Dealing with Church Bullies

When I first became pastor, two men in the church viewed themselves as being the assumed decision makers. They hired me and set my wages and gave me my paycheck.

I was a young, new pastor with no pastoral experience. I knew they were the supposed leaders of the church. I showed them respect and asked their opinion when it came to decisions. They regularly refused to say anything and told me to do whatever I wanted.

So I did. I was then regularly told that what I wanted was the stupidest thing a pastor should want. One day after church, my wife and I were invited over to one of the guy’s houses for lunch. We agreed.

When I got there, guess who else was there? So these two decision makers of the church brought me into the living room, leaving the wives to corner my wife, and sat me in the lowest chair in the living room, which as I recall kept my butt about four inches off the floor, practically eating my knees.

They both stood over me and told me how dumb I was and how wrong my latest decision was. Never mind the fact that I asked them what they thought about this decision beforehand and both refused to do or say anything.

I patiently took their lecture and the awkward chair situation, ate lunch, and went back to making stupid decisions.

This went on for another year. I showed them as much grace as I could muster. I always ran things by them first, they always were noncommittal and then, no matter what I decided to do, they thought it was the stupidest thing anyone has ever done in a church.

After some time, the one guy began grunting in my sermons, louder and louder each week. Anytime I’d say something he deemed doctrinally incorrect, which was non-surprisingly often, he would grunt. It became distracting to the entire church.

Then, a few months later he began taking people out to lunch. If a new person came and continued to come a few weeks, he’d take them out to lunch. I was pretty sure I knew what was being discussed over brunch. It was becoming a deal.

So, what to do? I followed the advice of Matthew 18 and went over to the ring leader’s house. His wife let me in. I stood in front of him. He ignored me, continued doing what he was doing for an uncomfortable amount of time. I patiently waited for him to look at me. When he did, I said, “Look, it’s become obvious you do not like me, this church, or anything I am saying or doing. That’s actually ok, but I don’t know why you continue to come. Your attitude is becoming apparent and distracting. I would ask you to change it please, because it is not welcome in this church.”

He looked at me, gave me a nasty smile and said, and I quote, “Fine, we shant return.” This was the first and only time I’ve heard “shant” used in conversation.

I said, “Well, if that’s your decision. Thank you for all you’ve done to help me get started here. We’ll see you later.”

I walked out to the car and sat and shook. I was shaking. This was the biggest moment of my young pastor life. I shook for hours.

I have since dealt with many church bullies. Church Bullies think they are important to the church. Their impression of their importance is typically not acknowledged by anyone else. They assume when they leave, many people will go with them. Rarely does it happen. Typically the only ones who leave are their cronies. The ring leader’s buddy left too without a word to me. I never pursued him either. We knew what was going on.

Quite often the church is happy about their departure and continues on in a spirit of joy and refreshment.

Until the next one arrives.

I always treat them with grace at first. I give them enough rope to hang themselves. I know what they’re doing, I’ve seen it before and it’s always the same. I put up with the stage where they criticize me. That’s fine, I don’t claim to do everything right and sometimes they even have a point. But when the criticism extends to other people and then when it inevitably becomes obvious to the church and sides are being taken, the pastor MUST STEP IN.

As soon as church division becomes a possibility, that’s the moment you do Matthew 18 things. Typically what happens is when you confront the bully one-on-one, the bully will leave. That’s usually what happens. There’s no need to go to step two or three in the Matthew 18 scenario. They just leave. They didn’t think you had the guts to let them know you’re on to them.

I do not know what a pastor should do if the bully doesn’t leave at that point, because it’s never happened to me. They’ve always left right then.

I would claim to have dealt with about 7 different Church Bullies in this one church. When the Top Bully is driven out, the next bully steps up to grab power. It took me about 12 years to get rid of all the bullies, one after the other. And I have a small church, like small. Not even “kind of small,” it’s small. Twelve years of my time was wasted getting rid of bullies one after another.

Pastors take new churches on average every 3-4 years. I think Church Bullies are the main reason why. The pastor’s job is to deal with them graciously, give them time to see what they’re up to, graciously take some shots personally, but as soon as they start making a divisive spectacle, you have to confront them. Do this for the health of the church. Drive the bullies out. Bullies are usually all bluster and will flee when properly confronted. Don’t placate them forever, then you’ll just have 7 bullies dragging you in 7 directions.

Get people behind you, talk it over with them, let the inner circle of people know what’s going on. Keep emails and records. If you do not have an inner circle that will help you out, the Matthew 18’s two or three you can take with you, then yes, the pastor should leave.

But if there’s a beautiful core to the church, please, do the church a favor and confront the bully. Fight for what is good and righteous in a good and righteous way. Stay calm. Don’t let them see you worked up. Patiently let them show their hand and then deal with them right before it becomes a church wide debacle.

That’s what I’ve learned. Take it or leave it. The last eight years in my church have been bully free. I pray this continues. It is a lovely thing! The first 12 years were a living hellish nightmare, but in hindsight, I took one for the team and the team is grateful. Go out there and win one for the Gipper.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with Church Bullies

  1. Good post! Well done. I almost always get along with men and it is so rare that any would try to bully me, but some churchian women? Good grief! Worst then middle school mean girls, I’m telling you. Passive/aggressive, meanspirited, gossipy, back stabbing, women of mass destruction! And that’s just my experience from sitting in the congregation, not pastoring. And many of those “middle school mean girls” are well past 60! Arrggg……

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    1. I have not dealt with a female bully to this point. However, another church i was in for years had several, but I was in no position to do anything and felt terrible for the pastor who seemed entirely unequipped to deal.

      But that being the case, I have no idea if these tactics work for both genders, or all in between genders as may be the case now days.

      I wonder if men go after the pastor more whereas women go after each other more? That would summarize my experience with such things.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this critical topic. I’m surprised that the bullies have always left when confronted. It would seem to me that bullies like their position and would view moving to a different church as having to start over at the bottom as something so humiliating.

    Conflict resolution is something that a vast majority of people don’t effectively deal with and that is why bullies find fertile soil and unfortunately grow deep roots in the church. People don’t like confronting (me included). This article is good in every way because the virtues of patience and grace are front and center and personal ego is discarded. Thanks.

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    1. In my experience the bullies never go to church anywhere else or start their own group. Most churches were founded by bullies who left another church!

      Some bullies are slow developing, they aren’t bad people, they just get invested and get a need to take over. They will move on to another church, get invested and over years will develop a need to assert their know-it-allness. People who split churches usually do it multiple times in their life. It is curious how they never pick up on perhaps a problem residing within them.

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