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.

  • Let all of the kids in your church’s children’s ministry know up front that you respect them and you expect them to respect you and their peers.
  • Don’t tolerate rude, unkind, or rough behavior.
  • Don’t turn a blind eye to the sneaky, manipulative, or aggressive youngster.

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

  • Are safe there;
  • Will be taken seriously;
  • Are protected, and
  • Will receive justice.
  • Will receive justice.

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

  • Creates a sense of peace for all of the children;
  • Sets the right example for parents; and
  • Provides correct discipleship for the child who is out of control.

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

  • Dealing with any number of painful issues causing them to act out; or,
  • They may be children with strong personalities who haven’t learned how to submit to the authority of Jesus and to their leaders.

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.

  • Help the child or children who have been hurt to understand the importance of forgiveness. They may not want to renew their relationship with their offender; given the circumstance, this may be the best course. But help them to have a right attitude.
  • Lead them in praying for the hearts of the persons who hurt them and help them recognize that Jesus loves the offenders too.

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 

Beck Gambill

Beck Gambill serves with her husband, Chris, at First Alliance Church Toccoa. Words are her calling, motherhood is a surprising adventure. She is inspired by the book of Ephesians and believes that all Christians, young or old, disabled or typical, rich or poor have a role to play in the local body. She has been a mentor for many years and her e-book Sister to Sister; A Mentor's Handbook is available on Amazon.

Two Responses to “When Bullying Comes to Church”

  1. It was the pastors kids leading in the bullying. When we told the pastor, he didn’t seem to care, and asked us if we needed a referral to the new church we told him we’d decided to go to. I was appalled. Here we were homeschooling our kids, and one gets bullied by his kids (they also homeschool) at church and many other kids the same age at church that were his kids fiends.
    We’ve since moved on, we love our new church, and she’s thriving.
    I however will never forget this acceptance of bullying in a small church- as a previous public school teacher and childcare worker, I wonder how can it be that there is not zero tolerance for bullying at churches?
    How do we protect our kids at church? I guess leaving… it’s what we did, but how common is tolerance in churches for bullying?

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