Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Clergy Bullying 102

Valuable personal time yesterday exploring the issues around Bullying in the Church with Anne Lee, social psychologist from Oxford University, who has written and is working on it. There are interesting resources out there, and those of us at the coalface need to develop stronger definitions and models to support better working practice. The Church is meant to be a delivery system for freedom and wholeness. This issue strikes at the heart of what we are about.
  1. When a group of human beings interact there is a scale of behaviour between pacific and agressive, and somewhere along that line lies a personal and social acceptability marker. Any context involving the use of power raises the stakes radically. Violence and the Sacred are always interesting bedfellows, especially in bourgeois, implicit cultures. Religious contexts easily become toxic and dangerous when people kid themselves they don’t have power. Back in the 90’s when I was helping lead workshops for training incumbents I met someone whose colleagues were utterly terrified of him. He thought because he was a vicar he didn’t have any power, so there wasn't a problem. When you talked to his colleagues, what spooked them was his inconsistency. He was terribly informal and chummy 99% of the time, with occasional completely unpredictable flashes of rage which humiliated and terrified his colleagues, for which he never took responsibility, but tried to smooth over by being chummy again. It was the classic pattern of the Young Offender who beats his girlfriend up on Friday night and buys her a dozen red roses and a box of chocs on Saturday morning. Responsibility needs to be taken for the exercise of power and authority. Just because many professional guardians of the sacred feel powerless, it doesn’t mean they are!
  2. The meaning of our behaviours has to be discerned from who we are in context, but they also create the context in which we act next. The more extreme behaviour becomes, the more it can be seen as a problem and clinicalised. Everyone has repetetive patterns of response we call “Personality” that seem almost absolute, but, paradoxically, people have far greater capacity than the patterns indicate to reinvent themselves in different contexts. How do we measure behaviour in context? What are the routes to personal reinvention, and how do we take them? We all have it in us to assert ourselves inappropriately. Only with agreed norms does it become possible to say where lines have been crossed. That’s where basic rules of procedure and natural justice defend the less assertive against the more assertive, People always need to be listened to and perceived problems dealt with on an evidential basis. That only catches the tip of the iceberg, however, in the same way that whatever we do to try and raise conviction rates for rape and domestic violence, they remain shockingly low. More than blame and breast-beating, we need to promote actively cultures of dignity and mutual respect. How? Let’s begin with the Church of England’s new formal guidelines, to be published in June. The English gentleman amateur thing helps prevent senior staff and others seeking professional help about this, as about other workplace issues. Rigorous training to sharpen personal awareness and skills, like the Integrative Complexity course I have been doing this year, needs to become the norm.
  3. This whole problem is part of a larger world of stress. For me the guv’nor on this subject remains, even after six years, Affirmation and Accountability. This was produced a few years ago by the Society of Mary and Martha, which helps decompress clergy and church workers. A&A is based on their experiences of the negative forces that bear down on working vicars. We studied it extensively in the diocese when it came out, and I believe it has yet to be bettered as a practical manual for establihsing wellbeing in the UK context. As well as following up the academic leads Anne gave me, that’s where I’m going next, to see how I think we’re getting on practically with the agenda I embraced theoretically as an area dean in 2002 — am I doing it as a bishop? how does it stack up against the new guidelines, coming out in June? Watch this space...
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Sarah Brush said...

I'm thinking about all the stuff I've read over the years on bullying among young people. The two things that always stay with me about bullying are:

i) Bullies have often themselves been bullied. Dealing with the situation usually means dealing with some other issues.

ii) There is a difference between bullying by different genders in children - boys tend to do the obvious name calling and physical bullying while girls tend more towards social exclusion of victims.

I think the first is certainly as true for adults. How about the second?

Marshall Scott said...

When I was in seminary (now, 30 years ago), Power in the Helping Professions by Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig was a required text for the class on theology of priesthood. It highlighted the reality and the importance of power differentials in relationships, and especially in relationships with professionals. That information has helped me a great deal over the years to appreciate my own responsibilities, and how others are using or misusing their responsibilities. If that has been lost in our professional preparation (whether from this book or from another source), we are all poorer for it.

David Keen said...

I've noticed that power often raises its ugly head in 'senior' clergy positions. I know of a couple of vicars who held (what were seen as) prestigious parish jobs, both of whom had junior clergy signed off for depression (one managed 2 curates in a row, in the space of 3 years), but continued to be sent curates/team vicars by their diocese because they were seen as 'senior' people.

