Yesterday, I asked a question about church culture and the difficulties surrounding pastoral ministry. Specifically, I was asking the question why ministry is frequently regarded as being exceptionally hard and so many jump out. Is it because that is simply part of the deal or is there something about the way we do it? I’m not sure I have any more of an answer today than I did yesterday. But I do think the question worth mulling over.
As a case in point, I was involved in a discussion yesterday in which one of my elders (a former pastor himself) noted that he had been on the verge of quitting. He shared that I, too, have been on the verge quitting as well. Our stories are hardly unique. Hardly a minister I know has not, at some point, decided the pressure too great, the role too hard or the aggression they receive from the congregation too much to take. The frequency with which this sort of story can be repeated suggests there is something of a problem that needs addressing. As a friend noted yesterday on twitter, pastors may well be called to suffer but that doesn’t mean it is the job of the congregation to inflict the suffering.
But I think there is another elephant in the room that is worth noting. Probably not a popular one, but why break the habit of a lifetime today. I am surprised by the prevalence of the word bullying and abuse to describe stuff that looks like neither to me.
Now, let me be clear. Bullying and abuse happen in the church and I am not diminishing that at all .They happen to members from abusive leaders and to leaders from abusive members. This is not me suggesting those things don’t happen. You don’t have to look very far to see quite clearly that they do. But I am also sure that we can be quick to throw around the terms ‘bully’ and ‘abuse’ – and can be particularly quick to claim we are victims – when I am not so sure that is true.
Again, let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not suggesting everyone who thinks those terms apply are making things up or that nothing has happened to them. Leaving aside those situations where the terms clearly do apply, just because someone misapplies them – or applies them in such a broad way as to make them meaningless – doesn’t mean nothing of note has happened. It may not be bullying or abuse, but that doesn’t mean it is nothing either.
Nonetheless, I think there can be a desire to use those emotive terms any time people disagree with us or, worse, they treat us badly when they do so. It is a sad reality that sometimes people are rude, perhaps even unpleasant, in their dealings with us. There are times when people do not make good on their promises and they treat us in ways that are less than friendly or helpful. But none of those things equate to bullying. They might not be very nice, some of the behaviour might be less than godly, but it isn’t necessarily bullying or abuse.
I have have known friends who have been treated very poorly – and left posts in ministry at least partly as a result – who would insist they have not been either bullied nor abused. They disagreed on the nature of ministry. They faced some people being rude, perhaps even dishonest at times. But it wasn’t bullying or abusive. It was just the reality of people behaving as sinful people often do; sinfully. It wasn’t necessarily systematic nor calculated, it was still a bit unpleasant, but it was not meaningfully bullying or abuse.
I do not at all want to denigrate anybody who has faced such things. Nor do I want to give the impression that I wouldn’t listen to people claiming they have suffered abuse and bullying. Quite the opposite. Sin is still sinful, rude behaviour is still rude, unpleasantness is still unpleasant even if it doesn’t take the specific form of abuse or bullying. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed, but it does mean we perhaps need to be more sparing in our application of those two specific terms.