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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  • Stephanie says on

    An incredible true story on the subject (and mostly redemption and God’s sovereignty) is The Devil in the Seventh Pew By Rebecca Alonzo.

  • God is so good. I am being bullied by two younger women in the church (mid-20’s -30’s). I honestly have no idea why they’d be so relentless in bullying a 55-year-old woman, but they seem to take great delight in doing so. The final straw for me was during our last JOY class (the last session for this term) while we were in the sanctuary, I tried to apologize to them because I’d asked them to be quiet during a performer’s song (one of the bullies is married to the singer). They cut their eyes at each other but quieted down. Afterwards, I apologized and explained that I’d never heard the singer sing before. She stated that they didn’t hear me ask them to be quiet, looked at each other and laughed. I was literally shocked that they would tell such a lie in the sanctuary. Rather than being kind to a sister-in-Christ, they denied that anything had happened. Thus, I know that I’ll never be able to figure out their reason(s???) for being so unkind to me. Now, I feel that they are sitting behind me during services and whispering who-knows-what to who-knows-who.

    I love this church and the members have been gracious and kind to me. I particularly love my Sunday School teacher, who is the husband of the pastor (who I also adore). But I can’t see that this matter can be resolved if the two women deny that there’s anything wrong (remember, there were many other incidents these ladies have perpetrated towards me). Thus, I’m in the midst of trying to be okay with looking for another church. I don’t want to discuss this with anyone in the church because I realize it has the potential of being divisive and I don’t want to be the cause of any animosity. My biggest hurdle will be trying to explain why I’m leaving to the friend who invited me to the church over 2 years ago. She and I enjoy driving to church together and going on retreats, etc.

    I just can’t stop thinking that maybe this is the Lord telling me it’s time to move on. Your article is so timely to my life. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone (because I really thought I was).

  • Sadly enough it was a former pastor who bullied me out. He def had an inside agenda and spread false accussations, propaganda, and untruths about the doctrine I held (and hold) so near and dear to my heart. The doctrinies of grace. Nearly a decade after I left I reconciled with he and his wife by Gods great grace and for His greater glory but not until the dark and depressive damage was done. At a John Piper Conf I met his grandson who told me that he was reformed but if his grandfather knew he would disown him from the family. I definitely could relate. Acts 14:22. 2 Tim 3:12. 2 Cor. 12:9-12

  • #5 – They are famous for saying “people are saying.” It took me a little while to learn that most of the time when someone says “people are saying…” what they really mean is “I’ve been saying to people…” I like to diffuse this one by stopping them and saying, “Why don’t you ask the people who are saying things to come to me directly so we can talk about it?” and then asking them what the issues are that they’d like to take ownership of.

  • It has been my experience that a lot of church bullies, or people who sow strife in general often “spiritualize” their reasons for doing so yet often exhibit a lack of spiritual fruit in their lives.

    • “… lack of spiritual fruit in their lives.”

      Amen. You’ll know them by their fruit. One of the greatest mission fields on the planet is the American church. I’m convinced that the majority of church members need to get saved! Beyond the obvious bullies, the pews are full of folks who just don’t get it. And we wonder why we don’t see revival and spiritual awakening?! The problem is not the White House, but the Church House. Pastors, be prepared to preach the Cross and the work of Christ with clarity this Easter Sunday … your regular attendees need it as desperately as your visitors.

  • Kevin Rector says on

    #1 is really important, many times a bully has the best of intentions and motives and doesn’t realize they are being a bully. Also, it should be noted that bullying behaviors many not be a consistent part of a person’s behavior profile, but that bullying behavior may be a stress response.

    Understanding it this way can help pastors to minister to the person who is only being a bully because it is an expression of their shadow side.

    • UK Fred says on

      I think we need to remember that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

      Secondly, in a crisis situation, dictatorship is the most effective form of leadership, but such leadership is much less effective in other, calmer situation. However, I cannot conceive of a situation in a church, except for a fire happening during a service of worship, where dictatorship is an appropriate form of leadership.

  • Thank you for this post, Dr. Rainer. I’ve witnessed the damage done by unchecked bullies in more than one church. But thankfully, I’ve also seen the glorious power of the Gospel in brothers and sisters who recognize that their strong personalities could lead them to bully others, and choose to humble themselves by the power of the Spirit. People with this kind of self-awareness often become respected leaders in the church, who use their strength to serve others.

  • Our church just went through an ugly situation with a church bully. Fortunately, for the first time in many years the leadership and other members stood their ground against this individual and resistance became so unbearable for this person that he and his family finally left the congregation.
    For this bully the entire issue was his personal power struggle; with nothing taking place within this congregation unless it had his personal stamp of approval. He even resorted to one-on-one hallway threats and intimidation. New folks were viewed by this individual as a potential threat and he was quick to make it know who was in charge.
    Problem is…..even though this person has left the church they are still trying to undermine and draw others away from the flock from the outside; making personal contact with church members; anyone who will listen.
    Hindsight is telling us that the leadership should have publically exposed this very divisive person from the very beginning; as now they may be even more dangerous to the health of this flock. This bully had been de-throned and is now being driven by arrogance and a bruised pride. A dangerous combination.

  • My husband (pastor) was forced to resign with no charges by “bullies”, they met all the traits you described….they were our deacons and treasurer and few hidden leaders. It was so sad…the head deacon was even our children’s youth leader, they have been very hurt by this. We’ve been in ministry for 17 years and I don’t want to go back into ministry again because of all the politics and control. Soooo sad!!

  • Pastor J says on

    Something I have discovered about bullies is that even after they have left a church they can continue to exert an influence on it. I had a couple of bullies in my current church (a deacon and his wife) who I eventually spoke to about their divisive behavior (following the Matthew 18 principle) with the result that I was told to leave his house and never speak to him again. For about a year after their departure, things were so much better in the church as there was a spirit of unity and desire to serve that had not been there before.

    However, over the last year a spirit of growing discontent, suspicion, and apathy has become apparent in the church. I was rather confused what the issue was and where it was coming from (receiving only the vague “people are saying…” kind of commentary that did not give me enough detail to address any problems). However, I eventually discovered that people in the church leadership who are friends of the bullies have been listening to and spreading their continued slanderous statements. I was unaware of what was going on until it exploded into the open at a series of meetings where my pay was cut and I was wrongfully accused of numerous things. At this point I am having to look for a new church to pastor. Now I know to beware of churches that have been through 3 pastors in 10 years!

    For future reference, do you have any advice on how to handle a bully acting from outside the church?

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