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.

8 thoughts on “A story like Maria’s Part 5: What next?

    1. Thanks. I’m not sure there is a safeguarding issue here – were you thinking about Maria working with vulnerable adults? I’ve assumed that she has the required checks and works according to the policies.

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    2. We need to move to seeing safeguarding as being about dangerous behaviour and not vulnerable people. Zoe’s behaviour is dangerous. Everyone is vulnerable in some way.

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      1. Yes, I think that is very true. Do you think it is possible for the church to work with this idea of dangerous behaviour? (I’ve just started reading Letters to a Broken Church which is absolutely chilling and shows the church as unable to even consider those involved in sex abuse as involved in dangerous behaviour).

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  1. Which church, where? Sensitivity to safeguarding varies a lot between countries and denominations. I think change can come if everyone who sees this starts talking about it. Do you know the work of Natalie Collins?

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  2. I think you put your finger on the problem. We have a society which is very poor at identifying abusive behaviour. Many people seem simply to lack the ability to see it. That is obvious in the public sphere, of course. There will not be a simple answer, but it does indicate areas where we need to start education. In the church, you have the additional problem that people are unwilling to face the fact there is conflict. I used to teach history to ordinands. One assignment required them to look at a long past conflict and explain both sides. Many spent most of the assignment explaining how both sides really respected the other. They didn’t. They despised each other. This conflict was 100s years ago. They couldn’t name it as conflict. It would be funny if it wasn’t so worrying.

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  3. Thanks Rosemary. I think you are right that people in the church are afraid of conflict and have no idea how to deal with it. I think for many people there is a need to see the church as a safe place, and once there is conflict it is no longer safe – so they have to pretend it doesn’t exist. The constant positive spin on everything the church (Church of England) does (locally, diocese and nationally) really grates – it is a one sided picture that has no basis in reality. I’ve only read Natalie Collins in Letters to a Broken Church – I hadn’t come across her otherwise. There seems to be a lot of truth in what she writes but I don’t think bullying on it’s own is quite so gendered. Both men and women bully – and bully their own and other genders. I’ve no idea if it is likely to be more men bullying women, anecdotally it seems fairly equal.

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