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

  • Wow, look at all the comments. If it hadn’t been for the grace of God #7 would have mortally wounded me. I’m presently pastoring a church without a bully.

  • Redeemed By His Blood says on

    #7. Oh #7. Much of the silence among members is to avoid drama, yet, their pastor and friend takes on the brunt of it. Baffling. And yet, one has to admit that the pastor often knows more of the dynamics of relationships, and HAS to keep silent due to confidentiality–all the while the members wonder WHY the pastor is not beating down the path and on the “threatening-to-leave” bullies door to keep them from leaving the church. No, it’s not going to happen, so yet again the pastor is not stood up for. There really are two sides to every problem, and if there is a concerned church member reading this and truly you want to know the truth to something, ask! Ask the bully, ask the pastor, ask, ask, ask. Ask specific questions. Pray. Pray. Pray–before acting. Encourage a sit-down-we-want-to-understand with both parties present. Hash it out. Don’t be talking behind anyone’s back. The church is the Body of Christ, and we all work together; Christ is our Head–no one else can fill this role. We all represent our Saviour to a lost and dying, hopeless world…the community gets wind of rifts; who wants to join a congregation who bickers and fights and strives for upmanship. Not I!

  • #7 is one of my biggest frustrations! No one wants to rock the boat or cause a problem so they remain silent. I’m looking forward to your article Weds because there seems to be such a lack of “how to” in the church. Bullying makes me crazy. There is always a bully or two in the church too. And I’ve noticed they are very good at getting in as good buddies with whom ever is in charge. This is a much needed topic in the church.

  • This is a very interesting article, if a bit one sided. I have served on the music staff of my church for over 26 years and been a deacon for 27 years. Right before his death, my grandfather wisely told me “son, don’t ever let any make you think your pastor is your enemy.” Wise words that I have lived by. I have loved all of my pastors dearly and been good friends with them. I have seen our pastors deal with bullies, but for the most part the congregation has always been very loving to our pastors and staff (when they would let us love them). The worst bullies we ever encountered in our church in my 30 years there were ironically a minister and his wife that operated a local ministry (non-pastoral) and were members of our church. Their political moves caused a LOT of disharmony and damaged the sweet fellowship that our mid sized church enjoyed. Eventually, they got enough rope to hang themselves. However, it took years to restore some of the relationships that were damaged.

    Conversely, in the ever changing modern church, congregations need to be very careful about those they place in leadership positions (including pastorates). Many pastors spend too much time reading the latest “how to” book about how this or that group is “doing church”. Churches are losing focus on Christ. Pastors should seek God’s direction for their churches instead of following what the mega-churches are doing. For many years, Rick Warren and Billy Hybels were the ultimate authority on church as opposed to scripture. I have sadly watched some of our sister churches go through terrible struggles with aloof pastors that want “their way or the highway”. Whether the bully is a lay person or a part of the ministerial staff, God is not pleased by such behavior. Ministers and lay people should NEVER be covert with their mission in a church.

    The church of Jesus Christ needs a fresh touch from the Lord instead of trying to following the latest trend or gimmick in church growth circles.

    May God help pastors to love and lead His people and may His people love and pray for their pastors.

    Mac

  • I’d like to see another point: They are incapable of healthy confrontation. Your confrontation with them typically brings out their explosive personality, rendering any sort of healthy confrontation helpless.

    This seems to be a trending personality trait of bullies.

    And on the other hand. A point for church members under the reign of a church bully.
    The battered believer syndrome: When a church member who is so terribly fearful of angering the church bully that they forever tiptoe around them, or even (unfortunately) reinforce their bullying by joining them in their campaigns in an attempt to befriend them.

  • Good subject. “some people say that” = favorite useless thing to hear of all time. If you can’t stamp your name on it, don’t expect me to sign. Healthy confrontation is what all bullies need. Force them to answer the hard questions, and they will likely leave. Ministers need to be approachable so no one feels the need to hide behind the anonymity of “some people” statements. If that’s the environment you produce, and you still get “some people” advice, do yourself a favor, and put and end to it.

    • “Ministers need to be approachable”. True statement, but that is not always the case. Some ministers bristle up anytime they PERCEIVE their authority is questioned. Young ministers should especially understand that older members can teach them quite a bit if they are willing (and vice versa). Once a minister gains the trust of his congregation–the sky is the limit. Not everyone bringing a possible problem to the forefront is a bully.

    • “Ministers need to be approachable so no one feels the need to hide behind the anonymity of ‘some people’ statements.”

      People will do the “some people” routine regardless of whether or not the pastor is approachable. If your grievance is not important enough for you to own it, then it’s not important enough for your pastor to waste his time worrying about it.

  • Thom,

    Having been the target of church bullies, I learned in dealing with “people are saying,” to respond, “Oh, how many people are saying?” and/or “How many people are saying?” Often when they are forced to identify or quantify the “people who are saying,” you come to realize that the people who are saying… is the person standing in front of you.

  • How can you tell if you yourself or someone else are a bully or just a strong person God is using as an agent of change? For instance I would like our church to do some sort of mission work, we currently spend zero dollars on mission work. When I bring this up I am accused of wanting to get my way.