There is something about being a Rector (which I think means 'ruler') which can go to the head of the wrong sort of person, and become a bit of a power trip.

The stress doesn't help: the more pressured we are, the easier it is to take short cuts like shouting at people, rather than taking time to listen, build teams, and find a shared vision. I think you're spot on to make that link.

Anonymous said...

My great uncle Jack (Google: 'Jack Butterworth' + Titanic for his final letter) was a saloon steward on the Titanic (I'm a Southamptonian). What killed him was not the tip of that iceberg; rather it was the weight of tons of ice pressing behind on that tip. Analogously, bullying in church occurs typically as the tip of an iceberg culturally speaking. In church terms the 'background cultural iceberg' of constant stress on the church as community/family is what is needed to discourage a culture in which bullying will occur. (Excluding the generic ('Diotophes') control-freak-driven bullying which is a another matter.) As somebody who does research in this area, I find a touch of 'grain of truth' humour hits the spot here. You are unlikely to find bullying in a church where the vicar has no children or six. The former (no) has never lost her/his sense of group self; the latter (six) has been round so many blocks s/he has regained it!! Technically (and poststructurally) speaking, this principle doesn't really apply with Evangelicals/Fundamentalists as they 'have two selves': (1) a 'domestic self', and (2) 'a sense of group self' which automatically 'switches on' in a church context (it's very like the secular 'work self' 9-to-5). This second, sense of joint self with other believers lessens the tendancy to bullying.

Question of Identity said...

Not sure where Noel is coming from or if I understand his point. Certainly I have come across bullying in a church where there was no regular children worshipers.

I am sure bullying happens across the breadth of the Anglican church. As a conservative evangelical, I have experienced bullying by priests from the liberal end, in the form of the use of foul abusive language, sexual innuendo, coarse joking etc, knowing full well that some of the people present would be offended but not knowing that at least one of those offended persons had been subject to such language whilst being abused as a child.

Leaders of the church need to know that coarse language is not acceptable to God nor as Paul points out in the place of the church.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thank to all for developing this conversation. It's helping me to sharpen my thinking about this. We all know bullying happens, but pinning it down is very difficult.

Sarah — I have had exactly the same experience as you of the bullies being the bullied. That means there has to be a kind of front line and back line. The frontline is about having a sufficient degree of public respect to be able to see clearly when something wrong is happening. In my job that's often measured by law and due process, but actually, QoI, as someone of an essentially Evangelical background, I'm with you — all we're talking about is covered in the Scriptures, and an integral rather than bolt-on part of our life in Christ. Like you I've experienced bad behaviour from all shades of Christian.

I was fascinated by Noel's Uncle Jack — and though his point had some complexities I saw a very clear image about the relationship between the big pack ice, what I just called the back line. This is the bigger context that provides the big energy in the situation, and in terms of the bully, makes them feel entitled or unwitting. The whole social holding structure becomes a licence for social insanity.

David, one of the first things I began to notice as an area dean and work consultant was the parish with repeating patterns of abuse or despair. In this job I stay close to Andrew, our parish development adviser, aho is a really skilled observer/ consultant. Between him and me and Karen we always try to take a systemic view. I have a great resistance to the great old British Army Bloody Fool theory, which always seems to explain everything, but actually explains nothing. Once you start looking at things this way, Andrew Karen and I have found the same old patterns asserting themselves. All we can do is draw people's attention to the big recurring patterns, and try to bear it in mind in our decision making processes. The only antidote to the phenomenon you and I know only too well (if I'm really honest in myself as well as others) is self awareness, humour, and right sense of servant ministry as the calling.

I'm also ploughing through Anne's stuff, and looking forward to the practical guidelines due out in June.

Anonymous said...

Hello. Thanks for the link to Society of Mary and Martha - we wondered where the sudden flurry of Affirmation & Accountability orders was coming from! Bullying is a problem cropping up increasingly often with those coming to Sheldon. As a result, you may be interested to know that we are scheduling a new workshop next March "Constructing Co-operation: Reducing Bullying and its Impact" led by Mike Beard on 2nd and 3rd March. Further details available soon.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Sarah, I'm really glad to know A&A us going well. It's the one publication that I have found tells it like it is, and helps us all see how they could be different, even if it is a few years old now. Glad to hear of the Mike Beard course, too. Thanks for all you're doing.

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