For clergy, church disagreements may start with incivility, but it often ends with bullying.(Illustration by Neil Webb)

Topics: April/May 2024, UCC in Focus | Society

More United Church clergy are feeling targeted by congregational bullies

"This minister says he now expects to be bullied wherever he goes," writes Christopher White


It only takes one. One bully can create a nightmare, not only for the clergy but for the whole congregation. Bullying is a growing problem for United Church faith communities.

“She started out as my biggest fan,” says one minister who, along with others quoted in this article, asked not to be named. “She left me voicemails and emails complimenting my preaching and leadership. I thought all was well, until it wasn’t. It was years of unrelenting criticism and sabotage. My health suffered. I couldn’t sleep. But the worst part was that the congregation enjoyed the show.”

This minister says he now expects to be bullied wherever he goes.

Another minister says the board chair at her past church was always distant. “I think he really wanted a male minister, and much as I tried, I couldn’t connect. And then his complaints started,” she says. “They started out as small criticisms, but over time they grew in intensity, and no matter what I did, it never was enough. I got no support and have lost trust in the institution.”

Yet another told me they were unaware of a particularly toxic dynamic in a church — until they started working there. “The same person had historically gone after the minister for decades. And then it became my turn, and it was hell.” The minister left that community of faith, but the bully is still part of the church.

As a former vice-chair of Unifor Unifaith, a group that aims to unionize United Church clergy and staff, I’ve heard a lot of bullying stories and have experienced clergy bullying myself. I came to this topic with strong feelings about the need to better support clergy who face these situations. But as I researched and reported the story, I was surprised by what I learned.

In all the conversations I had with clergy on bullying, the pattern was identical: one congregant takes the lead and levels small, unrelenting criticisms against the minister that grow over time. Clergy are confused, and the congregation often has no idea what is happening until it is too late. The regions or Office of Vocation get involved in what is perceived as a “conflict” and bring to the task a set of policies and procedures that are inadequate for bullying. The problem goes unresolved, and bullying remains unchecked in congregations, impacting minister after minister.

Alison Miculan has been on the front lines of supporting bullied clergy as the organizing chair of Unifaith. She believes the problem is “pretty rampant right now.” Miculan says the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in bullying due to the frustration, fear and anxiety in congregations today. “We are an angry society, and that’s been reflected in the church. Plus COVID-19 came on the heels of the restructuring of the national church, and all the supports we knew were now unavailable.”

Wesley Buch is a clinical and rehabilitation psychologist who is doing doctoral work at Knox College, University of Toronto on clergy depression in the United Church. His research, which he completed in November, is based on a sample size of 184 United Church clergy. It shows that 16 percent have depressive symptoms, a figure he describes as “alarming for any denomination.”

Buch is also researching the link between bullying and clergy depression. “There is good evidence that when bullying does occur, it is more wounding than incivility,” he says. Incivility is rude, disrespectful, hurtful behaviour that may or may not be intentional and that violates workplace norms for mutual respect. Workplace bullying is a step up and is defined by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety as “acts or verbal comments that could psychologically or ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person in the workplace.” For clergy it may start with incivility, but it often ends with bullying.

“Given that I found incivility to be a strong predictor of depression in my depressed sample,” Buch says, “I would think that bullying would be a stronger predictor still.”

Linda Crockett is the founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources in Edmonton. She is a trauma counsellor and an internationally recognized expert in the field, as well as a survivor of workplace harassment and bullying. For Crockett, bullying is “psychological violence.”

She points to a number of reasons that people bully. “Authoritarian leadership styles that are based on dominance have been rewarded with bonuses and promotions,”she says. The result for the church is that folks who have used that style successfully in their workplace then come to fill key leadership positions in the church.

The other key factor is what Crockett calls “laissez-faire leadership,” or leadership that is not fully engaged and just wants everyone to get along. We’re all familiar with the attitude of “Oh, that’s just so and so. They always act like that. It’s just them; don’t pay attention to it. The rest of us are not like that.”

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She agrees with Miculan that the pandemic escalated workplace bullying. “It’s increased the risk factors by 10,” says Crockett, “and quadrupled my work. We are a society that is afraid and wonders how we can be safe.”

On the difference between bullying and a normal conflict, Crockett says, “Conflicts are disagreements, and those can be positive. We can find agreement or even agree to disagree. But bullying is a personal attack. It cuts you at a soul level.” She defines bullying as a “subtle, insidious psychological attack of a thousand cuts.”