    If I use the Bible to point out we should do mission work I am accused of being manipulative. When I disagree with an idea I am always accused of having an agenda. When I push for leadership accountability I’m told I just want to do church my way.

    I have a very dynamic personality and people are drawn to me for my strength of character, how do I keep that from being seen as #4? I’ve been told because people like me and listen to me it creates a problem. I am asked, “why can’t you just go along with the program?”

    Often people ask me if I can talk to leadership about a problem they are having but they are afraid to speak up because they are afraid they will be labeled as insubordinate; in those instances so I can protect someone’s identity I will use the phrase, “people are saying…”

    Because I push for change (mostly on matters which you Thom have put on your “traits of a dying church” list I get accused of creating chaos and disrupting the peaceful fellowship.

    There are many of the items on the bully list I don’t see interest me at all, such as creating alliances with weak members (though I do try to encourage them) or finding a weak church to run roughshod in.

    I am contemplating leaving my current church because the leadership refuses to change or even admit there is a problem, but now do I find myself contemplating #9? Would I even be able to tell if I were a bully? I sense God’s leading, I have scriptural support for all my actions, and I have accountability with a group of unbiased men; but still when I speak up at my church I’m accused of being overly critical. If I was a bully would I be able to tell?

    • This is quite a strange post to me, no offence please, because none is intended. Asking others if your a bully over the internet is like asking a telemarketer if you have a booger in your nose when you have a camera on your phone.

      The bible is basis of our introspection. If YOU know your pursuing God’s will in your life, and you have carefully, calmly, lovingly, tried to direct your local congregation towards what you believe it should be doing, and it isn’t budging, you might need to move. If you keep pushing you may indeed be the cause of problems.

      That doesn’t mean your wrong or the church is wrong necessarily, but it just may be God’s way of moving you where he wants you. Love, peace, patience, kindness through Christ alone: these are what change people, not accurate observation, or strong personalities.

      • I guess it depends on what the telemarketer is selling, or perhaps you deal with a whole other breed of telemarketers. 🙂

        I think labeling people as Bullies is too easy, it creates an “us and them” mentality. It makes someone a problem to be avoided, stepped over, or worked around. I know the vanity of my own heart makes me susceptible to assuming I’m right and I don’t have to invest in someone if I can label them as a chronic problem or ignore all their future comments or concerns because I’ve devalued them.

        I don’t think there is a whole separate class of people who are prone to being Bullies, I think it is a problem like lying. Question, Who lies? Answer: Liars. See that answer is way too simple; because actually all of us lie, that doesn’t mean lying defines us. I’m betting we have all been the Bully at one time or another.

    • Hello. I am dealing with many of the issues you list. I am a 25 year member of a church. I am also a 21 year staff member. I received the Holy Spirits gift of,Evangelism at the point of salvation in 1988. In the early 80’s our church was on the street, sharing Christ door to door, working with our public school across the street, and ministering to the community (the physical AND spiritual). The Lord blesssed and our church was run over with an overwhelming number of babies, children, teens, youth, and adults. We were setting chairs in the aisles and hire a bus company to help pick up our children. There were so many we had to have a Friday night children’s service. Then it all began to fade away. Our church became a hub of busyness and activity and genuine ministry has ceased. I have been appointed Evangelism Directory numerous times but the efforts to convince our church to ,”return to it’s first love” has been fruitless. I too am met with opposition. Scripture commands us to “Go Ye” and not “stay in. I recently asked for permission to arrrange a whole church outing to see the movie “Do You Believe?” that challenges the church to return to the Biblical mandate of setting aside our selfishness as Christians-to pick up our cross-to lose our comfortable lives-and follow Him, hoping it would reignite the fire and move us away from busyness back to authentic ministry. It has fallen on deaf ears. I still hold the title as Evangelism Director -( its still a title only as nothing is being implemented )but I do not need a title to share the Gospel or distribute Bibles or minister in my community. As the Hymn goes
      “Though no one join me, still I will follow.” However, there is always HOPE.

      • Thanks G, you hang in there. I’m encouraged by your story and your spiritual stamina. May God bless your efforts to serve Him.

    • jonathon says on

      >How can you tell if you yourself or someone else are a bully or just a strong person God is using as an agent of change?

      In _Antagonists in the Church_ by Kenneth Haugk, there was a statement along the lines that the Antagonist does not think that they are being antagonistic.

      Where that book falls short, is that it defines Antagonists as being either unwilling, or unable to provide specific examples of either what is “wrong”, and, equally unwilling, or unable, to provide specific examples of what they would consider to be a minimally acceptable satisfactory solution, from their point of view.

      All of which is a very round about way of saying:
      # Clearly state what you are sensing:
      * What do I see?
      * What do I hear?
      * What do I touch?
      * What do I taste?
      * What do I physically feel?
      # Clearly state what your thoughts are:
      * Here is what I think is going on;
      # Clearly state what your current feelings/emotions are:
      * I am glad;
      * I am sad;
      * I am mad;
      * I am angry;
      * I am frustrated;
      # Clearly state what your wants are:
      * For your self;
      * For the person / people one is addressing;
      * For other involved people;
      * For other uninvolved people;
      # Clearly state what actions:
      * You have taken in the past;
      * You will take now;
      * You will take in the future;
      (Sorry, I don’t remember where I first came across that communication sequence. It is deliberately “I-Centric”, because one can only be responsible for one’s own actions. The only way other people can only know what you want, is when you both clearly explain why you want something done, then what you want done, and then waht you will do.)

