Clergy Bullying

The BBC recently reported on bullying of clergy which the union Unite says has become rife.  They say that priests are being picked on and bullied by Bishops and parishioners.  They have heard of incidents where Bishops threaten clergy with job loss or taking their licence away.  They also tell of clergy being bullied by their own congregation, with one having tyres slashed and worse, all because the priest tried to tackle financial problems, allegedly.

Bullying is a horrible thing. It is horrible when you are a 5 year old being picked on at school because you wet yourself. It is horrible when you are 7 and have red hair or wear specs. It is horrible when you are 12 and puberty brings puppy fat or spots.  It is horrible when you are a teenager and can’t afford a pair of Uggs. And then you get to workplace bullying which can take many forms, be it sexist or racist or agist or just plain nastiness.  But there is always the Union to join and they can help you fight your case.

Except, until recently, clergy couldn’t join a union because they were exempt from employment law like the rest of the workforce. There is nobody to negotiate minimum stipend, nobody to legislate on hours worked and all the rest. But when it is all going well, we don’t mind. Well its a vocation, isn’t it?  We knew about the pay and the hours before we went into it.  But putting up with some bits that others would find abhorrant, doesn’t mean that we should put up with bullying.

Of course, dealing with bullying is most effective when a third party is involved. Mediation can help each side understand how their behaviour has affected the other. But what if the person who would naturally be the mediator is the bully?  And what if you aren’t a member of a Union who could step in where angels fear to tread?  And what if you are just too embarrassed or frightened to confess that you are being bullied? Instead, you just change job. Become a teacher where you will be looked after by the union.

From time to time we see this subject rear its ugly head. Someone writes a thesis, or an article in the Church Times. Blogging Bishops pick it up and we all tell stories about so-and-so ‘who left the priesthood and we all know why’ or countless Curates who were deeply miserable but thought it was the norm.  But I’m not sure that many churches actually do anything about it.  And what if indeed it is the Bishops who do the bullying? Where do we go then? How do policies get made if the problem lies with the policy makers?

And folk outside the Church are shocked that such a terrible thing should happen in the Church.  One reason is that outsiders always seem to think that Christians should be awfully well behaved, never saying a bad word, never criticising, and certainly never bullying. They don’t seem to get that churches are made up of people just the same as they are.  I’ve heard of some pretty un-Christian behaviour from some individuals, Vestries and congregations. But we just don’t deal with it very well.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that I don’t like it and I do think we need to address it somehow.

Any suggestions?


15 thoughts on “Clergy Bullying

  1. I could tell stories to horrify any right thinking person about how our last rector but one was bullied and harried by some parishoners including many of the churchwardens, and how the churchwardens who supported him were in turn villified (including suggestions of sexual impropriety with the rector in one case) by those who would stop at nothing to get rid of a man whose only fault was that he was rather stiff and shy which tended to make him abrupt and awkward socially and not a very good people person. He wasn’t one of the most loveable characters and perhaps not the best man to be a parish priest (I could imagine him being very effective using his vocation in diocesan administration or something similar), but the poor man did not deserve the rudeness to his face and the plottings and letters to the bishop behind his back to which he was subjected. Sadly, in trying to be fair and open, the then bishop succeeded only in being indecisive and unsupportive, prolonging a process which led to the rector’s forced early retirement. All this is nearly ten years ago now, but it still reflects on the group of parishes which is in its second long period of interregnum since then.

  2. Appalling, but unfortunately it happens. One colleague appeared at General Synod with a T-shirt which, viewed from a certain distance, showed only the word ‘God’ in large letters. At a shorter distance, one could read the small print, which said ‘save me from your followers’.

    I attended a weekend seminar last year on personal safety for clergy, and my eyes were opened to the reality of what can happen.

    There are some advantages in being an NSM after all.

  3. I love the idea of that t-shirt, Eamonn. We should all wear them!

    I’m not sure that being an NSM makes you exempt though. There is a lot of it about, even at theological colleges.

  4. While I would never condone bullying of any kind, as a mere congregation member I have found that some clergy can be bullies too. Yes we have the choice of attending another church but if one has worshipped at the same church for decades why should that be necessary. I suppose that reinforces the point that someone should be available to mediate between all parties and see that right is done.

  5. Well yes, Agatha is right, clergy can be bullies too.

    However, there is a grievance procedure in the church which can be used against clergy bullies. In fact there are several different ways to tackle the issue formally if it is clergy who are misbehaving.

    However, if it is lay people, there are few procedures and it is much more difficult to resolve and those very ways of trying to resolve problems can be misused against clergy as well.

    Few lay people depend on the church for their income and housing. Quite a few clergy do.

    Saying that some clergy can be bullies is stating the obvious. However, this does not come anywhere near dealing with the employment issues that Unite were highlighting and which Ruth was commenting on.

  6. We need solutions folks. How can we change this? Do we all join the unions and threaten the bishops that we will strike if something is not done about it? Hmm, clergy on strike… how would that work and who would that affect…?

  7. I don’t think that we should see Bishops as being automatically the enemy.

    Bishops can feel bullied too. Quite a lot, I suspect.

    This is sometimes about relations between priests and bishops but by no means always. It is about finding appropriate structures to protect people from harm at work.

    Policies and protocols can make a difference. Some of our protocols don’t help at the moment. For example the Canon on changing things in church buildings actively encourages lay dissent and fails to balance that against mission imperatives.

    A distinction always has to be made in the church between a robust exchange of views, (which can be quite common and healthy) and something which is personally abusive.

    Unions can help, I suspect. We should perhaps be talking to our Scandinavian Porvoo friends who come from a more unionised clerical culture.

  8. I must confess I have never suffered at the hands of a bullying bishop but I know some who have. Mostly down south, it has to be said. And I find that mostly they feel that their hands are tied and they don’t exactly know how to deal with these kind of situations. After all, they can’t sack clergy for bullying. So, do they move them to some other unfortunate congregation? That wouldn’t be fair at all.

    Talking – or rather, listening – to our sisters and brothers in the Porvoo churches seems like a good idea. I think we can learn a lot from them. I heard their most recent bishop talking on the radio last week, saying ‘Bishops represent the community’. If there are gay people in the community then the bishop surely must represent that.

    How on earth did we get on to that subject?!

  9. This is a sad situation that undermines the very fabric of our church. At a time when congregations are falling and going to church isn’t “cool” it is a time when we should all be pulling together instead of causing conflict amongst ourselves.
    The problem, as I see it, is that because Christians are expected to “turn the other cheek” a lot of bullying is allowed to continue within the Church that would not be tolerated outside of it. Add to that the ostrich-like mind set of some churches who deny it is happening and we have a recipe for disaster.
    At a church where I used to worship at we had a problem with bullying by members of the PCC which was not addressed. Gradually people started withdrawing their support and various positions within the church started to become vacant. My family have now left this church ( to go to one that does not have such an inbuilt culture of disrespect) and take no satisfaction in standing back and watching the whole organisation slowly unravel.
    Do we have to wait until communities are destroyed before anything is done? I wish I had the answer.

    • Oh honey, I am so sorry. I’ve had a friend in a similar situation so I can sympathise. I presume you are CofE? Have you spoken to anyone about this? Spiritual Adviser? Chapter? Archdeacon? Bishop?

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