A story like Maria’s Part 6: Reconciliation and forgiveness?

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A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s: Part 1

Reconciliation

Is it possible for this story to have a happy ending?  Is reconciliation possible?

The answer is yes but it depends on several factors:

1 The diocese needs to be committed to reconciliation, resilience and how to deal with conflict.  Some dioceses have advisers on these issues. There also needs to be ways in which churches can access this help and someone outside their church to help them with the process.

2 The suggestion about reconciliation needs to come from someone above Zoe in the hierarchy – the area dean, the archdeacon or the bishop.  She is unlikely to take much notice of anyone she sees as below her.

3 All parties need to actively want reconciliation. This isn’t something you can force someone into.

4 Why is Zoe bullying?  This is crucial.  It may be that lack of experience or poor training has given her the impression that this is the best way to manage volunteers.

It may be that she feels inadequate and is so terrified of getting things wrong that she has created this authoritarian persona to hide behind. She realises that what has happened is wrong but has no idea how to put things right.

It may be that Zoe sees the problems (and Maria) as belonging to the past.  She does not engage with anyone who wants to talk about Maria and seems surprised that they want to do so.  Perhaps she is concentrating so much on changing the church and moving on that she is unaware of the impact her actions have had on the present.   Her lack of awareness may be due to overwork or to focusing only on the positive.   An increase in numbers could look like justification by success.

It may be that she is a narcissist. Unable to empathise or see people as real, she is prepared to manipulate everyone around her to get her own way.

5 Both Zoe and Maria would need to accept that they might find things out about themselves that they would rather not know.  They may both need to change aspects of their behaviour.

6 Zoe will need to give up some of her power.  At the moment, the power in the church is weighted towards Zoe. She is the incumbent, the person in charge, with the authority to make decisions about the church.  If reconciliation is going to work, Zoe and Maria need to be able to meet as equals.  If the power remains weighted towards Zoe, then the bullying will only be exacerbated.

Forgiveness

Several Christian friends tell Maria that she needs to forgive Zoe.

“Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity,” says one.

“Christians must be prepared to forgive,” says another.

One friend has taken to posting inspirational quotes about forgiveness on her Facebook page.  “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Maria grits her teeth and hits the like button.

Theoretically Maria knows all this is true but putting it into practice is something else.

“How do I do it?” she wails to Clare. “It’s months now.  I want to forgive Zoe but I’m still so angry.  It’s the injustice of it all.”

Clare listens and prays and tells Maria about her own experiences.  “It’s ongoing. Just when you think you’ve forgiven someone, something happens and you have to start all over again from scratch.  I find it helps if I can imagine myself in their shoes. I try to understand why they did what they did.”

“I can’t imagine myself in Zoe’s shoes,” says Maria.  “I don’t understand her at all.  It’s not just me, it’s the effect on everyone else, my family, people at church, the dementia group.”  She pauses and giggles.   “Especially not those awful crocodile sandals with the snapping teeth.”

“Sometimes I think it’s the first step that is the hardest,” says Clare.  “You just have to wait and one day that first step will be shown to you.”

A few weeks later Maria finds herself at the annual parish meeting, where all local community groups get the chance to talk about the past year.  She has come to give the WI report. In the past the churchwardens have given the church report, but this year Zoe has come herself. If Maria had realised this, she would have stayed away but it is too late now.

Zoe is beaming and expounding on the successes of the year the Sunshine Club has 30 regular children and families, the Sunset Club has 20 elderly people most weeks, numbers are up significantly at All Age Worship.  She thanks everyone profusely in detail and says that she knows everyone is having fun by the big smiles she sees wherever she goes.

Is this what success at church looks like? wonders Maria. Is success just about smiles and statistics?

This is something she thinks about a lot over the next few weeks.  She tries to make more time for prayer and reflection.

But it isn’t until she goes to a candlelit evensong in the cathedral that she realises that no, it isn’t like that at all.

For Maria the church is like a stream of living water, existing through all times and all places.  She only has to step forward to be part of it.  However much the institutional church tries to contain and manage it, somewhere the living water breaks free.  No one can take the living water away from her. No one can exclude her.

Maria is aware of the Holy Spirit when she prays with Clare on Wednesdays, the hands of Jesus at the healing service and the presence of the Creator when she takes her dog on early morning walks.

Listening and laughing with Eve, sitting with Jane as she faces yet another anniversary, the dementia group singing along to Buddy Holly are all times when she can pause and let God come close.

She is not alone.  There are times, especially when she prays for Zoe, alone in a remote corner of the church, that she is aware of being part of a great crowd of people all journeying together.  No one has ever been promised an easy journey, but she is not alone.

How lucky I am, thinks Maria.  It may be that Zoe has these experiences too but if she does, they are not reflected in her current focus on status, authority, success and fun. She seems to have a far more limited view of the church than Maria does.

Maria feels sorry for her… Could this be the first step towards forgiveness?

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A story like Maria’s Part 5: What next?

