By Rev. Caleb Crainer
It seemed like the “honeymoon” period of my first-call was supposed to last longer. After just a few weeks at the church, the congregational tug-of-war ramped up. Old rivalries, hurt feelings, power vacuums, grief, and more all bubbled up into some toxic behaviors in the church. I was shocked one week when I saw a church member verbally berating an elderly woman before Sunday worship! Somehow they managed to keep all of this off their ministry site profile and gave no indication what was going on in any interviews; I had no warning, and I didn’t know what to do.
This wasn’t unique to me. Almost every other pastor I know experienced something similar. Turns out, no one knew what to do. I reached out for help from more experienced clergy who eagerly shared their own struggles but didn’t have much useful advice about the ingrained unhealthy behaviors. It even seemed like “duck and cover” was a prominent strategy. Why? I felt pulled in every direction, unsure who to trust, and burning out before I really even got started.
As a leader, I felt like I was expected to ignore these behaviors because “that’s just the way they are.” But I couldn’t ignore it, and I even found myself doing some of the same things too. I talked about parishioners to others, I seized control of unimportant things, and I just felt angry. Was I becoming a sort of bully too?
Then, a mother in my congregation shared with me that she was struggling because their child was being bullied at school. What should she do? I didn’t know how to answer, but my heart sank for this kid who spoke softly and loved Pokémon. We decided to host an anti-bullying workshop so that we could help at least make our tiny church a safer place for kids.
My sister, a teacher, recommended The New Bully Free Classroom: Over 100 Tips and Strategies for Teachers K-8 by Dr. Allen Beane. I checked it out from the library, along with a few other books about bullying. The more I learned about bullying behaviors and useful responses, the more I realized the scenarios of name-calling, gossip, and power struggles sounded very familiar. These things weren’t just happening on the playground but on holy ground as well.
Could we become a “Bully Free Church?”
I put together a short workshop outline for all ages and included a couple of the learning activities from the book. The event was intentionally not “churchy” to encourage participation from neighborhood families. (Although there are plenty of Bible verses/stories that could be helpful, like Nehemiah 6 or all of Jesus’ life.)
We held the workshop after church on a Sunday. The mother of the bullied kid didn’t show up, but several other folks in the congregation did. We focused mainly on sections about verbal bullying.
- We took a little quiz from the book
- We read the list of “Do’s and Don’ts”
- Then, we practiced some assertiveness strategies in little role-playing skits. I pretended to be a bully making fun of their shoes, and they had to come up with a response using one of the methods.
- Near the end, during the conversation portion I asked if people had experienced bullying behaviors at our church. Everyone raised their hand.
We prayed and decided to continue the work.
To oversimplify: The main point to most Anti-bullying curricula is the concept of activating bystanders to stand up for others when they see harmful behavior. There are lots of things we can say to interrupt a bullying behavior or help someone who has been bullied. People who bully do so for a variety of reasons and through a variety of means, but their ability to abuse others is limited by the environment they’re in. If students know how to spot the bullying behavior and take action to interrupt and/or report the behavior, things will improve. This is exactly what happened at our church.
Not only did I feel more confident addressing the problem behaviors in my first years of ministry, so did everyone else. People stood up for me and I stood up for them and they stood up for each other. This was something we were doing together “for the children” after all. I preached about bullying and incorporated some new rules for council meetings. I even heard someone use one of the anti-bullying responses we practiced during coffee hour! Eventually, the individuals who had been doing the bullying either adapted to the new culture or they left. Their power over others had evaporated.
Our anti-bullying work grew into more workshops on things like Relational Bullying, Triangulation, and Cyberbullying. (This all should’ve been a whole course at Seminary!) It spurred the congregation to work on expanding our LGBTQ+ welcome, and it formed the foundation for our anti-racism work. A neighbor who once described our church as “the one with the mean person” (which one, I had wondered) remarked to me about our church’s new image of public welcome and advocacy.
- Find a book. There are hundreds of awesome anti-bullying books out there. Find one that works for you. The best church-related one I found is from the Alban Institute called Never Call Them Jerks by Arthur Boers.
- Create a workshop of things you found accessible. Keep the focus on bullying behavior and not on labeling individuals as “bullies.” Leave time for pastoral discussion. It was helpful for us to frame the whole thing as a necessary step toward becoming a safer place for families with kids.
- Expand on the work somehow so it becomes an organizational norm spread out during the year. (Follow-up workshops, preaching, council meetings, partnering with a nearby school, and/or guest speakers)
- Create a buy-in pledge/policy for all congregational leaders to sign. The council or task-force should lead by writing the language. Hold people accountable when they violate the agreement by clearly setting repercussions like after two violations they can be removed from their position.
- Take a Free one-hour Bystander Intervention Training from Hollaback. (The Anti-Asian-American racism and Xenophobic Harassment was timely and useful.) They use an easier, more memorable method. For an intro, see this Faith+Lead post about Active Bystander Trainings.
- Encourage members and colleagues when you notice positive behaviors taking root.
I wouldn’t say our tiny church is totally “bully free” but we are certainly in a much better place than we were. And if/when bad behaviors start to return, now we know what to do.
About the Author
Rev. Caleb Crainer (he/him) serves as pastor at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Los Angeles, California. He is a product of Valparaiso University, The Graduate Theological Union, The Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest, 4 billion years of evolution, incredible friends, hilarious family, and a fair amount of Star Trek. After pandemic lockdown you might find Pastor Caleb playing the tuba, failing at gardening, or trying to visit every library in LA…but not at the same time.
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