How to bring down a church bully

Church bullies have always been part of the ecclesiastical landscape.

They had them in the first century, as evidenced by the tiny epistle of Third John. A brute named Diotrephes was ruling his congregation with a strong hand.  The Evangelist John turned the spotlight on what the man was doing, which ordinarily is sufficient to arouse the congregation to unseat the man. John ended with a promise: “If I come, I will call attention to what he is doing.”

Don’t miss the understatement of that: “I will call attention to what he is doing.”

That will be quite enough.  When the Beloved Apostle (for so was John known in the early church) stands before an adoring congregation and informs the membership what their so-called leader has been doing behind their backs, they will deal with him.

That has always been the Lord’s plan:  Tell the church, expose the brute, expect God’s people to do the right thing.

We’re not talking about taking matters into our own hands or doing anything heavy-handed.

Even though the flesh wants to drag the church boss out back and give him “what for,” that is never the right approach. Nor should we plot and maneuver and scheme behind closed doors. The Lord’s people must never adopt the deceitful tactics of the tyrants.  We are to be “as shrewd as snakes and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

American history provides a near-perfect example of how to bring down a bully. It’s not a simple story, but I’ll do my best…

The tyrant throwing his weight around without a thought as to who got hurt in the process was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.  Google his name and pull up a chair, because the information on this brute will keep you occupied for days. Entire libraries have been written on what this man did in the first half of the decade of the 1950s. A shorter version can be seen on wikipedia.

Senator Joe McCarthy was riding the wave of the Communist scare and accusing various governmental agencies of harboring Reds, being directed by Reds, or outright cooperating with the Kremlin. In his speeches, he would wave papers which he said contained the names of 250 or 125 or 306 known Communists working for this or that agency.  When he or his staff found that some prominent person really had belonged to an organization that was a Communist front during the Great Depression, McCarthy was off and running. He would hound that guy into an early grave, then move right along to his next victim.

The public did not know what to think.

The American people rightly feared Communism, seeing it on display in Asia with all its fierceness and cruelty. The last thing they wanted was for the USA to fall under its power. The question was how to stand against it.  McCarthy, we were to learn in time, was primarily interested in becoming a hero and would do anything to achieve it. After the Second World War, he lied about his war record in order to receive distinguished recognition, which would enhance his political career, and bitterly attacked anyone who dared oppose him.  More than one person with a questionable affiliation in his past committed suicide rather than endure a public lynching at the hands of McCarthy’s team.

When the U.S. Army refused to give special treatment to a McCarthy aide who had been drafted, the senator turned his guns on the military.  He accused the Army of harboring Communists, and the fight was on.  As the namecalling and mudslinging intensified, the Senate decided to hold hearings and settle the matter.  McCarthy chaired the committee that would inherit this assignment, so another senator was chosen to lead the hearings which would last over a month.

America was transfixed.

ABC-TV decided to do something unheard of in 1954.  They aired the senate hearing from gavel to gavel.  (Bear in mind, television was still in its infancy, there was no C-Span, and most network news programs at the supper hour ran for 15 minutes.)

This is how the American people got to see Senator McCarthy exposed as the bully and tyrant that he was.  The programs were live and unedited, meaning the tactics of the senator were on public view for all to see.

Boston lawyer Joseph Welch was hired to represent the Army in the hearings.  He was a class act, a distinguished man, in high contrast with the flabby McCarthy who always looked like he needed to shave last week and was often under the influence of alcohol.

Had Hollywood been casting this scene, it could not have picked two more likely actors for these roles.

McCarthy’s approach was always to “attack, attack, and then attack again.”  He rarely explained what he did and almost never gave a satisfactory answer to questions.  He simply kept the opponent on the defensive. And this day, he accused Attorney Welch of having a young lawyer with ties to a Communist organization working for his firm back in Boston.

Welch had an answer.

Welch explained that when he was first asked to represent the Army in these hearings, he wanted to bring two young attorneys from Boston with him to Washington. He asked if either had anything in his past which McCarthy could use against him. One of the two admitted that when he was in law school, he belonged to a young attorney’s group which was later found to be controlled by the Communists.  Welch sent him back to Boston, because he knew McCarthy would turn that against the Army, as he did. Even though the young attorney was not on Welch’s team in Washington, but merely with his firm in Boston, McCarthy exposed this “grave wrong,” and implied that Mr. Welch was thus untrustworthy.

