, we prayed and studied scripture and continued to attend church without confronting it or addressing behaviors. Maybe this was out of fear? Maybe out of mercy? Maybe out of a desire to forgive and not allow them the satisfaction that they were getting us down. Finally I spoke with one party on her behavior- because she posed as a friend and ally in between her lashing out at my son and ignoring me. My husband was reassigned out of state for a number of months and we opted to join him- taking a break was just what we needed. We returned and for a short time it seemed normal, but then strange things began to occur again behind thr scenes with one controlling narcissist woman whose family is friends with the pastor (so if she doesn’t like you or feels threatened by you in any way plants bugs in his ear to affect leadership choices and assignments and negative treatment/assumptions about anyone she pleases). This, I learned, happened with other women in the congregation in addition to myself. (Some had been going through it for 16+ years!) People have moved out in DROVES and several people come by just once never to return- or have numerous excuses (job change, transfer, family needs? etc) why they get out of a lease or sell and move away. No one addresses the wolf among the sheep!! That is exactly who these people are! Wolves in sheep’s clothing are harder to detect- and why would the disguise themselves? If they were outright without guile they themselves would lose their ability to abuse, harm, and destroy the flock! They single people out, gossip, slander, leverage position and popularity votes to gain position and prestige– because the mustn’t know The Shepherd, and know His love. Therefore, they cannot further His work or His kingdom. Because as He stated: ‘ although they do alms in my name, they know me not.’ How anyone could be motivated to live devoid of love- and the true love of Christ, and to go through the motions of at the follower of Him, is beyond me. But bears not the fruits of the spirit which Galacians states are: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness…I am happy to say today was my last sabbath in this setting! We are free to choose–and what profiteth a man if he chooses ‘captivity and death’? For me, the conflict is over. Because in Him, I will trust. I took a stand to my oppressor and she knows I know the truth. But it is for her to decide what she will do with it.

    • Sam says

      Amanda, It is sad, is it not, that such things happen in churches? In your case, even though this is obviously difficult for you, I would be especially concerned about your children. Would it not be better to remove them from that environment? If their church experiences include liberal doses of being bullied, should we not suppose they may decide to have nothing to do with any church and perhaps even God once they are old enough to decide for themselves?

      Are there other churches where you and your family can attend, even if they are not the same denomination as the one where you currently attend? Have you checked out those churches?

      • Amanda says

        We strongly considered trying another church of another denomination or trying another location. We have discussed moving away very seriously and we are actually looking for work elsewhere largely due to these negative experiences. It’s heartbreaking and disappointing because we had so many dreams here in this home and community and they’ve been pretty dashed. To go somewhere where the doctrines don’t align with our beliefs feels uncomfortable, and yet the behaviors of this person (and a few who she has influence over through deceit and social power) are so contrary to the beliefs as well. It seems to create a hostile environment and we feel defensive of ourselves and others who may lack strength to recognize and/or combat the bullying. When our security to safely worship and fellowship is constantly threatened, it’s injurous not only directly, but indirectly because it makes handling other burdens and trials heavier. The place you go for the healing balm is instead a sort of spiritual or emotional war zone.

        • Sam says

          You must live in a small town if you are considering changing where you live and where you work to get away from this church. That is really tough. I grew up in a small town. It’s usually a great place to rear children, but not if they are being bullied. I will pray that God will help you and your family find a good resolution to this mess.

  3. Amanda says

    Yes, it is a small town of 10k. As I’ve prayed and sought answers, I felt very overwhelmed about the treatment we were receiving, but I received the answer to seek out others who needed my service and love. As I’ve been doing this I have felt tremendous peace and perspective about the person/people who are hurting us. I’ve received answers to my prayers, including gaining a couple true friends who I’ve been able to help and be myself around with whom I’ll keep in touch. Through loving and serving others I’ve found that I’ve lost myself in it and found true friendship, which is even sweeter in contrast. I feel grateful.

    Also, we had a job offer come up out of state near family and prayed about it for our family and got a peaceful and joyful answer ‘yes’. I will never forget these learning experiences, and I look forward to ‘being the change…I want to see in the world’. Each person (there are 3 main people and others who believe or responded to their influence) who have been difficult have miraculously been kind to me during this past week, almost as a sign to me of closure, and transitioning me to leave in peace. I hope this is helpful to someone going through this themselves. God has blessed us in a very short time with solutions that are right for our family.

