Nine Traits of Church Bullies

Church bullies are common in many churches. They wreak havoc and create dissension. They typically must have an “enemy” in the church, because they aren’t happy unless they are fighting a battle. They tend to maneuver to get an official leadership position in the church, such as chairman of the elders or deacons or treasurer. But they may have bully power without any official position.

Church bullies have always been around. But they seem to be doing their work more furiously today than in recent history. Perhaps this look at nine traits of church bullies can help us recognize them before they do too much damage.

  1. They do not recognize themselves as bullies. To the contrary, they see themselves as necessary heroes sent to save the church from her own self.
  2. They have personal and self-serving agendas. They have determined what “their” church should look like. Any person or ministry or program that is contrary to their perceived ideal church must be eliminated.
  3. They seek to form power alliances with weak members in the church. They will pester and convince groups, committees, and persons to be their allies in their cause. Weaker church staff members and church members will succumb to their forceful personalities.
  4. They tend to have intense and emotional personalities. These bullies use the intensity of their personalities to get their way.
  5. They are famous for saying “people are saying.” They love to gather tidbits of information and shape it to their own agendas.
  6. They find their greatest opportunities in low expectation churches. Many of the church members have an entitlement view of church membership. They seek to get their own needs and preferences fulfilled. They, therefore, won’t trouble themselves to confront and deal with church bullies. That leads to the next issue, which is a consequence of this point
  7. They are allowed to bully because church members will not stand up to them. I have spoken with pastors and church staff who have been attacked by church bullies. While the bully brings them great pain, they have even greater hurt because most of the church members stood silent and let it happen.
  8. They create chaos and wreak havoc. A church bully always has his next mission. While he or she may take a brief break from one bullying mission to the next, they are not content unless they are exerting the full force of their manipulative behavior.
  9. They often move to other churches after they have done their damage. Whether they are forced out or simply get bored, they will move to other churches with the same bullying mission. Some bullies have wreaked havoc in three or more churches.

Church bullying is an epidemic in many of our congregations. The bullies must be stopped.

Posted on March 30, 2015


With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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286 Comments

  • another good resource on the subject is Marshall Shelley’s book, “Well Intentioned Dragons”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      It is a classic. Thanks.

    • Marshall Shelley’s book “Well Intentioned Dragons” does not give an example of healthy correcting of those in power. It is written from the stance those in power are always right and anyone who disagrees with them is a Well Intentioned Dragon. Do you have a problem with leadership? You do? well that proves it, you are actually the problem.

    • Yep, “Well-Intentioned Dragons” is another one I highly recommend.

  • I am a united methodist pastor that has had two recent appointments with intense problems with church bullies. What is most problematic, however, is my ecclesiastical superiors are very reluctant to get involved or at least are involved in a superficial way. What should I do?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Unfortunately, Robert, such confrontation is best handled by members in the church. It is unfortunate because most members will not stand up to bullies.

  • Darren Scully says on

    Thank you for this post. I have seen this and I have stood up to them and it has cost me a church family. What troubles me the most, is that, some of the leaders I have known in the past, are not open to hearing what is not working, but only want to receive the praises. I feel, if one is hurting, then that is one too many. If one is hurting, there may be two, three or more. Not only are WE the ones who must be open to self awareness, but the church leadership must be open to self awareness. I stop and wonder, if they only knew what was “not working”, maybe they could do something about it or try to maybe rigth a wrong and make a difference. A church bully, can be in very small churches and also in a very large church and it would be my hope that church leadership would be aware of all the under currents brewing and possibly about to wash out the foundations that some operate on. I think, if they only knew, would they take a stand. I am proud to say, I finally found a church where my gut instict is “What can I do to help them” and I believe it had to with a pastoral staff who strives to know each person on a personal level and truly know its members hearts. That builds trust and I think a chuch that knows it’s flock well, would squash a bully enviroment! Thank you for the article, always thought provoking. – Also, if any church bullies are reading this, I woudl like to offer you some advice: IF you are hurting, tell someone, as it is why most bullies are bullies. You are loved, whether you believe or not and we need your passion used for some greater good, missions and furthering the kingdom. If you think you have bullied or you know flat out that you are a bully, ask Jesus to change your heart and show you how you can make mend fences instead of burn bridges. If think none of this applies to you, then, re-read #1 and start over. None of us are perfect, but we are striving to be, or we would not be on this site reading great articles. ~ Thank You ~

  • The most difficult issue with Church bullying when it is your pastors wife. Our female members are leavimg and resigning from ministry positions while the weak staff and church members are unwilling to confront her. I have with catastrophic results. I am my pastors 22 year Adm. Asst.

  • This is so spot on it is hard to keep my composure. I am a pastor in the PC(USA) who just had my second call end prematurely due to the overwhelming efforts of bullies in each church. This was paired with the completely toothless church government doing what ever they could to back the church instead of me. Despite evidence and witnesses to the abuse I received, I was thrown under the bus and was lucky to get out with my sanity intact.

    Thom, thank you for your work. The comments section is no place for it, but I’d like to have the chance to tell my story to you. I was also wondering if you have any resources or suggestions for pastors recovering from this kind of beat down.

    Blessings upon your ministry.

  • Thom,

    Thank you for this post. I know many pastors like myself have experienced this in revitalization efforts.

    I am so incredibly disheartened by the comments. There is a clear ‘us versus them’ mentality that exists between leaders and churches, and very likely a major cause of why many churches are plateauing. Is this mentality prevalent, or just loud? I would enjoy reading more on reasons why churches call “bad” leaders (if the issue is primarily bad leaders or a church’s lack of willingness to be led), and, conversely, what long-term effects are apparent or anticipated from churches reorganizing their governance structures in response to the bad leaders they call. One thing is for sure, our prayer for our churches must increase.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are so right, Colin. I expressed this concern in a blog post many months ago. I am saddened to see the pervasiveness of the “us versus them” mentality.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Its the American culture (in the workplace its management versus employees, Government leaders versus the voters … etc).

