So Much for the Meek

This morning’s USA Today has a front-page story below the fold on bullying among teens.  It appears that bullying is widespread, and apparently acceptable.  52% of students have hit someone in anger in the past year.  50% admit that they have bullied, and 47% report being the victim of bullying.  37% of males think it is okay to hit or threaten someone who makes you angry, and 19% of females concur.  I think I understand where this comes from.  Ours is a competitive, reality-show addicted, Donald Trump idolizing, what’s-in-it-for-me culture.  It is obvious walking down the street, at school, in the office, and not amazingly, in the church.  So much for the meek, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

And it’s a dog-eat-dog church in here.  There is a shocking amount of bullying in our congregations today.  Inappropriate comments, intimidation, yelling, rumor-mongering, gossip, email threatening, vandalism, and name-calling are not unusual in our loving communities of Christian virtue and behavior.  Nothing counter-cultural about churches that turn every disagreement into a win-lose proposition where people will openly state that they are “out to get the pastor,” or “drive a family out” of the congregation.  Think we’re above bullying and bad behavior?  Okay – “gay clergy.”  That one certainly brings out the best in us.  “Universal health care.”  At least we all agree on this one.  “Immigration reform.”  Everyone stays level-headed about this.  Aunt Edna’s memorial Jesus clock in the sanctuary?  Move it to the parlor and see how civilly and decently people respond.  Have we lost our minds?  Perhaps not, but what about our faith?

Infighting, quarrels, unresolved anger, disrespect, violence, arrogance, bullying of every sort — these are not fruits of the Spirit.  They should NEVER define us, and we should all commit ourselves to expunging them from our shared life together.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — where does bullying fit here?  Where does intimidating someone connect to this list?  Where do nasty emails and gossip belong in this list?  Where are mercy and compassion to be found in our congregations?  Oh, the majority don’t subscribe to such infantile and immature behavior, but it only takes a few.  And if these few are unchallenged, their bad behavior becomes acceptable and normative.  More and more people can get away with anything they want because they know there is no accountability for their hateful and hurtful behavior.  They can march the fruits of evil and corruption in to displace, rot, and destroy the fruits of the Spirit.  And all the while, the world is watching.

Why should anyone be attracted to a church that is no different than any other organization in the world?  Why should people who are sick and tired of people behaving badly at work, school and on the streets want to join a congregation where they will simply receive more of the same?  The church is called to be different.  We are called to rise above the petty squabbling and rank division to witness to the reconciling and loving power of Jesus Christ.  Instead, well, there are women and immigrants and homosexuals and minorities and young people and differing theologies we need to “take care of.”  Jesus wept.

So many of our problems in our churches today are nothing more than people treating one another badly — bullying included.  The Golden Rule need not apply.  We do unto others any damn way we choose, thank you very much.  When I did my research into clergy morale, bullying, threats, intimidation and anonymous insults and personal attacks were reported by 67% of all clergy — 88% of clergy who chose to leave ministry.  Laity regularly report feeling bullied by their pastors.  I guess my message here is fairly simple: stop it!  No one will clean up this mess for us.  We need to say “enough” and work together to find healthier ways to disagree.  We need to covenant together to treat one another decently and to not tolerate bad behavior.  When we all agree together, then it is much easier to hold each other accountable.  We promise to “first, do no harm,” then, “to do all the good we can, as far as we are able, to ALL,” and then we name, challenge, and eradicate any and all bad behavior when it crops up.  In so doing, we witness to the love of God and we proclaim to the world that as Christians we are committed to a higher standard of behavior.  It has to start somewhere.  If God is love, we need to start acting like it.

We all know the kinds of behavior that are unacceptable in civilized, mature society — gossip, lying, insults, mockery, spreading rumors, intimidation, yelling, threatening, hitting, shooting firearms (yes, I did a mediation where church members were driving by the parsonage in the middle of the night shooting rifles and shotguns out lights and windows…), etc.  No one has to tell us we shouldn’t act this way.  Or at least, no one SHOULD have to tell us these things, but maybe we do need to make the implicit (what we think everyone knows and agrees to) explicit.  It’s time to step up here, and do better.  Our kids are learning it somewhere.  If bullying is the norm in schools it is because  it is becoming the norm at home, at church, on the streets and in the media.  The system is designed for the results it gets — if we want different results, it’s up to us to change the system.

17 replies

  1. Galatians 5:14-15 – The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

  2. Dan,

    Two comments and a question.

    Comment 1: Bullying was the major reason that a 14 year old freshmen in the high school my two sons attend took his life last Wednesday. My younger son, who had talked with the boy on several previous occasions, attended the funeral with another friend last night.

    There are no words.

    Comment 2: We do seem to see similar shenanigans at least in Corinth in the first century, based on Paul’s correspondence to those Christians. We may also see evidence of it in Ephesus, reading between the lines of Paul’s advice to Timothy for helping the house churches in that region function more in the manner of Christ and less according to the “endless myths and genealogies” of the prevailing culture.