That’s when Mr. Welch said what he did.  Right there on national television, with millions of Americans watching, Welch spoke the immortal lines that would ultimately end McCarthy’s career.

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”

Welch was soft-spoken and gracious. His words were like knives.

When McCarthy tried to interrupt and continue the attack, Welch softly but angrily continued:

“Let us not assassinate the lad further, Senator.  You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Historians tell us that overnight McCarthy’s popularily plummeted.  Not long after, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy and strip him of his chairmanship.

Ostracized by his party, ignored by the press, and abandoned by his supporters, McCarthy died 3 years later, a broken man, only 48 years old.

Brought down by public exposure and relentless, though gentle, questioning.

That’s how church bullies are to be dealt with.  (Question: Why not bullies of all kinds, in the workplace or playground or political arena?  Answer: Church bullies are a breed apart, having the same self-centered run-roughshod goals as all other tyrants but they tend to be subtler and work behind the scenes. Exposure is the last thing in the world church bullies want.)

1) Church bullies need to be exposed in a public forum.  The tactic of modern-day Diotrephes is almost always to work off-radar, sending their lackeys to do their bidding.

2) The best public forum to expose the bully would be a church business meeting.  Woe to the church which, under the leadership of a pastor who dislikes being held accountable, has canceled regular times of reporting to the congregation.

3) The questioner needs to be someone Christlike, mature, and gracious.  If he/she is pugilistic (i.e., they love a good fight), the congregation will see this as two fighters going at each other, and nothing will come from it.

4) The questioner makes no charges, but merely raises questions, letting the congregation think for themselves.  And some will.

5) Some questions that will often expose a bully include “Who decided that this would be done?”  or “How was the decision made to do this?”  “Moderator, could we ask the chair of that committee to explain this action?”

6)  Once the appropriate person has been made to tell the congregation what was done and why it was done, if this is unsatisfactory or if it is obvious that important pieces of information are missing, followup questions are in order. These are of the same kind and gracious manner: “I don’t understand, Brother Chairman. You say (such and such) and yet the congregation had specifically said (thus and so).  Help me out here.”  Or, “You said (such and such) but the church constitution specifically says we are to do (thus and so). I don’t understand.”

7) The questioner makes no charges, accuses no one of deceit or underhandedness.

8) When it becomes obvious that no more information will be forthcoming, the questioner may do one of two things: sit down silently, leaving the clear impression that he/she is not satisfied with what has been said, or make a gentle statement in the manner of Robert Welch at the McCarthy hearings.  Perhaps nothing more than, “Well, then, we are not the church I thought we were.”  Or, “Mr. Bully, did you not pray about this?  Did you not ask the Lord what He wanted done?”

9) Silence should follow.  When the gentle (persistent, gracious but devout) questioner sits down, there will be a stillness as the congregation absorbs what they have just heard.  And then, it should happen….

10) Some strong, faithful leader who has followed all this, now senses that the congregation is ready to do something that should have been done long ago: Deal with the bully.  So, he/she rises and makes a motion to the moderator concerning action to be taken.  What that action is, I have no clue. It depends on what’s going on.  It may be something as benign as rescinding the action of the committee run by the bully.  Or, it may be a motion to “vacate” that committee (unseat all the members of the committee) or to ask Chairman Bully to step down.  Perhaps the leader who rises to make a motion simply wants the pastor to appoint a committee of three or four who will study this matter and bring a report back to the church. If this is done, the person who did the questioning (above) should be the first one appointed.

Harmless as doves, wise as serpents.

That says it all.

POST SCRIPT:  A few questions arise….

1) Some will always ask, “What if the pastor is the bully?” Answer: Deal with him the same way, in an open forum where the congregation is present.

2) What if the pastor has been so sufficiently buffaloed by the bully that he does not want anyone to “stir up” the congregation by publicly exposing the tyrant?  Answer: This is not about the pastor. The goal is to have a healthy church, and the Diotrephes is interfering with that.  So, stand up in the business meeting anyway. I can guarantee that after the bully has been de-clawed, any pastor will be eternally grateful.