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A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s: Part 1

As the weeks and months go on, it becomes clear that Maria isn’t going to be reinstated as pastoral care leader.  It’s also unlikely that she is going to be able to do any pastoral visiting on behalf of the church.

So what does the future look like?

I’ve considered four possible futures for Maria.  Three of them assume that Maria has a choice, the first is beyond her control.  There is no simple solution. All present difficulties for Maria and the church.

Possible future 1: Loss

In this possible future Maria has no choice.

She has experienced bullying in the past and this makes her vulnerable to bullying in the present.  Her experience with Zoe re-opens unhealed wounds.

Despite the support of family and friends, she finds what has happened deeply painful.  Even the most resilient person can find bullying has taken over their life; for Maria it has become all encompassing.

Her thoughts run in circles. Perhaps everything Zoe said was true?  Perhaps everyone really sees her as Zoe sees her: a critical loner who messes up relationships and blocks her church from moving forward.  Perhaps even God sees her like this?

Maria’s identity and relationship with God are bound up in her pastoral care role. Without it she is cast adrift.  Everything, including going into work at the library, becomes too much effort.   Lack of sleep and ongoing stress turn her circles into a downward spiral.

Eventually Peter insists that she goes to the doctor, who signs her off work, prescribes antidepressants and suggests counselling.

For weeks Maria isolates herself: even the thought of encountering Zoe or anyone from church makes her feel sick.  But the worst thing is the loss of her relationship with God. She stops going to church.  Friends struggle to cope with her bitterness and anger.

At church people ask her friends about her in hushed voices.  For many Maria has become the elephant in the room that is not spoken about.  Although no one admits it, the church’s confidence is dented.  Is it really this easy to stop going to church after twenty years? What should the church, as the church, be doing about Maria? Who should she be turning to for pastoral care and spiritual support?

Possible future 2: Changing church

This (and the other two possible futures) show Maria as sufficiently able to cope without needing time off work or antidepressants (though the counselling might be useful).

Several months have gone by and Maria is wondering what she should do next.

There seems to be little point in staying at St Augustine’s; she is never going to meet Zoe’s criteria for someone who is able to use their gifts in the church.  The new strategic vision is in place but still has the faults identified by Maria and a few others. It’s clear that critical voices will not be accepted.  Perhaps the time has come to go elsewhere? For the first time in twenty years, Maria is looking for a new church.

Maria first tries St Matthew’s about three miles away.  It is another Anglican church in the same diocese and deanery as St Augustine’s.  The service is worshipful and friendly but larger and more evangelical than she is used to; she doesn’t feel all that comfortable with the half hour of praise songs that begin the service.    The woman she sits next to introduces herself and welcomes her and asks where she is from. When Maria replies, she says she knows several people from St Augustine’s through the Deanery Lent course. Perhaps Maria knows them too?  She invites her to stay for coffee, but Maria just wants to go home.

As she leaves the vicar shakes her hand warmly; he also asks her where she is from.  When she tells him, his expression changes momentarily and she wonders if Zoe has said anything at clergy meetings.  Even if she hasn’t, she suspects the vicar will be asking about her when he next meets Zoe.  She doesn’t go back.

Over the following weeks Maria tries out a few more churches but eventually ends up at St Swithin’s which is about ten miles away.  It’s in a different diocese and there seems no contact with Zoe or St Augustine’s.  Maria finds the services quiet and peaceful and the people friendly without being over curious.

It takes some weeks before she feels confident enough to stay for coffee and several months before she feels able to say more than a polite hello to the vicar.  Maria has lost confidence in the church and the clergy.  Eventually someone asks her to help with the weekly lunch club for the elderly and Maria begins to feel that she might have a place there.

It isn’t that simple though.  Maria is bringing a lot of baggage with her to St Swithin’s.  Will they be able to cope with it? It takes her a long time to start to settle in and even when she does it isn’t her community.  She doesn’t meet the congregation except in church. When the talk at coffee time is about the proposed new executive housing, she can sympathise, but it isn’t her concern.

At home she is still part of her local community, most of whom want to know why she doesn’t go to St Augustine’s anymore and where she is going now.  Many people want to share their own view of Zoe and what is happening at church; it gets very wearing.

Maria finds that the church building has become a no go area.  Whereas she used to pop in for a quick pray, just going past it now makes her feel sick. She finds that she is trying to avoid it and even takes a longer route to work so that she can avoid it.  When she sees Zoe walking her dog at the park, she leaves immediately.

Possible future 3: Changing denomination 

Maria’s community has a small but friendly United Reformed Church and she knows many of the members through joint activities.  Now that she no longer feels able to go to St Augustine’s she thinks about worshipping there.

The people at the United Reformed Church make her welcome. As they are local many of them know something about what is going on and they refrain from asking her too many questions.  Slowly Maria starts to relax.  She already knows the minister slightly and finds him quiet and friendly.  He is only there once a month as he is responsible for several other churches which are quite far apart geographically.  Eventually he suggests a meeting and Maria is able to talk about what happened to her and receive caring support.

