Bullying – The Johnmark Extension 2018
Bullying is always an abuse of power.
November 2, 2021

Author: Tim Dyer

Definitions and Processes

Bullying is always an abuse of power. It is either

  • the misuse of legitimate positional power or
  • the use of inappropriate forms of power (e.g. threats of physical force, emotional manipulation, lying) to control, dismiss, damage or marginalise another person.

Bullying can be perpetrated both by leaders in positions of authority and also by members or volunteers against leaders.

Elements of Bullying

  • Bullying is repeated behaviour or a pattern of behaving by a person with the power to threaten or damage another person.
  • Bullying may be verbal, written or physical.
  • Bullying may include physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse.
  • Bullying is usually demeaning, derogatory, belittling or dismissive of the normal considerations of wellbeing for another person.
  • Bullying undermines a person’s rightful position, marginalises them from appropriate support, excludes them from expected information or participation, or prevents them from functioning effectively.

Examples of Bullying

  • Persistent joking or derogatory comments about a person particularly about appearance, gender, lifestyle, personal choices or background.
  • Spreading demeaning information about a person to other team or group members.
  • Dismissing a person’s legitimate concerns or needs and failing to treat them on an equal basis with others at the same level.
  • Excluding a person from information they need, or from activities in which they need to participate.

Examples of Bullying

  • Invading personal space or interfering with personal property.
  • Making someone the brunt of inappropriate practical jokes.
  • Displaying or distributing degrading or offensive material relating to a person.
  • Cyber-bullying: sending email, texts, Facebook messages, tweets, or posting photos which demean another person.

The impact of Bullying on victims

  • Bullying is profoundly damaging as individuals get the message that they have little value as persons, they are not to be included, they have nothing to offer and that they do not matter. Psychologically, bullying creates feelings of humiliation, disempowerment, helplessness, insecurity, withdrawal, depression, loss of self-esteem and loss of self-confidence.
  • Socially and relationally, bullying impacts the ability to trust others, the ability to engage fully in team activity, and to trust one’s own judgement. Bullying can also have significant impact on other personal relationships including friendship, marriage and family.
  • The impact on physical health includes sleep disturbances, changed appetite, the potential for substance abuse. It may include self-harm.

Environments which allow bullying

  • Overbearing or dominating leadership resulting from lack of social and emotional intelligence and maturity
  • Some theologies or philosophies of Christian leadership
  • Poor or inadequate management and leadership skills
  • Lack of support structures and relationships
  • Poor lay governance structures and little accountability
  • Lack of clear conflict, grievance and communication processes
  • Low levels of consultation and participation
  • High stress, excessive expectations and time demands
  • Unclear role descriptions and reporting procedures

Behaviours which are not bullying

  • Holding a planned private difficult conversation around workplace performance
  • Respectfully disagreeing, challenging or critically examining a person’s beliefs or views
  • Setting reasonable performance standards, expectations, goals and deadlines
  • Giving reasonable directives, feedback or assessments of functioning, behaviour and performance
  • Taking legitimate and fair disciplinary action
  • Making fair decisions in relation to working terms and conditions including demotion, cutting hours and termination

Confronting bullying behaviour

  • Individuals accused of bullying may or may not be self aware of their behaviour
  • The behaviour is rarely owned when pointed out and usually denied or minimised
  • There is potentially a counter claim, accusing the victim of bullying and the person in power feeling they are the real victim
  • There are often claims that the victim misunderstood the words or actions and/or it is ‘all in fun’
  • Request to address the issue (e.g. role clarity) collectively and generally rather than specifically to raise group awareness
  • If this fails, and the victim is strong enough, seek a meeting with the bullying individual (always with a nonbriefed support person)
  • Follow the ‘complaints’ process

When the bully is a pastor

  • Pastors usually think of themselves as powerless
  • They actually have considerable power and can easily end up bullying others especially if they do not understand the dynamics of spiritual authority
  • For many devout Christians, the respect and deference given to God is naturally transferred to those in spiritual leadership. Leaders (and parishioners themselves) may be unconscious of how deeply this dynamic operates.
  • In ministering to others and particularly in making decisions about others involvement great care needs to be taken not to misuse this authority.

Responding to bullying

  • Clear instruction on what constitutes bullying behaviour and what does not
  • Training around power, conflict, teamwork and decision-making
  • Establishing a complaints and investigation process (if not already in place)
  • Support processes for victims
  • Provide remedial processes for those who have engaged in bullying behaviour