3) Speaking of declawing Diotrephes, what if the church action following the questioning did not unseat him and he’s still around?  In most cases, the public embarrassment he experienced was sufficient to issue a wakeup call to him and to send his lackeys scurrying.

The opening statement of this article is an eternal verity, I’m afraid. The bullies will always be around. Therefore, the Lord’s faithful children must never drop their guard, never agree to cancel regular church business meetings, and always encourage questioning from the congregation.  Exposure carries no threat to the godly.


15 thoughts on “How to bring down a church bully

    • Not the same thing, Justin. The church bully thing is not a personal grievance of one member to another, but a situation in which someone is running the church—and running it into the ground.

      • Yes, Church bullies need to be confronted as they specialize in back door, parking lot secret meetings. They need to be exposed and to have their facts straight. It takes courage and sensitivity to expose these bullies. They often have skill in what they have been practicing for years and often have “power” in the church sometimes the treasury. Woe to those who expose them, but it has to be done!

        • This is why, Larry, we say the questioner must be gentle and not combative. By simply asking the question (and remaining until the answer is sufficient), no one need fear embarrassment because the bully bested them.

  1. My guess is you are a man of the cloth and not of history, sir. It was Edward R. Morrow who challenged McCarthy on television, in March of that year. It took more moral courage than simply putting the hearings on view as ABC, tv did, and inspired an entire generation of journalists. Morrow is still a hero to many of us, and will not be forgotten for his, and his team of news men’s, courage. You make too little of the risk involved in what you suggest a parrishoner do in such a dilemma. Such courage does not come so easily, as history so often tries to tell us. The real story is better illustrated in the award winning film, “Google Night, And Good Luck”‘.

  2. Your article makes it sound all too easy for where do you find such church members who will stand up to such church bullies?

    The ones that I have seen stay quiet and pray out of fear of the bully while hoping that someone or something will come in from the outside and change everything. I have seen a few church members who have been strong enough to stand up to a church bully. It does work much better when a church member stands up to a church bully than when a pastor tries to do so by themselves.

  3. Thank you pastor Joe.

    Our church just survived a coupe De’ ta. The board if trustees actually hired an attorney to assert the trustees ran the church not the Church Council which is and has always been the executive board back to 1845 in our UCC congregational polity. They also asserted that the constitution was illegal from some law from 1852. The goal: stop the church from becoming O&A, and from putting up no firearm stickers on the doors. Two of the trustees actually carried con eased weapons in church and Sunday School plus we have a Licensed daycare 4 program which is connected to the public school system. Twice they attempted to pull the church out of the denomination. Then the small group called a congregational meeting to oust me as pastor. But I was a pastor’s kid, and had spent 12-years as a cop in the Organized Crime Unit in Austin, Texas. My family suffered much in the struggle to include all people regardless of sexuality, etc.
    Conflict was already there. The question was whether struggle for right an opportunity for disclosure and healing. And the vast bulk of people of the church have wonderful hearts.

    All of these things failed. We did become O&A by 88%, did create a safe church policy, and the pastor was retained. But the damage and pain were costly.

    The church did something similar in 1968 over the fair housing acts and fear of others moving into the community. It was featured nation wide in a top seller book “Crises in Watertown” and on “60 minutes”. The church fired the young pastor and his family who had received death threats from the mayor and the group attempted to pull the church out of the denomination.

  4. I will always be thankful to the brave souls who entered the struggle for justice and peace and to the Good Lord who guided as during a wilderness time. The church has now embraced: the new church Covenant; the safe sanctuary policy which includes language for bullying; and the forward movement to be a welcoming a safe place to dialogue even disagree in safety and through process. But Lord are some of us tired. 🙂

  5. I wish I had read this when I entered the ministry thirty years ago. Every church has bullies who need to be exposed as you so evangelically explained. The last congregation I served had the worst one. In frustration and disgust I resigned/retired. What made matters worse was that the bully was believed and empowered by the powers that be. Even though the majority of the congregation supported me and tried intervene on my behalf our decision was made. Not only was the pastor repeatedly mistreated but so was my wife. It was time to go. Thank you much & God’s blessings!

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