Rev. Darren Liepold is the pastoral relations minister for East Central Ontario Regional Council. He has been dealing with this issue in the church since 2013. “Conflict is different from bullying,” Liepold says. Bullying “is using power to dominate and control others….There is real anger in our society right now. People are on edge in the church, which makes it easier for a bully to take control.”

His advice to clergy who feel they are being bullied is to find a person or two they can bounce things off of to make sure they aren’t overreacting. They should also document the bullying behaviours from the very first interactions, so the record can be shared with both their ministry and personnel committee and the region.

When a minister reports bullying, “the region would have extensive conversations with the minister and the [ministry and personnel] committee first,” he says. “What is the nature of the bullying? Is it one bully or a group? Is the minister the only one being bullied? What is the congregation’s policy on bullying and harassment? What support is available for the minister in the congregation?”

He notes that when a bully starts to act out in church, “our Christian niceness gets in the way.” Asked about removing the bully from the church, Liepold says, “It does happen, but do we do it enough? No, we don’t.”

One minister I interviewed worked with a United Church consultant to launch a 100-page formal complaint under the denomination’s anti-harassment policy. The executive minister of the region received it but didn’t move on the complaint, undermining the church’s own process and leaving the minister feeling abandoned.

Rev. Ryk Brown is a minister at St. James United in Waterdown, Ont. He experienced bullying in a congregation in another denomination. In that case, he discovered documentation that showed this individual had been bullying ministers since 1963. Brown is one of the founders of Voices Against Bullying, an organization started in 2019 to address bullying in Hamilton schools.

“After spending four years working with children who have been bullied at school, and observing an increase in abuse in churches recently, I found the reasons people bully are the same, whether they are children or adults. Only the sophistication and intensity changes,” he says. Because of this, Brown is now offering an anti-bullying workshop for congregations in his region this May.

Kathleen Hilchey, an anti-bullying specialist and another founder of Voices Against Bullying, says people bully for three main reasons. First, they are in a place of pain themselves. Second, they lack conflict-resolution skills, can’t identify the issue and have no idea how to address it. Third, some people are born with an empathy deficit, a high capacity to manipulate and a need to be at the top of the hierarchy.

She identifies three modes of power: power over, power under and power with. “Power over” is about dominance and control. “Power under” is about not using the power we have and putting ourselves in a subordinate position, which encourages the person with “power over.” Lastly, “power with” is sharing the power among all parties. Hilchey works with people caught in the bullying dynamic to see the part they are playing and find a resolution that leads to “power with.”

So what can be done to address these power dynamics in churches?

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Rev. Adam Hanley is the program co-ordinator for ministry personnel vitality at the General Council office. He is responsible for Fresh Start, a voluntary program that can be used at the beginning of a new pastoral relationship. Launched in 2020 as a pilot project, it was designed in part to deal with bullying. In an email, Hanley says one module of the program outlines two to three workshops where participants examine workplace discrimination. “The goal is to provide education and training to prevent situations of harassment and bullying.”

In a separate email, Rev. Jennifer Janzen-Ball, executive minister of the General Council’s theology and ministry leadership unit, adds, “The goal is to provide education and training to prevent situations of harassment and bullying. Consultants who are trained in this policy are also available to talk with anyone who might be experiencing bullying and would like to know what steps are possible.”

One of the central issues is that the denomination uses conflict-resolution and anti-harassment policies from the Manual and from its handbook, Supporting the Pastoral Relationship: Guidelines for Ministry and Personnel, to deal with bullying, rather than a distinct anti-bullying policy.

As one minister says, “When there is a problem in a church, the accountability goes to the clergy and the support to the congregation.” A prime example of this is a colleague who was caught in a bullying situation. The region became involved and issued a report that cleared her of responsibility for the situation, and yet the region also removed her from her position. The bullies were allowed to stay.

Linda Crockett isn’t a fan of applying conflict-resolution techniques to bullying. “Mediation is a con job,” she says bluntly. Bullies will often deflect, say they were misunderstood or trying to help, or act hurt and confused by the accusations. “Bullies can con the best of them,” she says.

My conversations with bullied clergy and experts point to some possible solutions:

1. The United Church’s Fresh Start program should be mandatory for congregations. This would help everyone identify unhealthy behaviours before they become problematic. The denomination must follow up when there is bullying.

2. The United Church should provide access for both clergy and congregations to external, trauma-trained third-party specialists to step in when bullying flares up.

3. While it may be easier in the short term to remove clergy from a community of faith than a bullying congregant, that’s not the best solution over the long term. Under the Manual of the United Church, there is authority to both discipline and remove congregants who are damaging the health and good governance of the community of faith. This needs to happen more often to end the cycle of abuse.