      @ The more specific you are in providing examples of behaviour that is undesirable, the less likely it is that you are being a bully;
      @ The more specific you are in providing “ideal solutions” and “minimally acceptable solutions”, the less likely it is that you are being a bully;
      @ The more willing you are, to advocate the reasons why your proposal is a bad idea, the less likely it is that you are being a bully. (The easy part is seeing both the good and the bad in one’s proposals. The hard part is being able to advocate against one’s proposal.);

      >in those instances so I can protect someone’s identity I will use the phrase, “people are saying…”

      Don’t say: “people are saying”. Instead:
      # Before going to leaders, find out what the specific person would consider to be:
      * The ideal solution;
      * The minimally acceptable solution;
      When going to leaders:
      * Give a specific number. Lowball the count, if you don’t know the exact number;
      * Use the phrase “I have been told by χ people that”, and then give exact quotes;
      * Tell the leaders the ideal solution, that those individuals told you;
      ** Be willing and able to negotiate down to the minimal acceptable solution;

      All this assumes that you can communicate with leaders. Something that is not always possible, especially when they are the Antagonists dividing the congregation.

      FWIW, I think that _Antagonists in the Church_ should be read, and applied, by everybody in a leadership position in a congregation, every two to three years.

      • Thanks Jonathon, I will hunt down the book Antagonists in the Church.

        I like your analytical approach, it will help me organize my thoughts.

        I guess for me my big question is motive. What separates the motives of a church reformer from a church bully? Would a church in the middle of a reformation, turn-around, replant, renewal, etc. view even a good godly man as being antagonistic? I know God does the changing of hearts, but I also know He uses a man after His own heart to be the agent of change.

        Maybe instead of listing the actions of church bullies, we could find a list of what motivates a church bully.

        I’m one of the most peace loving and easy going people I know, but when I see problems in the church or unbiblical practices or watered down gospel presentations or endless inward focused social activities passed off as the norm for church life, I just can’t sit idle. Jesus means too much for me to settle for comfortable unfruitful church life.

    • Flybranch says on

      Excellent post. What you are experiencing is a toxic organization and no answer is the right answer unless the leadership came up with it. My suggestion would be to pray and ask for direction. When direction is perceived, just follow it with no question. It is not your responsibility to fight everyone’s battles, but it is your responsibility to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. Too many things have no Biblical base in the church. It would do the church well to just get back to the gospel and drop the social activities. The social side needs to happen authentically instead of driven from leadership. I truly believe the church can be “forced” to assemble too much which creates many of these problems. Instead of coming in, maybe we should do some going out.

      • Thanks Flybranch. I believe every church has problems, I’m slow to label any church as toxic. I trust Jesus will protect and prune the Church since He died to have her for His own. I will consider your words of wisdom.

    • I would encourage you to take stock of both your motives and your methods. Are you merely pointing out problems in the church, or you actually proposing solutions? I’ve been a pastor for almost 20 years,and few things are more frustrating to me than people who do the former and not the latter. Time and again I’ve had people who come to me and say, “The church needs to be doing such-and-such”. I respond by saying, “Great. When would you like to start?” Then the person responds, “Well, I can’t do it, but somebody ought to….” Or they say the church needs to be doing more outreach, but then they never show up for visitation, or they always find some excuse to avoid working in the church.

      Anybody can point out problems in the church, but talk is cheap. If you’re not actually working to fix the problem, then your criticism is tearing the church down instead of building it up.

  • Having been in the ministry for over 20 some years I have seen the truth of what Thom R. is stating in his article on Church Bullies. They are present, and can impede the Spiritual progress of a church in significant ways leading people down a primrose path which in the end is destructive in nature to individuals and the local church. The most insidious though, in my opinion, is the easy going person who slowly gains the respect and trust of individuals, especially those in leadership. They, like the other “Bully” types, accomplish the same end Thom R. is warning about in this article. However, they a little harder to identify due to their slow and methodical method which appears to be Biblical in nature but may be cloaked in “legalism” of one form or the other. This is a very good article written through the experience of a Godly, well educated person. Ministers and Churches should take this subject to heart due to its destructive nature which will cripple a local church and its ministry!
    PS- Are ministers exempt from Church Bully status? Certainly NOT.

  • Another point: They invoke God. They will say things like “God told me…” or “God revealed to me…” We have to check these statements against Scripture and ask the Holy Spirit for discernment.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      For sure.

    • So Bullie’s invoke God, you know who else does? Non-Bullies.

      It can be problematic to tell people if someone corrects you in the church or shares a word from God that you are dealing with a church Bully. I think we need a bit better or clearer set of guidelines.

  • What do you do when the Pastor is the bully? This can happen too!

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