The minister knows several people who live locally and who would appreciate a visit from Maria; he can see how well she relates to the elderly members of the congregation.  He is also interested in the dementia group. Several months have gone by and it is clear that St Augustine’s Sunset Group is not specialist enough for people with dementia and their carers.  He sees no reason why Maria should not start up a small low key dementia group; he does not think there will be any conflict of interest with what St Augustine’s are doing.

This may seem a positive future, but difficulties remain.  People still want to know why Maria is no longer at St Augustine’s.  The worship is friendly, but it isn’t her preferred style.  It may cause friction between the two churches, who are both trying to serve the same community.  Maria stays away from joint events like Remembrance Sunday and the annual carols.  She tries to avoid the church building, Zoe and several members of the congregation.  Just catching sight of one them in the supermarket can set her thinking about the bullying all over again.  It is by no means over…

Possible future 4: Staying put

Maria has worshipped at St Augustine’s for over twenty years.  She simply does not see how she can uproot herself from all the friendship and fellowship that she has found there.  On Sundays she takes Eve, her elderly neighbour to services.  She can’t think of anyone else who would take her place. Why should Eve lose out because of what has happened?

Maria does not see why she should be bullied out.  It is wrong, she feels, to give into bullies.  Unchecked they will carry on bullying.

Staying put means that the church does not become a no go area.  Maria continues to pop in for quiet times of prayer; if anything, they increase.

The congregation divides into those who never talk to Maria, those who talk to her when Zoe isn’t around and those who carry on talking to her regardless.  Maria is especially grateful for this last group. It may be a cliché to say you know who your real friends are but this is how it feels.  She has sufficient friends not to feel lonely at coffee time, but she does feel out of things. The life of St Augustine’s carries on, but Maria is no longer part of it in the same way.

Zoe herself rarely talks to Maria; she is far too busy at coffee time to give her any attention.  Maria is still helping out with the South American project and Zoe pauses to thank her one day when she is doing the teas for the bazaar.

“My mum really misses you.  She keeps asking why you haven’t visited,” says Joan’s daughter who has come into the library specially to ask about this.  Maria discovers that no one from church now visits Joan.  It seems miserable to leave her unvisited, so she goes to see her and before long has gone back to visiting her regularly.  She has always kept in contact with Eve, her elderly neighbour.  A chance meeting with Jane, the bereaved mum, makes Maria think that she needs support and she is soon going round every Thursday for coffee.

When Zoe finds out about these visits, she writes a piece for the parish magazine about St Augustine’s pastoral care team, listing exactly who the members are and how they are the only people who are allowed to visit on behalf of the church.  The people Maria visits do not care.

The local WI have decided that this year will be Dementia Awareness Year.  They ask Maria to talk to them about it.  Afterwards they are so fired with enthusiasm that they ask her if she would be prepared to start a dementia group on behalf of the WI.  Even the few churchgoers on the WI cannot see a problem with conflict of interest.  Soon other WIs are asking Maria to come and talk to them about dementia awareness.

In this future Maria has stayed with her church and is able to continue with her ministry, even if it is not supported by the church.  But although visitors to the church may be unaware of division it is still there, for no one has done anything towards healing and reconciliation. It is hard for a divided church to work for the kingdom.  It is also hard for Maria to avoid becoming a focus for the disaffected.  It’s not even clear that she should do so.

As in the first possible future, Maria has no one to turn to for pastoral care and spiritual support.  She is effectively priestless.

A story like Maria’s Part 4: Support and impact: the church

A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s: Part 1

When Maria and her friend Clare discuss what has happened, Clare suggests that the best person to approach in the church is Neil, the reader (Licensed Lay Minister).  Maria agrees, she knows that Neil also has reservations about some of the things that Zoe is doing. It is possibly not a coincidence that he was absent from the ministry team meeting where the new rotas and services were discussed.

Although Neil knows some of what has happened, he has not realised the extent and he is deeply concerned about what has been going on.  After prayerful consideration he decides that the best people to help resolve this situation are Beth and Jack, the churchwardens.

Beth and Jack are in a difficult position.  They like Zoe and think that she is having a really positive effect on some aspects of church life. The Sunrise Club for toddlers and carers is bringing new, younger people into contact with the church. As well Zoe’s ideas, and the fact that she has two children of her own, are revitalising the All Age services.   The PCC and the readers have had an awayday to discuss the new strategic vision.  While Beth has a few reservations about what she privately thinks is a lot of waffle, Jack is very positive and feels the day was inspirational.

They also like Maria but think there is an element of truth in some of Zoe’s comments – Maria can be quite critical at times and it’s clear she isn’t totally in favour of the new strategic vision.

As well they have a duty to the church.  The last thing they want is dissension in the church, with people taking sides.  Privately they hope this is a blip and that everything will blow over without any fuss. They have more than enough to do sorting all the churchwarden’s jobs: the new roof for the church, the visit of the diocesan financial adviser and the new strategic vision which is going to need a lot of work.

However, they have a lot of respect for Neil and they can see how concerned he is. They agree to meet with Maria and hear what she has to say.