4. Bullied clergy need support. They are experiencing confusion, embarrassment, hurt and isolation. These experiences affect not only themselves but their partners and children, who feel betrayed by a congregation that was supposed to be their “family.”

While researching this story, I was sent an article from a clergy journal by G. Lloyd Rediger. He writes: “One of the causes of the downturn in mainline Protestant denominations is the wounded pastor syndrome. When a pastor is bleeding and desperately trying to survive, it is apparent that she or he will have little energy available for the creative pastoring church growth requires.”

That was written in 1993, and little has changed. The United Church of Canada is in the midst of one of the greatest transitions in its history. Our human resources need to reflect the tremendous strain that the church is experiencing.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include Wesley Buch’s affiliation with Knox College, the postgraduate theological college of the University of Toronto.


Rev. Christopher White is a minister in Hamilton.

This article first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2024 issue with the title “Church Bully: More and more clergy are feeling like a target.”

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  • says:

    Not just pastors ... any church staffer can be targeted. I'm a music director. Over 25 years ago, a bully-type Board member and his wife gave me multiple challenges and tried to financially squeeze me out. I left for a position in another community and denomination that paid almost double; but my successor had to endure it too and was eventually fired. That United church is now in decline but last I heard the bully-type and his wife were still hanging in.

  • says:

    This in not only relevant in the United Church but others as well. We had a similar situation with a bully and our priest left in the end. The bully is still in the congregation.

  • says:

    #3 is what is needed. Congregation members who can't be civil should be kicked out of the church. I can't believe this is allowed to happen. Clearly a nasty rude bully who will not change does not need to be a part of any church. That is an evilness that undermines a holy place.

  • says:

    In my past experience, the minister was expendable since he/she is not a part of the community. There will always be those within the congregation who don't agree with the minister's views on spirituality, religion or his or her interpretation of current events, and therefore exert pressure on other members of the congregation for the need of a change in the pastoral relationship. What we, as ministers, may have learned in University, in our continuing studies of religion, theology, spirituality mean nothing to those who choose not to emerge from their child-like religion. There are those of us who are fortunate enough to be in a situation where we can easily move on from a place where we're not accepted but more often than not, ministers put down roots in a community, their children go to school and their spouses have jobs and being bullied into having to move away can be very stressful. Still, it's no good to stay where one is not wanted.

  • says:

    Wonder and something must be done about it. We are always told that UCC is a welcoming Church to all but I do not think so.

  • says:

    I think when we are young, we foolishly think we have counted the cost. (Luke 14:28 ff)
    However Christ told us to bear the cross - That is a death sentence!
    Secondly, we forget we are in a Spiritual battle - Paul reminds us of our armour Ephesians 6:10-18
    Third, we must remember we are not the first to go through this. I can almost hear the tremble in Paul's voice in 2 Timothy 4. (I certainly do not wish to say my goodbye's to the world in that way.
    But Paul also wrote Philippians 3:8. Our loss here on earth is our gain in Heaven, I have lost sight of that so many times.
    Rev. Liepold is partly right, having two or three persons to "bounce things off of", but we also need to seek those same people for constant prayer and accountability.
    Easy answers are never easy, but trust and prayer that you are following God's will goes a long way.

  • says:

    This article is troubling, and I have heard some stories ... but we need to also say "yes - and". And there are congregations that do not have individuals bullying the minister and staff. Over 30 years and a multitude of pastoral charges - I have been blessed with supportive congregations and supportive individuals.

  • says:

    (I should add that I was a support to a minister who was being bullied - I am not denying the problem!)

  • says:

    Yes - AND.... And there are congregations without the bullies too. 30 plus years in a multitude of pastoral charges and I have been blessed with positive communities of faith and positive individuals.

  • says:

    Until recently, bullying and discrimination within the church were my story, not other people's stories. When a congregation invited me to be their new minister, the Search team said, "We are open and ready for new changes. Our city is experienced in cultural diversity, and all our church members want you to be with us."
    I was willing to move 4,000 km and cross several provinces to begin a new ministry with them. But after the first Sunday service, I had to heard a ton of complaints through the church email, especially about my different pronunciation. During the service, people who responded to my story by nodding and laughing said they couldn't understand me. They still met with their former minister for church work, and the former minister never withdrew from various matters inside and outside the church.
    Because my pronunciation was different, because I was younger, because I was Asian, because I was not related by blood, etc., there was absolutely no way I could belong to them. I probably experienced all kinds of discrimination at once in just a few days at my new church. A church where even ministers suffer discrimination and bullying. Who can call it a church?
    When I finally moved to a new church after a year and a half, I shouted, “This is the Exodus!”