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Dealing With Church Bullies and Why People Bully Others

Updated on May 19, 2016

Church is Not Always a Sanctuary

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Bad Behavior at Church

Our family was deeply entrenched in our church.

We attended Mass in a slightly irregular setting, still subject to Rome, which attracted a large number of young families with children.

And there were many children, as Catholics tend to have large families.

It was peaceful. It was beautiful.

It was like Heaven on earth, except this isn't realistic over the long haul.

Things were bound to change, as they did, abruptly, when a new priest took over for a year. This was followed by a series of other temporary chaplains.

A number of families left. Our family tried to stick it out, because this was our children's long-time spiritual home, but, eventually, we had to cut loose as well.

A Lot of Confusion

Things became extremely difficult for us in church, although, at the time, I didn't know why. I now realize one of my former "friends," a very popular, persuasive person in that community, wasn't on our side, despite the fact she pretended to be. If she had been, we wouldn't have experienced the difficulties we did. There's also reason to believe she was behind a lot of the trouble.

Cutting ties was extremely painful, and frightening. This church, surrounded by gentle hills with an expansive view, was our home away from home.

I'd sometimes stop in, just to pray. My husband helped with the grounds. Our son served at the altar. After Mass, every Sunday, he played basketball with a group of boys he had grown up with.

In my darker moments, recalling the rich liturgy, the good homilies, the women's retreats and the variety of religious devotions, I worried that leaving this community could, somehow, affect our eternal salvation.

But leaving was necessary. It reached the point where even the thought of attending Mass there left me queasy.

I know I'm not the only one who's had to flee a difficult church environment. Books have been written on the topic, and websites on "spiritual abuse" and "church bullies" are all over the Internet.

Since other people out there, right now, are experience a similar crisis of faith, I want to share my story so they know they're not alone.

What happened to our family?

We returned to a regular parish, as I realized the irregularities of the situation, being outside of a parish setting where the pastor and associate pastor are not assigned by the bishop, was a risky proposition. There was no strong pastoral leadership, which allowed a self-appointed lay leadership to seize control.

My children's faith did seem to suffer, although I'm not sure if this was due to age (they are teenagers) or the turmoil and then our eventual departure from a faith community that once embraced them. I realize I need to pray a lot for my children, and trust in God that He knows what he's doing because He allowed this trial to happen.

There was no alternative to leaving. My children's faith probably would have taken more of a beating if we stayed.

We still attend Mass in a parish, although we are not highly involved there, and I prefer it this way.

Difficult people are found everywhere. Church is no exception. Actually, someone else pointed out that some individuals, who wouldn't do well anywhere else, flourish in religious settings where people tend to overlook personality quirks.

If this is coupled with weak leadership, or if the pastor is simply outnumbered by narcissistic, highly competitive people, you'll very soon have a toxic church. Sometimes the pastor may have personality issues.

What should you do if you realize your church life is unhealthy, and going there is not bringing you closer to God?

1. Learn all you can about bullies. Decide if the problem is you or them. (It's probably them.) Read about bullying, both coming from the pews and from the pulpit. Unfortunately, personality disorders don't preclude people from active ministry. A good resource is Bully Online (See link below) to help determine if you are being bullied. Being ridiculed, shunned, isolated or excluded are bullying behaviors.

2. Prepare to leave. Unless you live in a very rural area, find another church. It's worth the drive, even if the other church is a fair distance away. You'll be much happier once you settle elsewhere.

3. Think twice before telling the pastor. Troubled, narcissistic personalities typically come across as trustworthy. Pastors are only human and there's a fair chance the church bully or bullies have ingratiated themselves with large donations and free carpentry and mechanical work. Even if they haven't, your pastor may consider the bully a "saint," as disordered people are scrupulous about showing their good side, especially to authority figures.

Eventually, the mask will slip, but, hopefully, you'll be long gone by then. Even if the pastor is a just person, be very careful not to appear overly emotional. Bullies are clever. They won't leave a paper trail. They often have proxies they can call upon to harass a target. It will look ridiculous if you start pointing fingers at multiple people, even though all may be guilty.

Also, the pastor doesn't want to believe this stuff is happening right under his nose.

If you still want to confront the pastor, maybe do so only if you have an exit strategy in place, and try it as a last-ditch effort.

The exception to all this is if you know the pastor well and you're on very good terms with him. However, if that were the case, you probably wouldn't be targeted in the first place.

4. Don't share your troubles in church. If you need to talk about this, confide in a trusted friend who doesn't go to your church. That's because it's possible this information will wind up in the bully's possession, and it will be used against you. Bullies don't need any additional information in order to discredit you.

5. Find another church. Staying home on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation is not an option for Catholics. If there is no other parish in your area, perhaps you can find a nearby convent or a monastery. If that's not an option, you'll need to develop survival strategies to stay. Pray a lot. This too shall pass. Ignore the bullies to the best of your ability.

6. Pray a lot. Prayer can change hearts, although you'll see results in God's time, not ours. Don't forget to pray for the bully or bullies. They desperately need your prayers.

7. Trust in God. He's in total, absolute control and He's watching everything.


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