Maria feels that Beth and Jack listen to her. They discuss what to do next.  Beth and Jack agree to meet with Zoe and see if things can be resolved.

Zoe is astonished that the churchwardens want to talk about the situation with Maria.  As far as she is concerned, they are in separate boxes and there is no need for any overlap.  She points out that Maria is part of the ministry team and so she is the priest’s responsibility not the churchwardens’. In any case this is a temporary problem, hopefully Maria will be back doing pastoral care very soon after she has had time for rest and reflection.  There is no need for the churchwardens to be concerned.

Jack and Beth are reassured but when several weeks have gone by and there is no change in Maria’s situation, Beth tries to talk to Zoe again. Zoe says that as far as she is concerned nothing has changed, Maria still needs more time.  Beth asks what it is that Maria needs more time for, but Zoe’s response is vague.

Jack and Beth talk to Neil.  They are all reluctant to escalate things, but Neil is clear that Maria needs support and that the situation does need attention.  Jack suggests speaking to Paula, the area dean who is the next person up from Zoe in the church hierarchy.   They agree that Neil is the person best placed to do this. When he sees Paula at a deanery meeting, he asks if he can come and talk to her.

Paula’s experience of church bullying is from a different perspective. At her last church there was a churchwarden who had been there for 30 years and did his best to block any changes that Paula and others wanted to make.  She knows first-hand just how easy it is for a bullying member of the laity to make the priest’s life a misery.  PCC meetings used to make her feel sick and it took her days to recover from the one where she suggested having new hymnbooks.   As well as her own experiences, she is in close contact with other priests who have had similar experiences.  Her ordination training group have a secret facebook group and all too often her fellow priests are posting about appalling PCC meetings and their dread of meeting up with particular parishioners.

While she listens to what Neil has to say, Paula sees Zoe as a breath of fresh air, not just at St Augustine’s but across the deanery. She is younger than many of the other priests, and willing to experiment with different ideas.  She tells Neil that Zoe has mentioned a problem with a particular parishioner (who she has not named) and explains how difficult it is for a priest to move a church forwards when people refuse to listen and do their best to block progress. Neil knows that this is not a good representation of the situation, but he is unable to get this across to Paula.

What next?

Neil, Jack and Beth feel powerless to change things.  They do not have the training or experience to recognise bullying or how to deal with it.  In fact, none of them, not even Maria, have used the word bullying – instead they talk about problems or a relationship breakdown.

They wonder if they should speak to the archdeacon as the person above the area dean in the Church of England hierarchy. After Neil’s experience with Paula no one is keen.  Besides what could the archdeacon do?  Parish priests are responsible to the bishop and are almost autonomous in their own churches.  Even if the archdeacon were involved, there might be little he could do to change things. There are no clear procedures to follow.  The only official route through is the Clergy Discipline Measure which is reserved for serious misconduct and takes months if not years to process.

Each part of Maria’s story seems petty and trivial. It is only when viewed as a whole that it can be seen to be about bullying.

Although Maria is not involved, church life has moved on and there seems no noticeable difference to church fellowship. The pastoral care side of things seems to be carrying on smoothly under new management.  The new worship patterns have become established and the coffee time afterwards seems as pleasant and friendly as ever.  Perhaps everyone needs to draw a line and move on.

Although all seems well, the church is living dangerously.  If Zoe has got her own way through bullying once, it’s likely that this isn’t a one off.  She will probably bully again.  Who will be next?  What impact will this have on the church?    Is Zoe going to be someone who bullies anyone who disagrees with her – or will she be a serial bully moving from one victim to the next?

A story like Maria’s Part 3: Support and impact: family, friends and community

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… (John Donne 1572 -1631)

A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s Part 1

So far we know little about Maria apart from her role as pastoral care leader and her love of dogs.  She could be single, married, divorced, straight, gay, childless, a parent, working, retired, solitary or company loving.  At the moment all the possibilities are open but if we are going to look at the impact her experience has on her and on others, she can’t remain a one dimensional character.

Family: Maria is married to Peter and they have two children in their early twenties. None of them are involved with the church. Her son is at uni, her daughter has just started her first job.  At first, Maria does not tell them about her problems with Zoe and they all become exasperated by her increasing vagueness as she goes over and over the situation in her mind wondering what to do next.  They are used to her listening when they tell her things: “Mum! I bowled three people in a row! It was a hat trick!”  “Then my boss said I needed to start the report again from scratch. I’m sure everyone was listening. It’s an open plan office…”

But as time goes on and Maria becomes increasingly unhappy, she has to tell them what has happened.

They are furious.  It isn’t just that Maria is so upset; what has happened is clearly wrong and is against their sense of justice.  They want to do something.  Anything.  Their suggestions range from writing a personal letter to the archbishop to her son saying he’s sure he has a mate who would be prepared to spray paint a word beginning with “B” on Zoe’s car.  Peter is determined to go round and tell Zoe just what he thinks of her.  It is an effort for Maria to persuade them that nothing they do will make any difference.

