You’re at your United Church getting ready for the upcoming bazaar. You’ve been a member of this faith community for many years, and you’ve seen the shifts from packed Sunday schools in the 60’s to the dwindling congregations of today.
In the last few years, you’ve served on many committees, including Finance, M&P and Faith Formation. You’ve been the Treasurer on the church Board for about 2 years.
As you move toward the church office to use the photocopier, you hear an interaction.
“What do you mean you don’t understand?”, you hear her say, “…it’s not that hard. Maybe you’re just lazy.” You’re horrified to recognize the angry voice as your minister talking to your new church administrator. As you hear more of the interaction, you realize that she’s angry the administrator is having trouble formatting your church’s Annual Report.
You’ve never witnessed this kind of behaviour in your church before. You have heard whispers about the minister being hard to work for. Your last administrator left within a few months of her joining your church.
Either way, you feel uncomfortable about what you heard. You didn’t intend to overhear what you label as a possible bullying interaction, and you really wish you hadn’t.
What do you do?
A formal complaint should be used only after informal efforts have been exhausted. These include talking directly to the respondent, a facilitated conversation with a conflict specialist or mediator or coaching via the United Church’s Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP).
The M&P chair listens intently and appreciates that you have raised this issue. He doesn’t seem particularly surprised and agrees to talk with the minister’s M&P representative. He indicates he might also get guidance from the church’s Pastoral Relations Minister. These consultations will help him decide how to manage this concern.
It’s a relief to release yourself from feeling like you have to take action. “I don’t know for sure that she’s a bully”, you say to yourself. “Let someone else deal with it.” A few months later, your church faces a harassment suit from your church’s previous administrator. You realize that it describes bullying behaviour similar to what you overheard with the new administrator.
Raising this issue makes the minister uncomfortable too. She hadn’t realized that anyone had heard the conversation and she seems embarrassed. “It’s just a bad day”, she says, “and we have to get these reports out. And the administrator just takes SO long to do everything.”
She admits that she might have been a little tough but she seems to feel justified. “After all”, she says “It’s not rocket science – I just want someone to do their job.”
The Best Option
The situation you encountered left you in a difficult position. Unintentionally overhearing a conversation may not feel great, but this doesn’t change your responsibility. Behaviour that’s demeaning or bullying is never appropriate and needs to be addressed.
Our United Church policy describes harassment as “…improper and unwanted comment or conduct when such conduct might reasonably be expected to cause insecurity, discomfort, offence, or humiliation to another person.” The minister’s comment is clearly in this category, as it is condescending and may humiliate the administrator.
An observer in this situation has decisions to make. Although lodging a formal complaint right away is premature, addressing it informally may help to resolve the situation earlier.
The first decision point is “Do I feel comfortable and is it possible to directly address this issue with the respondent?” Sometimes, it’s not practical to address an issue at the time (e.g., in situations that are not private). The observer must also discern if they feel comfortable and safe to do so. Because of their position, a Board member may feel more comfortable addressing a minister’s behaviour than another congregant. But, if they’re not comfortable, they can ask other groups for their help.
Talking with the M&P chair is an appropriate step, as this committee is responsible for supporting ministers and other staff. The M&P chair will hopefully know if other concerns have been reported. It’s also appropriate to reach out to the church’s Pastoral Relations Minister. The United Church also provides trained counsellors who can help in such a situation.
Excusing the minister as simply having a “bad day” leaves your church in a dangerous position. You may not have evidence that this is a pattern of behaviour, but you did personally observe inappropriate bullying. This makes you responsible to take action to prevent its recurrence.
Harassing behaviour like this can create an unwelcoming and unsafe workplace. Research shows that bullying diminishes psychological and physical well-being, and can result in higher absenteeism, suicide risk and increased legal costs for organizations that fail to address it.1
Living out our values as a UCC community requires taking a stand against bullying and other forms of harassment. Put your faith into action – call it out.
1 Samnani, A. K., & Singh, P. (2012). 20 Years of workplace bullying research: A review of the antecedents and consequences of bullying in the workplace. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17(6), 581–589. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2012.08.004