    • Sam says

      Amanda, I am so glad for you and your family. “Through loving and serving others I’ve found that I’ve lost myself in it and found true friendship, which is even sweeter in contrast.” I think you’ve found the secret of the Kingdom of God on earth, showing the love of Jesus to others. How fantastic that you will be near family when you move to your new home.

      I would suggest that you not mention the bullying that happened at your old church when you’ve found a new church until you’ve been there for a few years, and then only to someone whom you really trust. Several pastors have told me that many pastors who hear that someone who was bullied in their last church assume that the person(s) may have been part of the problem. That is very unfair. You should not be judged by anything that happened at your previous church.

  4. Pastor's Wife says

    I am so glad I found this website. My husband is the head pastor of a medium sized Presbyterian church- ; he is an incredible preacher and runs the church fairly and competently. He recently had to file a written warning about one of his staff members who is a tremendous bully ( that was much of the jist of the warning, that was preceded by many verbal warnings). Without going into too much detail, a well moneyed couple has taken up his cause, accusing my husband of things he never said or did, and has made my husband’s life miserable. Among coming to several committee meetings and session meetings ( and meeting with the regional governing body) to belittle my husband and his staff, they have hired a lawyer to write a document stating my husband will not discipline his staff members anymore. That document was recently given to session who of course voted not to sign it. Now the husband of this couple wants to know about my husbands terms of call, right in time for the congregation to vote on them this Sunday. The staff member in question has been nothing but disrespectful and has even been a no show at meetings, In addition, he wants to be a pastor, and expects endorsement for this church.

    What is most upsetting about this is how juvenile these people in question act. They literally point fingers, pout, and make up damaging information. They are class act bullies and have been able to get a small faction on their side. I have never seen adults act like this.

    I see that many times on this page you advise people to leave. We do not want to. We love it here; I have a great job and our kids are very happy, despite the fact that we do not let them go to Sunday School anymore. Other families have left too because of the bullying. Also, I know my husband needs to see this to the end, and through the rebuilding that will come afterwards God willing. I just don’t know how this will end. We have given in to this couple before and they always ask for more. We had to get our own legal counsel.

    Do you have any advice as to how I can support my husband.? I have enlisted members of the church that are supporters, but many of them are afraid of this couple. I would love to see them go, but why would they when they hold all they power?? Or, at least it seems that way.

    Please advise.

    • Sam says

      Wow! Obviously you and your husband have a heart for pastoring and love your people. I am so sorry this is happening to you and your family. When one hears stories like this it is amazing that anyone would want to be a pastor.

      I have been a friend of pastors for many years. Two of those pastors experienced similar situations, except their bullies were not other staff members, but powerful people in the church who contributed a significant portion of the income of the church.

      In the first instance, the pastor stood up to the bullies and their allies. They too had legal counsel. After a period of months the bullies and their group departed. So did their contributions. Approximately a year later the denomination moved the pastor to another church (where he has continued to thrive), because the first church could no longer pay his full salary. The denomination would not send a pastor to the first church because of the money issue. The church found a fill-in pastor, but people and money slowly departed and the church folded. The bullies rejoiced because they destroyed the church.

      In the second instance, the pastor also stood up to the bullies, but they succeeded in lining up enough allies that he was voted out. He and his family went through some difficult times financially and emotionally until he too secured another pastorate in another church in another town. He too has continued to thrive in that church.

      Both of those pastors were/are personal friends and I heard most of the details. Their take-away was that if they ever had to again face a similar situation they would once again stand up to the bullies and hope that the bullies would depart, but on the quiet would be working on their exit strategy in case they themselves would need to leave. Many pastors who are ready to move on, even in the absence of church bullies, quietly inquire to find out what else is available.

      I would suggest that you have an exit plan in place, and hope and pray that you never have to use it. If you would like to communicate further by e-mail and share more details, give Jeremy permission to give me your e-mail address (you can do that in responding to this comment), and I’ll contact you. In the meantime my wife and I will join you in prayer that this can be peacefully resolved.

