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Michael's Story

"...what I have had to endure is bullying in the workplace. "

For several years I have had the privilege of serving as an Assistant Minister (AM) in the Anglican Church of the Diocese of Sydney.  This has seen me serve in a number of parishes on staff teams.  I have been ordained as a Deacon, and later as a Presbyter.

My current ministry position started well.  Probably over the first 12 months in the parish, the Senior Minister (SM) was helpful, obliging and generous.  

As time went on, however, there were occasions when his behaviour was difficult to fathom.  There were outbursts of anger in meetings, even during Sunday church services.  At times during staff meetings, he spoke to me using an intimidating tone.  Raising questions or points for discussion was always fraught with fear of him misconstruing things or missing the point. Raising a different point of view to his would from time to time produce some adverse reaction, such as walking out of meetings.  Too often he was threatening, wanting to teach me a lesson for something I had done that he didn’t like.  It was awful.

A specific crisis

Things reached a head on his first Sunday back after some extended leave.  I was leading our first Sunday morning service.  The SM told me the day before he would not be at the service, but would greet people in the foyer over morning tea.  To my surprise, he turned up at the end of the service.  He came to the front pew.  As I began to give the announcements, I welcomed the SM back and encouraged people to catch up with him after the service.  As I was still speaking, in front of the congregation, he stood up and expressed his anger at me for not letting him speak to the congregation. He then walked out of the service.

I mentioned in a staff meeting the next day that I was sad about the news that a key family had indicated to me they were leaving the church. The SM then ordered me to get the personal email they had sent me explaining the reasons they were leaving. They said that they could no longer tolerate the SM’s behaviour.

I walked home, and decided on the way that I needed to ask permission from the family to show the SM the email. Speaking with them, they told me they didn’t think it was a good idea to show him the email. I returned to meet with the SM with this news. He started to blame everyone for this situation in an angry tone, even blaming a previous assistant minister who had been in the parish over 8 years ago.

A week went by before I raised, at the staff meeting, the incident of that Sunday morning. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, however, I wondered aloud why the SM was so angry at me on that Sunday morning.  At this point he accused me of wanting his job, of disloyalty. He accused me of other things that I hadn’t done. He accused me of enjoying the fact that this key family had left the church.  He told me I needed to consider my position at the church.  

Another staff member witnessed this incident. It traumatised me. I began to wonder if this, along with other incidents that had been directed at me by the SM, was actually a pattern of being bullied by him.

Involving the Professional Standards Unit and the bishop

After considerable thought and prayer, I contacted the Sydney Diocese Professional Standards Unit (PSU) and through a social worker I was referred to, submitted a report.

For nearly six weeks I delayed signing the report, as I thought that, once the wheels were put in motion, this would create an even more difficult and unpleasant work environment.  I had been speaking with a counsellor through Clergy Services, and came to the view that I needed to sign the complaint and submit the report to the PSU for their action.

Not long after doing this, I received a response from the PSU. I was heartened by the fact they were taking the matter seriously, and were going to work with the SM to see if improvement and correction of his behaviour might be possible. They advised me that they were aware of his inappropriate behaviour from other sources.

A few weeks after this, the regional bishop called a meeting, with himself, the SM, myself, and the three church wardens of the church. The purpose of this meeting, which was itemised on the agenda, was to talk through the complaint about the SM (there had been another complaint to the PSU from the church wardens), the recommendations from the PSU, the response of the SM to these recommendations, and the way forward for the parish over the next six months.

A few days before the meeting, I had submitted to the SM at a staff meeting a proposed job description, that I wanted the SM to consider and then for us to talk about. I did this because the other assistant minister was leaving, and I was keen to serve in the parish, and look at areas of need and further opportunities. When I gave the SM this proposal, he read over it as the staff waited. He made no comment. At the end of the staff meeting, with my proposal rolled up like a stick, he waved it at me saying ‘we’ll talk about this after what the bishop has to say’ (referring to the meeting the bishop had called).

By this stage, I had been seeing a counsellor, trying to work out how to cope best with this. I remember weeping, distressed by everything that was going on, and now especially having to face a meeting organised by a bishop who wasn’t seeing the matter for what it was, nor had he contacted me to ask how I was going, despite having received a copy of my complaint to the PSU.

A meeting with the bishop and the senior minister

At the meeting called by the bishop, we went through the first couple of points without much clarification at all. The SM produced a response to the PSU’s recommendation, stating how he was going to meet those recommendations. When we reached the final point on the agenda about the way forward for the next sixmonths in the parish, I was given the opportunity to present the concerns I had about the SM.

After doing so, the SM asked the bishop if he could have a word with him in private. They left the meeting and returned after a few minutes. The SM produced a written response, which he gave to everyone at the meeting to my proposed job description. I had no idea this was going to be talked about at this meeting. It was scathing. It maligned my character. It questioned my competence to do what I was proposing. It was accusatory. I strongly believe that the SM had shown my proposal, or at least discussed it with the bishop prior to the meeting.

So in front of the bishop, and the three church wardens, the SM was allowed by the bishop to change the entire purpose of the meeting to call my character and competency as a minister into question. This was not an agenda item for the meeting.

After the SM presented his response to my proposed job description, the bishop asked me, “What do you have to say to this?” I said I was not going to say anything off the cuff to something like this. The bishop said to me in front of everyone: “Do you have a problem working with SMs? Where have you worked well with SMs in the past?”

The meeting had become all about me.

I was traumatised. One of the wardens asked me the leave the room. I went and sat in the church for about twenty minutes. I was gutted. He called me back in to the meeting. He tried to recover the situation. He was reaffirming of my ministry in the parish, but the damage was done.

The bishop then said it was getting late, and he had a fair way to go home. He said we, meaning the SM, wardens and myself, should get together to work out a way forward. The meeting ended with prayer.  

Stress leave

I went home. I told my wife I was done. We talked and prayed late. I hardly slept that night. The next day I shared what happened briefly with a group of ministers I meet up with a few times a year, who unanimously told me take stress leave, immediately.

For the next two months, that’s what happened. I went to my GP, who wrote out a medical certificate.  

During that two-month period, the PSU called a meeting with me and the bishop, to work out a return to work plan. I brought a support person with me to the meeting. We talked about the possibility of returning to work and having no or limited contact with the SM. Some specific areas of ministry responsibility were worked out.

Matters not yet resolved

Then another meeting with the PSU, SM, Bishop, and wardens (without me) was held to draft a more formal arrangement for my return to work. It included meetings with the SM. I made it clear I wasn’t able to return on that basis. My reluctance to go back to work was due to the likelihood of the SM reoffending with bullying, anger outbursts and intimidation direct towards me.      

I made this clear to the PSU, but they were keen to get me back to work. I asked if at least a warden would be present at staff meetings, to be a monitoring influence. I argued that if the SM could treat me so appallingly in front of a bishop and three wardens, how could I expect one warden at staff meetings to be safe enough?  For me, this was about workplace safety.

After some pressure from the PSU and a church warden, I went back to work on a limited work plan that included a warden present at staff meetings. Unfortunately, over the next few months back at work, there continued to be a reoccurrence of incidents of misbehaviour, intimidation and anger by the SM towards me.  

From independent legal advice I have received, what I have had to endure is bullying in the workplace. These last 12 months in particular have taken their toll on me personally and on my family. Within the diocese and the church, the issue of bullying has not been addressed.