    • Flybranch says on

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comment. The “church” in America has become so “corporate” minded that it mirrors the workplace of any major corporation. The CEO is brought in by the “board” to fix the organization and there is never a true engagement of the people. The us versus them mentality is so prevalent and it classifies people into roles in the church so they can be handled as a commodity. The assembly of a church should be a family with transparency, honesty, love, and Christ as the head. When will the “church” have the guts to be honest and let Christ lead? To many pastors are trying to be “leaders” instead of loving shepherds. I put quotes around most terms because they seem to have completely lost any biblical meaning today.

  • Thanks again for bringing this important issue to light. Sadly, you are correct right at the start that these persons usually do not see themselves as the bullies they are. When confronted with the truth and ample evidence of their mean spirited and manipulative tactics, they bristle and vehemently deny they are the problem. Indeed, they see themselves involved in a divine effort to save the church. I know some of the comments today point out that pastors can be bullies also. While this is true, from my viewpoint as a pastor, this is far from the norm. Typically, the pastor is seeking to lead the church, preach the Word, and minister to the people. The bully has an agenda that runs counter to all the pastor is doing. I have dealt with these persons in every church I have served and they are always a nightmare. The nice people in the church tend to get out of the bully’s way and who can blame them?

    Those who feel bullied by a pastor, let me ask you a question; has your bully physically threatened you, yelled at you and cursed you – using all the four letter words, spied on you to see when your car was at the church or at home, led a movement to have you fired, and publicly attacked you in a business meeting? I have endured all of these and more during my 30 years as a pastor. I am amazed I am still a pastor after all the abuse I have endured from these miserable persons. They represent all that is wrong with church today and are a primary reason churches everywhere are dying.

    God bless you, and while you’re at it, pray for me and pastors everywhere.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are definitely in my prayers, Dan. I have a great love for pastors; they are regularly a part of my prayer life.

      • Thanks brother Thom, you have a pastor’s heart and you understand the challenges we face. God bless you for this ministry which daily blesses and encourages me. Please allow me one clarification; I’ve been in ministry 30 years, 23 as a pastor.

        Thanks again for the prayers and concern.

        Have a blessed day.

    • How about physical assault…then the church members say…”why can’t you just overlook it?”

  • David B. says on

    Thanks for posting these nine traits, Dr. Rainer. I’ve seen church bullies in more than one congregation I’ve pastored. Leaders must stand up to them, but not attack them. Often a bully will intimidate in one moment, and play the victim the next, so great care must taken in how they are resisted. Placating them however, only does greater damage to the church as a whole.

  • David B. says on

    Thanks for posting these nine traits, Dr. Rainer. I’ve seen church bullies in more than one congregation I’ve pastored. Leaders must stand up to them, but not attack them. Often a bully will intimidate and one moment, and play the victim the next, so great care must taken in how they are resisted. Placating them however, only does greater damage to the church as a whole.

  • M.J. Perry says on

    Thom,

    I agree with most of your blog but would like to make two comments. I find the bully usually does not rear their bullying head until there is a change in clergy. I agree they will move on to another church and will say they are very happy there when they arrive. Whether it is because they have sought a church that meets their other needs so bullying can take a rest, or whether it is to prove to others they arent’ chronic complainers, I don’t know. Then, when there is a change in clergy (sometimes in other church staff) the bullying resurfaces. The worst case of this is when the bully also has a perceived or unperceived “crush” on the minister who leaves.

    The other comment I would like to make is the denominational compliance with the bully. Unless the bully is actually breaking the law (and sometimes even then) the denomination will not do anythign to stop the bully. Sometimes it is in the name of “inclusion”, sometimes it’s “to welcome the sinner and help them”,and I have heard many other excuses. I personally believe that it is a misguided “the customer is always right” attitude. Also, many churches are simply tired of any of their dirty laundry being publicly displayed and feel that keeping quiet and trying to smooth things over is seen as the best approach.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, MJ. Thank you.

    • MJ, I would like to just expand on your first point. It is not only when a new pastor comes, but when any kind of change in the church happens, that the church bullies rear their heads. My husband has pastored the same church for over 25 years, which has grown slowly but steadily all that time. In the early days, the matriarch of a family of bullies told him “Pastor, nobody can work with you!” The fact was, everybody else in the then tiny congregation could work with him just fine– only this family couldn’t. They left, happily, and thereafter wandered about the various other churches of our denomination in the area but never could get their way with any of them. Now as we have growing pains with a cramped building, new stresses occur– including new would-be bullies. And a similar refrain is heard — “The pastor is micro-managing” or “a control freak” ….but it’s only certain individuals who grumble about this behind the back. Really it’s that they simply didn’t get their way about certain issues where the majority of the congregation supported the pastor and the board.

  • #10 They will lead off with saying, “I love this church and that is why God has put it on my heart to say (x), to do (x)… In many situations where their is a patriarch system in place, to keep control everything is under the heading of “doing this for the church WE ALL LOVE.”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      So true.

    • Jim Watson says on

      There are times when the bully truly believes that they are doing what God intends them to do for the church. That is one reason that the church as a whole must be part of the solution. Such bullies see a confrontation from one person or a small group of people as an attack on them. They perceive it as others trying to bully them out of their area(s) of ministry.

  • Randy Williams says on

    “Antagonist in the Church,” is a good one. I’ve also found, “Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior,” by Wayne E. Oates an invaluable resource too. Bullies who are not dealt with will simply become somebody else’s problem. Loving Church Discipline (Restorative Discipleship) will fix #7 on your list.

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