How to Support a Bullied Minister
LISTEN ~ BELIEVE ~ REASSURE
BLAME ~ PRESCRIBE ~ DENY
Things to be aware of
Abuse and bullying cause intense negative and traumatic stress, and this stress can trigger all kinds of emotional and physiological disorder, which is sometimes referred to as psychiatric injury. Psychological abuse and bullying may be subtle, and may be hard to explain and prove, but can nevertheless cause real psychiatric injuries - just as any form of physical abuse can cause real physical injuries. And, whilst the injuries caused by bullying may not always be visible, they can be extremely disabling, and often take much longer to heal.
(For examples of the type of damage which bullying can cause, see our home page and Bullying and Burnout.)
People who are being bullied are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and reactive depression and anxiety. These are injuries caused by the abuse and bullying and should not be confused with mental illness. Many GPs, and even some psychiatrists, will not recognise PTSD and will simply diagnose depression. This can lead to the confusion that the person is mentally ill, and that it was their illness which led to their problems in the first place.
Bullied Christians may experience spiritual difficulties - but beware of spiritualising what is happening. Severe stress damages a person's world view - existing beliefs may be undermined or even destroyed. If a bullied minister finds it impossible to pray, or questions his/her very belief in God, or is no longer able to go near a church, reassure them that this is a normal reaction to abnormal stress and has nothing to do with sin or spiritual inadequacy.
Victims of bullying are usually caring, committed and competent individuals with a high degree of honesty and integrity. Contrary to popular belief, they are no more likely than anyone else to be weak individuals with little self-confidence or self-esteem, and a "victim mentality". Hence, it may be helpful to use the word "target" rather than "victim" to describe someone who is being, or has been bullied. The person being bullied is not to blame for what is happening; bullying is a form of abuse and responsibility rests with the abuser.
Forgiveness should not be confused with healing. Whilst forgiveness may be an essential part of eventual recovery from bullying, it will not in itself provide instant healing. And insisting that an abused minister must forgive an abuser before he/she is ready and able to do so can be a further abuse. Equally, an inability to cope with bullying and its after effects should never be attributed to a failure to forgive, or to any kind of spiritual inadequacy. Emotional injuries are no different from physical injuries - prayer can help, but they will not normally be cured simply by applying spiritual solutions.
Recovery from bullying may take years - some people never fully recover from their experiences. Much depends on the severity and extent of the bullying, and the consequences of it. A minister who has lost their ministry, their home and their livelihood is unlikely to recover as quickly as one who has been able to move away from the bullying into another position. Ongoing understanding and financial support through recovery are essential, but many ministers find themselves abandoned by their church authorities and left to cope alone. Pressure to "move forward" is usually highly detrimental to recovery.
Things to do
LISTEN: Victims of bullying may need to talk and talk, repeating the same thing over and over as they seek to make some sense of what is happening. This is normal and, for some, necessary. (A counsellor may listen when friends and family cannot - but be warned, the wrong counsellor may do more harm than good; see Counselling with Care for more information.) At the same time, they may be completely unable to articulate details of the bullying for months or even years after their experience.
BELIEVE: Everyone who has been abused in any way needs to have their experiences believed unconditionally.
REASSURE: Targets of bullying need frequent, ongoing reassurance that they are not to blame for the abuse, and that their reactions are a normal response to an abnormal situation.
Things not to do
BLAME: It cannot be said too frequently - responsibility for abuse and bullying, and the damage it causes, rests solely with the abuser(s).
PRESCRIBE: Telling a bullied minister what to do to solve his/her problems is unlikely to go down well! They will almost certainly already have tried everything and anything to stop what is happening. And, what may seem easy and obvious to you may be impossible for them. Never underestimate the power of a bully, or the extent of the damage which bullying can cause.
DENY: You may find it hard to accept that churches can bully their ministers, or to believe that a particular person is the bullying type, but to deny the experiences of a person who is being bullied achieves nothing positive - and may, in fact, prove more damaging than the bullying itself.
(See also What Not to Say to a Bullied Minister.)
One final thing to consider
Bullying is a devastating experience for the person who is being targeted. However, there will often be secondary casualities - eg. the spouse, children and other close family members. Even if they are not actually being bullied, these secondary casualties may suffer considerable stress and distress. The whole family will need support.
Understanding Stress Breakdown by Dr William Wilkie (Newleaf)
I Can't Get Over It - A Handbook for Trauma Survivors by Aphrodite Matsakis PhD (New Harbinger Publications, Inc.)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - The Invisible Injury by David Kinchin (Success Unlimited)
Bully in Sight by Tim Field (Success Unlimited)
(Tim Field's extensive research into workplace bullying and its effects on health can be found at http://www.bullyonline.org.)
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