    The point– even in contexts where Christian community appeared to be intentionally more accountable than it can be said to be now in most congregations, these behaviors cropped up.

    That certainly doesn’t excuse them.

    What we DO see in Paul, and especially in the strong mechanisms put in place to teach conflict resolution and actually enact it in Christian communities through the fourth century (part of the subject of my master’s dissertation, by the way), is that such behavior was not tolerated, was called to account, and was dealt with, or at least the mechanisms were in place to do so.

    Question: Looking at the new Call to Action Report going to the Council of Bishops next week and to the Connectional Table for immediate work at implementation two weeks after that, how do you think the very big changes it proposes may address or affect the cultivation of mercy, kindness, joy and love in the United Methodist Church?

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • My concern, Taylor, with the “really big changes” is that we have identified them before, we have committed to change them before, and many of them, while on the surface are “big” are still treating symptoms rather than root causes. (I’m going to be posting a blog on A Call to Action in the next day or two, but I need to review what I have written to make sure I don’t say anything I will later regret…) As long as our key driver is institutional preservation — and I see nothing in the report to make me believe that has changed — the majority of our changes will continue to be cosmetic. What we are doing and how we are doing it are not as important as who we are and why we are here. Our governing values are still not on the table. The definition of vitality is assumed, but not representative. We have a boatload of unhealthy churches with a focus on clergy and laity leadership, small groups, and worship. We have about 25% of our churches that are increasing numerically, but they are not “vital.” Our metrics are still skewed to quantity over quality. The vitality report still leaves ambiguity over whether focus on the four areas produces vitality or that vital chuches focus on the four areas (causal relationship). My research (which admittedly is not part of this discussion) indicates a much greater level of complexity and accountability than the CTA research. Who we are and how we live together in community is of much lesser importance than how we do programs, structure ourselves, and attract new people. If we don’t treat the people we already have well, there is scant hope that we will treat strangers better.

      Forgive my cynicism. I have been part of these discussions going on 30 years now, and I find nothing new in the current report. Each predecessor made the same bold claims and promised a new start. But contiuning to do more of what we’ve already done and expecting different results,… well you know the schtick.

      I am very sorry to hear your first comment.

      • Say more, Betsy. What are we not doing that we should be doing? I have been working hard for a long time doing mediation, teaching behavioral covenants, promoting civil discourse, and trying to encourage people to rise above bad behavior. I haven’t merely written about it, but I do want to know if I am missing your point.

      • but I need to review what I have written to make sure I don’t say anything I will later regret

        This comment makes we want to read the first draft.

  3. Dan,
    Why should we not be surprised when church conversations turn ugly or church congregations act surprised acts of bullying and violence are reported in their communities?

    Most churches have spent a lifetime turning inwards, keeping the community out. The building is more important and has become a monument to the past instead of an access to the future.

    It is the age-old light bulb joke come to reality – “how many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?” “What, my grandmother gave that light bulb to this church and you have the audacity to suggest that we change it!!!!!”

    Most people in churches today don’t mind it when the minister speaks of turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. They just don’t want to hear any suggestion that they be the ones to do it. They would rather shut the door and close the mind than do anything else.

    I pray that this outcry from you and others brings the spark that lights the flame and renews the presence of the Holy Spirit in this world.

  4. This is a fine example of why I do not care for your blog: you take one or two very rare, very isolated instances and pretend it is a problem of the whole church. Do we have some poor behavior in the church? Yes. But it is not widepread and it is not as destructive as you make it out. Every church I have been a part of deals with disagreement in very sensible, very respectful ways. It is outrageous and insulting that we should have to write down how to play nicely with others. Treat us like adults, and don’t stir up trouble where no trouble exists.

    • Bruce, I wish I could confess to you that there were only one or two isolated instances of bullying and bad behavior in the church, but I can’t. I am glad you have been in such healthy settings. Consider yourself lucky. Working for the national church and for an annual conference, I unfortunately see a LOT of bad behavior — maybe more than normal, but not “isolated” instances. It is not my intention ever to stir up trouble where none exists. I would love for us to find a way to put all our discord and division away and witness to true community and Christian love in all we say and do.

    • Bruce – you are indeed lucky. I have been in my church for 25 years and while most of the time we treat each other well, there have been a number of notable situations where we have not treated each other well. Yelling, name-calling, gossiping, etc. The behavior is ignored, people go back to treating each other well until the next conflict comes up.

    • You are kidding right? This is the norm and not the exception in many of our churches. I have attended 5 churches over my life and ALL five were subject to this type of abuse. It didn’t matter the size or the amount programming. It is what has kept me from committing long term to a congregation. My teens have all left the church for independent megachurches because they are “real” and they “care whether I live or die”. So before you jump on this look around your congregation.