Her daughter is particularly incensed by Zoe’s remarks about clothes: “Mum, you look great in jeans and shirt.  If that orange and pink skirt is the one she wore for the fete I should think it gave all the old people migraines.”

They are also full of suggestions for what Maria should have done or what she should do now. Wearying though this might appear, their underlying love and concern makes a huge difference to how Maria feels about things.

Friends:  Clare is Maria’s closest friend at church and is on the pastoral care team.  Maria has been confiding in her all along and she has been offering prayer, support and advice.  She has not had much direct contact with Zoe, who has always been friendly and pleasant.  What has happened presents her with a dilemma.  She has enjoyed being on the pastoral care team with Maria, but it won’t be the same without her, especially as Clare knows what really happened. Does she want to continue?  Should she resign in support of Maria? But if she does resign, what will happen to the lonely and elderly people that she visits on behalf of the church?

Mike and Juliet are friends of both Peter and Maria. Neither of them are church goers but Mike has been interested in the dementia group. He thinks that this is just the sort of thing that the church should be doing.  His mother is at the beginning of dementia and after chatting to Maria he has persuaded her to join the local choir for people with dementia, which she loves. When they come round for supper, he is keen to share this with Maria and can’t understand her lack of enthusiasm; it isn’t long before Peter (with help from Maria) is telling them what has happened.  Mike and Juliet are incredulous; it all sounds so petty. What is more, from an outsider’s point of view, this is not how the church is supposed to be. Churches should not be places of bullying and broken relationships.  Juliet says it’s hypocritical since they’re supposed to be Christians.

Maria’s gifts lie with people, she is a friendly person and likely to have many more friends, all of whom need some kind of explanation as to what has happened.  What about the people she meets through her job in the library, dog walking or the Women’s Institute? The ripples spread outward…

Community: Zoe has told the PCC (the Parochial Church Council) that Maria is taking a break from her role for personal reasons. It seems that she expects the PCC members to pass this on to the rest of the church and to the community and they duly do so.  Zoe sees this as the end of the matter.  No one will question “personal reasons” for that would be gossip.  Effectively she sees Maria as “an island, entire of itself.”

Reality is not remotely like that. People talk. All the time.

For some it is just gossip. But for others who know Maria they want to be able to understand what is happening and offer help and support.

Several people decide that “personal reasons” probably means a potentially fatal illness for Peter or one of the children.  On his way home from the station, Peter encounters five people, all with sympathetic smiles, asking after his health.  Usually they just say hello or comment on the weather. He is completely baffled when after assuring them that he is fine they gently ask about his children…

Her friend Clare tells Maria that this is what Zoe has said and that people keep asking her what is happening.  What should she say?  Should she tell people what has happened – which reflects badly on the church? Or should she make something up – which would not be true?

In either case enough people know something for stories to be circulating.  Someone once described confidentiality as when telling people something one at a time.  A story like Maria’s cannot be kept secret.

Why doesn’t Zoe realise this? It may be that she has not got much experience of communities.  It may be that she lacks imagination. It may be that she thinks her authority is sufficient to keep it confidential.  Perhaps she has already moved on and has almost forgotten Maria or dismissed her as someone who no longer has any importance.

Eventually people will talk about something else. But damage will have been done; Maria’s story will be considered as evidence of how the church is, both for those who go and for those who don’t.

A story like Maria’s Part 2: Is it bullying?

A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here:  A story like Maria’s Part 1

It’s clear that Maria and Zoe have a breakdown in their relationship.  But is it bullying?

From Zoe’s perspective it soon became clear that Maria was not prepared to buy into St Augustine’s new strategic vision.  She is reluctant to embrace Zoe’s ideas, she is obstructive and critical in meetings and she is inclined to go her own way (for example when she went back to the original version of the service at the care home.)  If the new strategic vision is going to work, Maria needs to give it her full support.  Otherwise it will be better for everyone if she is out of the way.

However, there are aspects of Zoe’s methods and use of power that show bullying and manipulation:

1 Personal remarks:  Zoe comments negatively on Maria’s clothes and at their last meeting, she infers that Maria is shouting and disturbing her children.  This puts Maria at a disadvantage. She wouldn’t make that kind of personal remark herself and she isn’t used to being on the receiving end.  She would have to be very secure in her own self-image to avoid loss of confidence.

2 “People have said”: These people are unnamed and the nature of their comments and accusations is vague as well.

The first unnamed complainants are the residents at the care home. When Maria thinks about it afterwards, it seems likely that the person who didn’t like the service was Iris, the new resident.  But she can’t be sure.  An element of doubt starts to creep into her relationships at the care home. Whereas before she was relaxed and at ease, now she is on her guard.

Zoe also tells Maria that various unnamed people think she is not a good team player.  As she does not define what is meant by this, she and Maria (and the unnamed complainants) could be thinking about very different things. No specific instances are mentioned so there is nothing for Maria to work on.

3 Constant criticism: Maria ends up feeling that nothing she does is right; there is no balance between praise and criticism.