  5. Pastor's Wife says

    Thank you so much! Please respond to me personally should you choose to want more details, and thank you for your prayers. I appreciate your stories, despite the fact that the outcomes make me a little nervous. I am building a support system around my husband as we speak. But, I’ll take your advice. Thank you so much! God Bless.

  6. Sue Dot says

    I left one church because of a domineering female. She had been in the Royal Navy as a L Commander and I was considered her underling. There came a time when I refused point blank to bow and scrape any more and found another church. What a complete contrast it is, plus it has a charity/thrift shop which I frequent and donate to. For the record, my previous church has recently closed; it does make you wonder…..??

    • Sam says

      Yes, it does make you wonder. Some churches in the past and fewer in the present have enough people and money that they have been able to allow certain people who give lots of money or have lots of control/power to bully whomever they choose. However…..As people and money are departing, some churches are going to have to have some tough decisions to make. Do they allow the bullies to continue bullying people and running them off, or does the church have the intestinal fortitude to deal with the bullies?

      My wife and I have been involved in a non-church social activity for many years. We remember one group that had over a dozen prominent bullies. They didn’t bully us, but we observed what was happening and stopped participating in the group. Within a year over half of the group had left. Soon only a quarter of the group remained. One person was bankrolling the group (facility rental and other expenses). She continued paying the bills for a couple of years, then stopped and the group folded. We’ve seen churches that have gone down a similar path.

      In my opinion, church bullies kill churches. Then they move along to another church or whatever they can find and ply their trade there. Many have moved to the internet, especially to political and religious blogs. Sadly, almost everyone I know who read such blogs in the past has told me “I’m so done with that. I can not take anymore of the terrible things people say, the bullying, the tearing-each-other-apart-kind-of-stuff” (that is a compilation of what I’ve been told).

      Do we allow the bullies to continue to bully? I think not, but some groups would rather fold than stand up to a bully/bullies.

  7. Sue Dot says

    Thanks for your reply Sam. This person has a lot of influence and can afford to sue if crossed. I thought it better to get out before I said the wrong thing, plus it was making me ill being around her. I was told another lady had left her church because of one other person, so it seems to happen to a lot of us. Sadly it seems to be woman against woman, whereas men rub along with each other, shake hands and any conflict is soon diffused. Another factor is that the church was very small with an ageing congregation, which doesn’t help in that situation either. These days, most churches have an excess of females including women of the cloth which is not Biblical.

    • Sam says

      That is a very Christian thing to do, sue people in your church because they “crossed” you. You did the best thing in getting out of there. We pray that you find love and peace in your new church.

  8. Sue Dot says

    Hello again Sam. Granted, this lady does do a lot for the church such as donates sizeable amounts of money and bakes cakes. The trouble is, she doesn’t do it quietly and announces it to all and sundry. The older ladies used to bring their produce in quietly and meekly and how much sweeter theirs tasted. I don’t doubt one bit that was part of God’s blessing for their humble efforts. Thank you for your kindness and prayers and may each one of us on this website find a niche full of peace, love and gentleness within a church they are comfortable with.

  9. Sherlock Steve says

    I have been bullied by two deaf pastors in the baptist churches. The first deaf pastor grew so jealous with God that he wanted to do everything possible to prevent me from getting married to the girls I had dated and wanted to be married to. But this deaf pastor was a bully to many others in church as well. Finally, not long after my last engagement got broken up, we gathered together and called for an investigation though the hearing pastor. The investigation really found many problems with our deaf pastor. Instead of going to the police, the hearing pastor just merely fired the deaf pastor. To this day the deaf ministry is shattered and is only lead by a non-pastor leader.

    The second deaf pastor attacked me at a Deaf BIble Conference ministry. He decided to OUT me (because I was gay) in order to make himself look good and became the conference leader. After 8 years, the brave board members of the Deaf Bible conference finally forced this deaf pastor to STEP DOWN. They realized he was a bully, but they have forgotten that I am one of his many victims and that this Deaf Bible conference should apologize to me too and ask me to come back.

    So what happens next? I can never go back. I tried to. but I can still see SIGNS of BULLY stuff in baptist churches. I can never go back for the way that they have made me to be.. GAY. I live with this shame too.

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