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.