Bullying and abuse – do you know what is happening and what to do?

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From time to time I write about bullying and abuse. I started tackling this subject a few years back as I not only became aware of some concerning stories surrounding significant ministries but observed first hand how Christians talk to each other on social media.

In the last couple of years, some serious scandals broke most notably those concerning John Smyth, Jonathan Fletcher, Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacharias but there are other stories including those that won’t make the front pages of the news but have still caused havoc in churches.

The other day, I did one of my mini polls on twitter. Remember that the nature of these polls is not to offer scientific/representative surveys. I’m not so much interested in the percentages therefore as whether or not there are people within my circle who are expressing particular views or acknowledging particular experiences.

Here’s what I found out in this survey

First I asked whether people had experienced ghosting.  The term “ghosting” refers to when someone suddenly shuts down all communication with you. They in effect become a ghost. This can include the sudden ending of relationships but has also been used to describe situations where someone is interviewed for a job but then suddenly the potential employer goes off the radar and stops responding to emails etc. It can apply to romantic relationships and to platonic ones. Ghosting leaves the victim feeling bewildered and isolated. They wonder what they could have possibly done wrong. Ghosting is an expression of control and status. I communicate that I decide who is worthy of knowing me.  Nine people responded to say they had experienced this including 4 saying it was by a church leader.

Secondly, I asked “Have you ever experienced gaslighting?” This term refers to techniques used by an abuser to keep control and power over a victim by ensuring that the victim and those supporting them are left doubting the reality of their perceptions. This may happen through simply  and repeatedly disagreeing with someone. It may involve denying the reality of what they believe they’ve seen/experienced. It also includes turning the tables so that when someone brings an allegation of abuse, the abuser claims that they are in fact are the victim and the person who has come forward was in fact abusing them.

In my survey, 10 people came forward to say that they had experienced gaslighting. Eight of those who took part said that the gaslighting was by a church leader.

Thirdly, I asked about “mobbing.”  This term may be less well known than others, however, mobbing is about abuse and bullying carried out by a significant group of people against an individual in order to force them out of a group, workplace or community.  This means for example that it can include church employees such as a pastor or youth worker experiencing pressure from colleagues, fellow leaders or a powerful clique within the church where they have no other option but to resign. Five people answered to say that they had experienced mobbing. All within a church context.

Fourthly I asked whether anyone had experienced online bullying or abuse. This means verbal abuse such as threats and name calling.  Four people said “yes” of whom three identified the abuse as coming from Christians.

When asked whether or not they had ever been subject to a form of public shaming, 5 people said that they had been in a church context.

Meanwhile, six people said that they had been told that it was necessary for them to go through a particular process/experience to protect the reputation of others, whether a workplace, church or individuals.

I then asked some questions about the impact of bullying and abuse.

 Nine people said that they had been forced out of a job.

Eight people stated that they felt forced out of a church by bullying and abusive behaviour.

Twelve people said that they had experienced anxiety or depression as a result of bullying.

Most concerning of all, five people stated that they had experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of bullying and abuse.

As I said at the start, I’m not claiming that my poll offers scientific statistics. However, it does tell me that there are people within my circles who are saying that:

  • Yes they have experienced bullying and/or abuse
  • In several cases they have experienced it within the context of church/Christian contacts.
  • Consequences have included loss of work, fellowship, friendship.
  • A result has been deep emotional distress with serious consequences for health and well-being
  • In too many cases that it has potentially put their life at risk.

This should make sobering reading, not least because if this is what I discovered from a quick survey, it does make it likely that if you were to do something similar then you too would also have friends, colleagues, fellow church members and relatives who would say that they have experienced these kinds of abuse.  Then there are those who even with anonymity would still feel unable to say out loud or write down that they have experienced such things. Finally, I suspect there may be some people who saw the terms in the survey but did not know what they meant but now having seen the descriptions are recognising their own experience.

I also recognise that this is a complex subject. There have been false accusations and indeed, what might be considered abuse by one person may be considered legitimate, lawful or Biblical disciplinary action by others once the details are checked.  One person’s example of ghosting is another person’s desperate need to get to safety and protect themselves from destructive behaviour.  What is experienced as aggressive and bullying by some is seen as passion and frustration by others.  Again, the passionate outburst of anger may itself be in response to weeks, months or years of abuse and gaslighting.  So I appreciate that we need to handle things carefully.

Yet, even if some of the cases were to prove questionable, I don’t think that would change the fact that many would prove genuine.  That’s why we need to keep taking the issue seriously.

I would encourage you if you are a church leader to consider the following questions individually and then with your leadership team. It might be a good idea to review your answers regularly (at least annually).

  • Are there things which I have said and done that could have at least been interpreted by others to be bullying or a form of abuse (look again at the descriptions of ghosting, gaslighting and mobbing)?
  • Am I aware of potential situations that could already be or are at risk of becoming controlling, manipulative and abusive within our church culture?
  • Do people feel safe in our church?
  • Are our pastoral and disciplinary processes clear, fair and just? 
  • Would a victim of abuse and bullying feel safe and able to come and tell us about it knowing that they would be heard, supported, helped, protected?
  • Do I know what to do if abuse were to be reported to me? What are my Biblical and legal responsibilities?
  • Do I know how to support victims of bullying and abuse?
  • How would our church respond to a perpetrator of bullying/abuse?

If you are a pastor and you yourself have experienced depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts as a result of bullying and abuse whether within or outside of the church context then you may find the resources at Grace in the depths helpful

The Thirtyone:Eight Trust provides resources, training and reviews to help churches consider what it means to be safe from abuse and for victims

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