4 Lack of reasons: Every time Maria tries to engage Zoe in a reasoned discussion, Zoe fobs her off.  Frequently Zoe resorts to using buzz words and phrases: “vision and strategy” “team player” “the church needs to change”.  What is meant by these is never defined.

At other times she reacts emotively by criticising Maria, who she describes as “not a team player” “possessive” and “blocking progress”.  She also responds by mentioning her own bereavement training as if the training itself was sufficient to equip her for pastoral care.

Zoe tends to react emotionally rather than with reasoned discussion which makes her almost impossible to deal with. When Maria suggests looking at what is best for those in need of pastoral care (which should have been the starting point for any discussion) Zoe does not engage and responds emotionally by blaming Maria for any problems.

5 Lack of God: Neither Maria nor Zoe mention God, who surely ought to be fundamental to any discussion about people’s roles in the church.

There are two key questions here:

What is Maria being called to do at this particular time?

Where is she being called to do this?

There are indications that Maria is being called to her role in pastoral care.  It fits with her gifts – engaging with the elderly and supporting the bereaved.  She herself feels fulfilled and excited by what she is doing. Finally, there is the positive impact she has on those she encounters – the people at the care home, the dementia group and those she visits including Jane, the bereaved mum.

But is Maria aware that God is calling her to this role or is this something she just doesn’t think about?  Some people are very aware of their calling, others less so.

In churches there can be a tendency to think that the only real calling is towards ordination.  Even when churches talk theoretically about a ministry of all believers, it isn’t easily put into practice.  Often calling and ministry are seen as the remit of the clergy and ministry team with the expectation that the role of the congregation is to offer support.  The balance of power lies with the clergy for their calling has been tested through a long process of discernment.  Although things are changing, the laity are mostly on their own when it comes to discerning their calling.  Even the most supportive priest is often overwhelmed by lack of time and the need to find people to take on the jobs.

If we accept that Maria is called to her pastoral care role then the second question follows: Where is she being called to exercise this ministry?  It may be that St Augustine’s is not the right place for her.

This needs prayer and discernment.  Ideally it needs prayer and discernment from others involved in ministry as well as Maria and Zoe.

Two further questions: If Maria is not being called to a pastoral care role, what is God calling her to do?  If she is not called to St Augustine’s where is she called to?   If we believe in a God who calls everyone, this needs to be addressed.

6 Abuse of power: In this story the power lies with Zoe. She is the incumbent and as such she has the authority to decide who does what in the church.  If she no longer wants Maria, there is not much Maria can do about it.  Maria is an unpaid volunteer so there is not even a case for unfair dismissal.

7 Maria’s experience: How has Maria experienced what is going on?  She is obviously very upset, especially as her attempts to put things right only escalate the situation.  It is almost inevitable that she spends a lot of nights awake, going over and over what is happening, trying to find a way through. She comes to dread meetings with Zoe, whether team meetings or one to one.  She cannot reason with Zoe and each meeting lays her open to personal attack.  Bullying can dominate someone’s whole life, affecting not just that particular situation but relationships, work, church and other activities.

8 Is this spiritual abuse?  Not really.  Zoe has not used the Bible to back up her criticisms of Maria and support her own position.  She has not offered to pray with or for Maria or told her that others are praying for her – which could be ether a genuine offer or an attempt at manipulation.  The only indication of spiritual abuse is at the end where Zoe says that as the priest, she knows what is best for the church, the people and for Maria herself.  Even then it isn’t clear whether Zoe thinks this is because God endows priests with these particular qualities or because this authority has been given to her by the church.

It seems clear that Zoe has been bullying Maria. So where can Maria turn to for support?   What impact will this have on those close to her and on the church?

A story like Maria’s: an exploration of bullying in churches: Part 1

Maria* is the pastoral care leader at St Augustine’s.  She has a real gift for engaging with the elderly and supporting the bereaved.   Her previous vicar encouraged her in this role and she now organises a team to visit people on behalf of the church, a monthly service in a care home and has just started a group for those with dementia and their carers.  She and her friend Clare have been getting resources together – sing along music and a series of Do you remember cards.  Maria feels fulfilled and excited by what she is doing.

Zoe is the new vicar.  She is in her 30s with two children and a husband who works in the city.  When Zoe arrives, she meets with Maria to discuss the church’s pastoral care and her role.  Zoe is positive and enthusiastic about all that Maria is doing and she comes away feeling encouraged and supported.  Zoe says that she will come along to the next service in the care home. It turns out that they are both dog lovers and she tells Zoe about some of her favourite dog walks.  The future looks promising.

Maria feels that the care home service – hymns, reflection and prayers – goes well.  After the service Zoe talks to several of the residents, including Iris who is new.  From what they say afterwards they have told Zoe how much they value Maria and all that she does. “I told her you were wonderful and we all love you,” says one.

