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Bully-Proof Your Ministry

Jennifer Hooks

Bully-proof your ministry by stopping put-downs, power-mongers, and peace-breakers.

Erik was small for his age. He kept to himself. He wore thick glasses. He came from a poor family. And he was the perfect target.

Rather than experiencing the glory of God at church, Erik experienced the terror of being the target of bullying. He spent his Sundays after children's church running -- yes, literally running. A group of older boys who were generally viewed as leaders and good kids would come after Erik in a malicious "game" of chase. Nearby adults dismissed it as a child's game, but Erik ran to save himself. The chase went on relentlessly, with the boys calling out threats, insults, and taunts just out of adults' hearing. Eventually the boys lost interest-not because they couldn't catch Erik, but because he'd learned how to hide in trash cans, underneath cars, and in the girls' restroom.

No adult realized what was truly happening until Erik lost his footing one afternoon and fell face-first on the concrete walkway, shattering his glasses and suffering a concussion. Rather than lie on the walkway, in his terror he scrambled to his feet and tried to run. A young bystander witnessed Erik's fall and saw his shattered glasses and the blood. She helped him up and escorted him into the children's ministry director's office, where she cried out, "Why won't you do something? Those boys chase him every week!"

Jessica was a genuinely happy girl who excelled in school and was popular among her peers. However, her parents noticed a change in her not long after they joined a new church. At first, Jessica was just quiet after church. When her parents asked her how Sunday school was, she'd shrug. Soon, she began to ask her parents if she could skip Sunday school and just go to "big church" with them. They urged her to try harder to make friends.

Jessica's parents felt great relief when, after several weeks, Jessica appeared excited and happy after Sunday school. Her mother asked what had happened.

"Stephanie invited me to her birthday party. It's a slumber party! Can I go? Please?"

Delighted and relieved that Jessica had finally made a church friend, her mother quickly consented.

But that Wednesday, the phone rang. It was Stephanie. As Jessica picked up an extension, her mom couldn't help but listen in momentarily, elated that Jessica's new friend was calling. She was stunned to hear Stephanie rudely uninvite Jessica to the party, saying, "It was a joke. Nobody wants you there!"

The face of bullying is shifting, as is the face of the bully. Bullies don't come prepackaged in the image of the lumbering schoolyard oaf rolling up his sleeves before pummeling his hapless victim. Bullies can be attractive, popular, wealthy, and well-rounded. They can also be unattractive, unpopular, disadvantaged, and narrow-minded. They can be a mixture of all the preceding. Bullies can be hard to spot, especially in places where adults don't expect to find them...such as in our children's ministries.

"Bullying is a conscious, willful, and deliberate hostile activity intended to harm, induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and create terror," writes conflict resolution expert Barbara Coloroso in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander.

Schools have come under scrutiny since the events at Columbine High School, but many churches have felt exempt from dealing with the bullying issue. After all, church is supposed to be a safe haven. But the truth is that bullying happens wherever kids are -- regardless of where they are. And the sad fact is, kids who spend their energy bullying or defending themselves against a bully have little energy left over to learn -- or appreciate -- the truths we want to instill in them. As a children's minister, you can take concrete, practical steps to thwart all kinds of bullying and to build a caring community among the children you shepherd.

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