    • Bruce, I have been a United Methodist all my life. I am married to a UM pastor under appointment. Even the most wonderful congregations, full of love and life, also are filled with mean-spirited, petty, gossip-mongering, vengeful nonsense. You don’t want to be treated like a child, be sat down and write out rules of respect and communal behavior? OK, that’s fine. Are you willing to work with others in your congregation to make sure that those who do this are enforced?

  5. After 25 years of being a clergy spouse, I see no difference than when I first married a pastor. Church members still, for the most part, give little respect to their pastors and even less to their pastors’ families. I cannot count how many times my husband has invited someone such as yourself to speak at churches he has served, tries to get the congregations excited about it, always gets my hopes up, and then when it’s all over, it is back to the same old habits.

    Additionally, the number of great programs offered over the years have just fallen flat. We’ve been through the natural church development and now it is congregational development. The whole point being, the scholarly types, as I put it, simply don’t seem to be on the same playing level as the congregations — especially the smaller, mostly rural congregations. The vernacular simply goes over the heads of a lot of the congregations. Further, many of these older, smaller, more rural congregations simply want to be taken care of by their pastor. Any push to grow the congregation or push the members outside of their comfort zone is not only met with resistance, but in a lot of cases with hostility. And in a lot of those instances a clergy family suffers from that hostility.

    So, when I say it would be great to see you scholarly types do what you write about, I guess I want to see results. It seems to me that when guests such as yourself come to a church and speak, there is no result. It’s kind of a love ’em and leave ’em type ministry. You get to come in and preach but then it’s left to the local pastor to push it through. I’ve just gotten fed up with getting excited and hoping when we get a guest speaker with a great message, and then when he/she is gone it just goes back to the same ol, same ol.

    I have been asked recently why I do not attend church. I could come up with a million reasons, but I guess the number one reason why I do not attend church is because I feel I need to leave the institutional church in order to save my faith and to practice my faith. The emotional drain that comes from trying to constantly fight apathy and complacency in the institutional church has really taken a toll. And I do not think I am the only one. Additionally, the outright hostility shown to pastors and families when the pastor does push a congregation has simply become something I do not want to be around anymore.

    God forbid a pastor try to hold his/her congregation and members to accountability. If he/she does, the phrase “there will be hell to pay” takes on a whole new meaning.

    There needs to be some follow-up by those of you out there making the rounds. Local pastors and local pastors families can’t shoulder the whole burden.

    • Betsy,

      I have nothing wise or clever to say. I am sorry that your experience as a clergy spouse has been so painful and frustrating.

      • Unfortunately,mine is not an isolated experience. I believe the only way to change any of the issues facing our church is to get back to the simple concepts of Christ. Love God with all heart, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. In this era of the “me” society, if we were loving our neighbors as ourselves, nobody would feel unloved or hurt.

    • Okay, I do hear and regret your pain. The problem is that no one from the outside can come in and fix the kind of problems you are talking about. I keep trying to lift up that this is a systems problem and that until we are truly ready to change a culture, nothing we do will really make a difference. Nothing you say changes my opinion. But it is more than just scholarly types identifying issues that don’t get changed. At all levels we need to commit to do something completely new. This is why I am so disappointed by the Call to Action report. We are not really interested in changing anything. And the result will be more people giving up on the church because it uses the right words to say the right things to do absolutely nothing to make anything different. I am sorry. But I really am working to make things different. I hope it is not too little too late.

  6. Betty,

    As another of the “scholarly types” and a current GBOD staffer (where we still miss Dan’s wisdom!) let me say, first, everything Dan just said is right on track.

    “Drive-by consulting” cannot generate systemic change. It might support changes already in progress, but that’s about all.

    And it can’t even do that very well if the folks who attend the consulting event don’yt have the support needed “back home” to plow through the normal inertia in any system or community.

    That’s why when I was chair of the Board of Discipleship in North Indiana I led the board to institute a policy that we would only ALLOW persons to attend our events if they brought a lay-clergy team with them. You need both working together.

    That’s also why when GBOD developed it’s recently completed pilot for Burning Bush, we required considerable teams, a two year commitment (five gatherings for learning over that time), and provided considerable follow up with guides between sessions.The congregations that completed the process DID experience systemic change.

    But they we all fairly healthy otherwise to begin with… just not intentional about the mission of discipling people in the way of Jesus. Now they are.

    And yet we’d all say they’re just beginning that journey… after all that time and work. Alan Roxburgh asserts in Missional Mapmaking that 12 years is a conservative estimate for the time it takes to moves the entire congregational culture in this driection.

    So… it’s not that the drive-by work is useless. It can be one part among many others that helps support growth and change. It’s that it’s simply not up to the task of actual transformationby itself per se.

    And anyone who tells you otherwise is overselling what they can reasonably do.

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