However, Maria’s next meeting with Zoe isn’t so positive.  Zoe has several criticisms of the service and tells her that some of the residents have said that they aren’t happy with it.  Zoe asks her to make changes.  Maria agrees but she feels hurt.  If the residents aren’t happy why haven’t they spoken to her?  As she is leaving Zoe makes a comment about Maria’s clothes – old people like bright colours so why does Maria dress in jeans and shirt?  Perhaps she has noticed that Zoe wore a brightly coloured orange and pink skirt?

Maria takes the next service according to Zoe’s instructions.  Several residents complain about the changes.  Maria tries to talk to Zoe but is brushed off.  Next month she goes back to the original service.

Maria is part of the ministry team along with Neil and Linda, the two readers (Licensed Lay Ministers) and Dorothy, the organist and music minister. The first ministry team meeting went well; Zoe was very enthusiastic about St Augustine’s. She says she feels that she has come home.  The second meeting is stickier.  Zoe wants to make some changes to the services and the rota.  Neil isn’t happy about the proposed changes and points out some potential problems. Maria understands Neil’s points and adds her own comments in support.  Zoe says she will take their views into consideration.  The meeting finishes on a brighter note when Zoe tells of her visit to a South American church that works with street children.  Tentatively she suggests that it might be nice if St Augustine’s develops a link with them and is delighted when everyone agrees enthusiastically.

One of the staff at the care home has told Zoe that the residents are much happier now that they have gone back to the original service.  Zoe is furious and tells Maria at their next meeting that it is for not for her to decide what service should be used. Maria is surprised as her previous vicar gave her complete responsibility for the service.  She attempts to apologise and explain but Zoe cuts her short and says that she will take the services at the care home for the next few months.

Maria has been supporting several elderly and bereaved people through visiting, including Jane who lost a baby to SIDS earlier in the year.  Zoe tells her that she is taking too much on herself and needs to work as part of the team.  Maria thought that she was doing this – the other team members visit other people.  Zoe tells her that people have spoken to her about their concerns that Maria isn’t a team player.  She also tells Maria that she will visit Jane herself as they are a similar age.  She then smiles and thanks Maria for her support with the South American project.

Zoe comes along to the next pastoral care team meeting.  She is full of ideas, but they are different to Maria’s.  She wants there to be less home visiting and more support groups.  Maria feels that while some people would welcome these, others prefer the one to one approach.  When she says this Zoe tells her that St Augustine’s is in the process of developing a new strategic vision and it is not for Maria to block progress.  Everyone else looks embarrassed and says nothing.

Maria plans to bring this up at the next ministry team meeting.  Neil is unable to make this meeting and it is mostly spent discussing the new rotas and services which seem to have become a fait accompli. When Maria questions this Zoe exchanges significant looks with Linda and Dorothy and says something about “new wine and old whiners”.  There is not enough time to discuss the pastoral care plans.

At their next meeting together, Zoe talks about the dementia group.  She feels it is a bit limiting and should be extended to other elderly or lonely people. She has found someone who might be prepared to help Maria with this.

Maria is getting more and more worried. She loves the dementia group, the people who come to it and their fascinating stories. She feels people with dementia have specific needs that the group can help with. She tries to explain this to Zoe, but the response is that Maria mustn’t be possessive about things.

Maria talks to her friends and family and they advise her to go and have a proper talk with Zoe.  It takes time to arrange a meeting as Zoe is very busy.

While she is waiting for the meeting Maria encounters Linda, the reader, in the library.  Linda tells Maria that it has been decided to stop the dementia group in favour of a group that all the elderly can go along to.  As the new toddler group is going to be the Sunrise Club, the new club for the elderly will be called the Sunset Club. Linda thinks this is a brilliant idea – as a church St Augustine’s needs to be more “Son” focused.

Maria and Neil sit together at a diocesan training event about bereavement.  She tells Neil about the Sunset Club and they spend a happy few minutes devising other sun related clubs, including the Midday Sun Club for mad dogs and Englishmen. Their ideas for the Total Eclipse Club are probably best left to the imagination.  Neil clearly has his own concerns about what is happening in the church but there is not enough time to talk about them properly.

Finally, Maria bumps into Jane, the bereaved mum, in the supermarket.  Jane is clearly upset as it is approaching her son’s birthday; she asks Maria why she hasn’t been to visit her recently.  Maria explains that Zoe is visiting her instead.  Jane looks blank and then says, oh yes Zoe did visit her once.  They talked about curtains and Zoe’s visit to South America; was that meant to be a pastoral visit?

Eventually Maria and Zoe meet.  Maria points out how much she enjoys the dementia group, the need for one to one visiting and how happy the people at the care home are with their monthly service.  Zoe says that it seems that Maria is against change. If the church is to survive it needs to change and Maria must not stand in the way.

Maria talks about Jane, who needs special support at this time. Zoe is clearly angry about this and says she has done a lot of bereavement training; what Jane needs is taking out of herself not an encouragement to wallow in grief.  When Maria tries to reason with her, Zoe points at the ceiling and asks her not to shout as she will disturb the children.

