Thursday, 28 August 2008

Dignity at Work

Bishops, Archdeacons and Area Deans have just received a very helpful document, Dignity at Work, which attempts to address the issue of bullying in the Church. It's available from Church House Publishing and provides some very helpful suggestions for diocese in terms of setting out a policy against bullying. On first read-through I found the following helpful:
  • The suggestion that each diocese have a formal policy - it also provides a draft outline
  • The suggestion that each diocese appoint volunteer Harassment Advisers to advise and support those who feel themselves to be targets of bullying
  • The reminder that those who feel harassed often assume "perhaps this is normal behaviour here" - in fact my observation is that bullying often does become "normal behaviour" in dysfunctional parishes...
  • The reminder that "unacceptable behaviour" is cumulative, in that it's not any one incident that crosses the line, but it may be a relative minor incident that causes a person to reach a "tipping point"
  • A list of examples of bullying behaviour which includes a range of minor acts of harassment
  • The statement that conciliation or restorative justice may be a preferred outcome for targets - rather than the removal of "the bully"
While these elements were helpful, I would also like to make the following points:
  • The booklet suggests that bullying and harassment are "rare within the Church". My own experience would tend to suggest that it is often endemic and a major cause of clergy stress. In most parishes there are individuals or groups who operate in a particular way toward clergy, other members or the general public. This behaviour can seem "normal" or "minor" but can have a cumulative effect becoming damaging and hurtful. Once such behaviour becomes the accepted norm it can become a cultural issue which is then hard to address quickly.
  • The booklet points out that it can be difficult to distinguish between bullying and supervision- particularly if a firm line is taken to address long term issues after a long period when no supervision is provided. This is probably a common issue since the dominant culture amongst clergy is one of rugged individualism where clergy consider themselves "kings of their own castles". We have allowed such a culture to develop and it can be hard to persuade "old dogs to learn new tricks".
  • This can be a particular issue for curates in training and team vicars, since many incumbents can act in a hierarchical way, treating their juniors as "underlings" - "my incumbent did it to me, so I'm going to do it to you!" Most of the stories of clerical harassment that I've heard in the past few years would fit into this category.
  • The booklet also has a lot to say about clergy discipline and what to do if an ordained or licensed person is accused of bullying. While I agree that this is important and we need to have such measures in place, I note that it has very little to say about bullying by lay people. In fact, there are several sections which are noticeably blank or vague: "When the perpetrator is a layperson, and the target is either ordained or lay, complaints of bullying and harassment may, with the target's consent, be dealt with in one of a number of ways according to the circumstances. [Set out any diocesan policy here]"
Overall I think this is a useful document and I hope diocese will take it on board, adopt policies and provide training. The key issue, however, is how to address the culture of harassment that exists in many churches and to slowly establish a different way of doing church. When I encounter such a culture, I often feel impotent, although I can see how much damage it is producing. Harassing behaviour can seem, to lay people, an effective way of "persuading" their minister to"change his ways". Bullying can appear to incumbents as an effective way of supervising their charges. Building a more positive culture of mutual accountability, trust, communication and collaboration can take a long time, but is ultimately more productive and is more true to the theology we claim to hold.

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