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.

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