Bullied in Ministry
(The couple in this account are fictional but the experiences related are real, and present
a typical picture of what it can be like to be bullied in ministry.)
I have been an ordained minister for almost 20 years. My wife is a lay preacher. We are both in our late forties and have two lovely daughters. We used to be an ordinary couple, far from perfect, but enthusiastic and committed Christians called into ministry.
We find it almost impossible to explain how the bullying started because so much of it was very gradual and subtle. We had the misfortune to stumble across two or three people for whom bullying was a way of life. They held positions of leadership within the congregation, leadership which they abused by dominating and controlling everyone around them to the extent of "seeing off" anyone who refused to comply with their order.
The process began with friendliness - "we're nice chaps here, look how good life can be for you if you go along with us". It seemed innocent enough at first, a friendly welcome into ministry in a new area and knowledgeable support during the early months. One of the bullies did come across as rather overbearing at times, whilst another was clearly very deeply attached to traditional ways of doing things, but all churches have people like that and there was nothing to indicate the abuse that was to follow.
Yet follow it did. It began with vaguely critical comments made (pleasantly enough) at church meetings and after services, which on their own sounded harmless and too trivial to answer, but which subtly began to undermine other people's respect for us and our ministry. No doubt this was backed up with similar comments behind our backs. Then there were the continual nit-picking criticisms addressed to us privately which began, almost imperceptibly at first, to chip away at our self-confidence.
We found ourselves beginning to lose our joy in ministry and we started getting very tired. At this point the pressure on us was increased. The criticism was strengthened - I wasn't working hard enough, I didn't do enough visiting, our sermons weren't good enough, we were too rigid about taking days off, and on and on. Then the shouting, the manipulation and the threats began, which in our already weakened state we just couldn't handle. There were threats to withdraw money from the church if I didn't do as I was told, threats to destroy our ministry, and threats to make things very difficult for me.
The attacks became more intense and focused on our partnership in ministry and on our marriage. Various attempts were made to discredit my wife and to blame her for the problems. She was excluded from meetings, and spiteful, untrue rumours were circulated about her. Worse still, attempts were made to "persuade" me that I would be better off without her. The pressure put on us was so great that our marriage came close to breaking down. Inevitably, it all eventually became too much for us to cope with; we both suffered a stress breakdown and I was signed off sick for almost 6 months.
Those six months were hell. We were both exhausted, on medication and barely coping with the essentials of survival. Yet many members of the congregation seemed to believe we were having a glorified holiday. In six months of illness hardly anyone visited us, and no-one offered us a meal or even brought us a cake. Living next door to the church only accentuated the pain.
What was the support from the church hierarchy in all of this? Well, I was persuaded to seek counselling, but other than that - the bullying was denied, we were blamed for what had happened, and told to pull ourselves together and face up to the real world. I was told in no uncertain terms to get on with the job I was being paid to do - "you can't just opt out every time things get difficult"! Some terrible things were said to us by my bishop, and both of us considered suicide at that time.
After six months I was forced to return to work or face losing my job, though I wasn't able to cope with working full time. We were both treated like people who'd done something terribly wrong, and my wife wasn't allowed to resume her ministry. We were accused of being unforgiving and unspiritual, when in reality we were severely traumatised people. Everything we did was watched and reported back to the church hierarchy - most of it distorted or taken out of context.
My wife eventually stopped going to church altogether, but I had to struggle on or risk losing my job - and with it our home (a tied house) and only source of income. My poor health made it difficult for me to get another job and I felt I was in a "Catch 22" situation - I couldn't leave my present job until I got better, but I had no chance of getting better until I did leave.
Eventually the inevitable happened. I went off sick again and have been unable to work since. Still the bullying was denied and still we were blamed; this denial is almost more painful than the bullying. I was told that I was spiritually and mentally inadequate, and that I was not up to the ministry and should never have been ordained. My wife was labelled as having long-term psychiatric problems and accused of trying to destroy the church.
We have now moved away from the bullying and are on long term sick leave, both of us having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. We will never again be the people we were before we were bullied, but with time, patience and hard work we hope we can heal enough to make a new life for ourselves.
The church we have left is sick too, though no one wants to admit it. Things carry on there as if we never existed and a new minister has been welcomed with the same "friendliness" that greeted us. And so it seems that all is well there now. Yet beneath the facade, if anyone cares to look, the sickness remains and sooner or later it will claim a new victim.
BALM Home Page
Introducing the Founders of BALM
How to Support a Bullied Minister
What Not to Say to a Bullied Minister
How Bullying has Affected Me
Bullying and Spirituality
Links to Other Websites and Organisations
Counselling with Care
Bullied in Ministry
Bullying in the Church
Bullying and Burnout
Submission on Clergy Stress
Additional Resources on Church Abuse