Maria says that she is finding Zoe very difficult to work with.  It seems she can do nothing right. Could they start again and look at what is best for those in need of pastoral care?  Zoe says that the difficulties are all Maria’s. Other people have no problems, it is Maria who is not a team player.   If Maria feels like this perhaps she should resign?  Even if she doesn’t resign, Zoe thinks she definitely needs a break and time for reflection.

Maria tries to say that she doesn’t need a break, but Zoe is adamant. She reminds Maria that she is the priest and so knows what is best for the church, the people and for Maria herself. Maria leaves the meeting having been relieved of her duties. She will no longer be needed at pastoral care or ministry team meetings.

What is going on here – is this bullying or something else? Could things have been done differently?  What are the implications for Maria, Zoe, the church and the community?  What happens next?

In my next few blog posts I hope to explore some of these issues.

Part 2: A story like Maria’s: Is it bullying?

Part 3: A story like Maria’s: Support and impact: Family, friends and community

Part 4: A story like Maria’s: Support and impact: the church

Part 5: A story like Maria’s: What next?

Part 6: A story like Maria’s: Reconciliation and forgiveness?

*Neither Maria nor Zoe are real people, but their experiences are based on real stories. While Maria’s story is shown as clergy/laity bullying I have also come across stories of clergy/clergy bullying, and of laity/clergy and laity/laity bullying.

From dream to reality

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I was really excited by my first church awayday to discuss the church’s mission. After years of being part of churches that seemed to be drifting aimlessly, I thought this would be a way for the church to sharpen its vision and gain some direction.

The day itself (now over 20 years ago) went well. We talked about how we saw the church, what we felt it ought to be doing and put together ideas for an underlying vision for the future.  We even had suggestions about what might change.

But in reality nothing changed.  It was as if the day was complete in itself.  I can’t remember ever revisiting the things we talked about, not after the first few months anyway.

I’ve been part of several awaydays/working groups/vision meetings since then and the same problem is always there.  The discussion is great… but things don’t change.   The energy dissipates into the sand.

I remember one occasion in particular where we seemed to go about this backwards.  We had several meetings and ended by writing a vision statement together. We decided to revisit it at every PCC meeting, one strand at a time.  In practice this meant that we picked a strand and then considered how what we were doing already fitted into it.

“We want to be a church that serves our community,” said the vicar at one PCC meeting, reading from our vision statement.

There was a pause while we all thought about this.

“What about our monthly Coffee and Chat sessions?” suggested someone.

“Yes, absolutely,” we all agreed.

We ticked the box and moved on to discussing the new cupboard for the hymnbooks.

How do you turn vision into a practical reality?

For a long time I saw this as an impossibility.

It wasn’t just the church, but all sorts of companies and organisations were having awaydays and writing vision statements that seemed to have no connection with what was actually happening.  “Vision” and “Mission” became buzzwords, soon to be followed by the slogans and strap lines: “Walking together” “Being the best” “Waiting and seeing”.

It seemed a long way from my own “one step at a time across the marshes” way of doing things.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.

Perhaps if we are wholehearted about our vision God will give us opportunities to turn it into reality.

This might seem obvious but in practice it isn’t easy to recognise the opportunities.  They may be unexpected, for God does not think in the same ways that we do.

The classic opportunity missing is the church that decides to have a ministry of welcome (and may even mention this in the intercessions) but then totally ignores the visitor at coffee time. (I have been that visitor!)

Although I’ve been aware of several missed opportunities recently, this scenario is imaginary.

Tom, the vicar, has just led an awayday for his leadership team – NSM, Readers, churchwardens, various lay leaders.  There is a strong feeling that prayer needs to be central to all that the church is doing.  Everyone is going to go away and think and pray about how this might happen.

The following Sunday, Tom is approached by Lucy who has two small children.  Lucy explains that she and her friend Jan are really concerned about the local primary school.  Ofsted is due, SATs are approaching, everyone’s stress levels are high. She and Jan would like to start a prayer group to pray for the school.

Tom hesitates.  He doesn’t really know Lucy who is not on the leadership team or even on the junior church rota.  He doesn’t know Jan at all as she goes to a different church.  There might be issues of confidentiality.  He has been told about one school prayer group where they spend an hour praying for the conversion of each staff member by name.  None of the leadership team have children at the school. It isn’t how he envisaged a greater commitment to prayer – he was thinking more on the lines of prayer triplets each led by a member of the team. He’s not sure that this is the right way forward…

On the other hand, this might be God offering the church an opportunity to turn the vision into reality…

I don’t know the answer to the above scenario for it needs prayer and discernment in that specific context.

But I wonder if the reason so little changed as a result of our vision days is that we just weren’t expecting God to be part of it…

It seems to me that God is often presented (almost unconsciously) as passive rather than active.  We are told what God is like and how we should respond to him.  At times it appears as if we are looking for God’s approval rather than his involvement.  This may not be what we think, but it can be how we act.

I am starting to recognise that it isn’t like this; that we have an active God, totally involved in creation, constantly offering us opportunities to turn the dream into reality.

I’d like to think I was getting better at recognising them but there is so much other stuff that gets in the way.  It’s a relief to know that God doesn’t give up…