One of my favorite people – a lifelong church lady – was ruing the fact recently that church people can be incredibly mean. I was surprised to hear her make this admission so matter-of-fact-ly. After a lifetime of Circle meetings, Bible studies, worship services, elder meetings, and potluck dinners, she admitted that she had heard her share of stunningly ugly comments from her Christian brothers and sisters. Yep.
The original Mean Girls were probably church ladies. And some of the worst bullies I’ve ever met were Church Men.
What in the world is up with this?
My ears (and probably yours if you’ve spent much time in church world) have heard:
- Church leaders yell – and even swear – at their pastors and then pounce if the pastor responds in self-defense. Choice memory: “You call yourself a @X*% minister? How dare you speak to me like that?“
- Elders criticize their pastors in board meetings as if they are not sitting right there. Choice memory: “Everybody knows that (the pastor) is not a leader.”
- Worshippers sipping coffee after worship whispering about the pastor. Choice memory: “We have the votes to oppose her vacation.“
Some people are so desensitized to gossip and criticism that they don’t realize how outrageously rude and mean they sound. Some people come to church gatherings directly from offices and homes with cultures of coarse language and they forget (or never knew) that this is not the way most followers of Jesus speak to each other.
The meanness is less about the actual words than the ugliness behind the words: the cattiness, the power grabbiness, the selfishness, the fear. It’s no wonder that Jesus needs new PR.
How do we respond to bullies?
We actually respond.
So many times, I hear mean words in church meetings and no one challenges the speaker. Nobody corrects the liar. Nobody defies the troublemaker.
I’m not ready to retort: You brood of vipers! But we might try responding this way:
- Joe/Jane, why would you talk that way? You owe our pastor an apology.
- We were not made to talk to each other like that. Can we agree to speak respectfully to each other?
- That has not been my experience with ___. But either way, that’s not how we should be talking about each other.
A former pastor of a church I served was our guest preacher one weekend and after worship, a couple hosted him and his wife, along with several other couples out for brunch. The next morning – on Monday, before he and his wife drove back to their retirement home – he stopped by the church study to share that, during the brunch, the hosting couple had verbally shredded me and my husband over a lovely Sunday buffet.
“What did the others say?” I asked. And he said, “That was what was most disturbing thing. Not a single person spoke up to end the gossip or defend you.”
The very least we can do is to speak to and about each other in a way that doesn’t make people question what kind of God we claim to follow.