When Bullying Comes to Church

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must
clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:12, NLT).

Put a handful of kids in a room, and before long they begin to establish a pecking order. Girls squabble, boys wrestle—they are testing their boundaries figuring out where they fit.

Most of the time it’s harmless, but occasionally it can get ugly.

As an elementary and middle school substitute teacher, I see the dynamics between kids play out in a variety of ways. Sometimes things get out of control.

Recently, the consequences of bullying have hit close to home for me. My 12-year-old son is small for his age. During his last couple of years in elementary school we saw an increase in unwanted attention because of his small size. Now that he’s in middle school, each day has painful challenges. He’s pushed, cussed out, and teased—life for him can be downright miserable.

The groundwork is laid early for bullying and being bullied. Things can get out of hand at church just as easily as they do at school. (I found my son locked in a closet one night at youth group.) It’s tragic when bullying shows up at church. Thankfully, in our situation the youth pastor responded appropriately and swiftly to the bullying.

As I’ve watched kids navigate a challenging world, I’ve asked myself: How should we—as parents, teachers, and leaders—respond?

I’ve been offered advice on this topic, ranging from “Tell him to turn the other cheek” and “Teach him how to stand up for himself” to “Boys will be boys.” But what, realistically, should our expectations and responsibilities be for the children in our care on the issue of bullying? Here are some principles I’ve learned:

First, it’s important to establish an environment of respect.

Kids feed off of each other. You may find that members of a particular Sunday school class or small group have a negative tone or tend to be unkind toward each other. If that’s the case, find a way to weave in discussions on kindness. Or, take a break from what you’re teaching and deal specifically with God’s plan for our relationships.

Don’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. Don’t expect that the kids will infer spiritual truths on their own. Pray with them about their heart attitudes, ask them questions about their behavior, help them heal any broken relationships, and point them toward God’s Word on the matter.

Set the example. I’ve seen children and youth leaders who loved sarcasm. They would pick on a kid for his appearance or a trait and then say, “I was just teasing.” I always felt uncomfortable in those situations. Would we want kids to do that to one another?

Be careful about how you talk to, and about, the kids and adults around you. No joke is worth the possible embarrassment or shame it could cause another person. If we are careful to speak truth, to be kind and encouraging, we will gain trust and, hopefully, be emulated by the kids we’re discipling.

If a child is bullied in any way, don’t give advice like “Turn the other cheek,” or “Don’t be a baby,” or “Just work it out.” It is important for the wounded child to learn forgiveness, but first—children need to know that they are safe.

Absolutely God expects us to follow the example of Jesus by laying our lives down for others and loving our enemy. But He expects adults to protect children. The children in your church all need to know that they

Children, and their parents, are watching us to know how to act. When we deal with firm, compassionate discipline toward an out-of-control child, it

In working with a child who bullies, try to get to the underlying issue(s). Children may be bullying because they themselves are being bullied. They could be

If possible, spend time one-on-one with the child and with their parents. Ask appropriate questions to figure out what’s going on. Don’t overreact. The child needs your help and compassion as much as the one he or she has been hurting.

Once the situation has been addressed, it is important to lead the affected children toward restoration.

Even though it is right to expect children to grow in forgiveness and grace toward one another, it is not okay to leave a situation unresolved and their need for security unaddressed.

Not every situation you face in children’s ministry is going to be cut and dried. More often than not you’ll be dealing with two parties who share the blame. Occasionally you will have a child who is truly a bully.

It’s important to have right expectations and a plan from the start. Even very young children can learn what it means to be a healthy member of Christ’s Body. Discipleship must be at the heart of all we do. When viewed properly, conflict is another opportunity to disciple kids as well as their parents.


Adapted from a blog post by Christian author and “accidental mom” Beck Gambol https://beckgambill.wordpress.com