I grew up in the country. No one ever believes this, but it’s true! In fact, a fenced pasture with a small herd of cows bordered our back yard. A field filled with cows also lived across the street, up the street, down the street, and around the corner, too. It was genuine country country.
One of the cattle behind our house was an enormous Hereford bull named Ferdinand. The cows roamed the pasture and barely ever noticed when I wandered near the fence. It was close to the garden my father maintained for several years, so I had many opportunities to see Ferdinand and the cows up close, separated only by five-foot high wire farm fencing.
One summer evening, when I was about eight or nine, the cows and Ferdinand were grazing close to the fence, close to the garden. I remember calling to the cows so they would look at me. A few of them did, a few didn’t. Ferdinand looked up and stared at me.
Knowing the kind of kid I was at eight or nine, I’m sure I waved my arms and jumped up and down to get the cows’ attention, and to exert my pint-sized human dominance over the bovines from my safe zone outside the pasture. But apparently, to the bovine-brain my behavior was threatening.
Without warning, Ferdinand suddenly charged, his 2000-plus pounds impossibly shooting forward like a rocket. My human dominance disappeared.
I turned and ran, then looked back to see Ferdinand lumbering to a stop about ten feet before the fence. He glared at me for a minute, then turned around and resumed his grazing.
Even though the fence was well-constructed, Ferdinand could have done it serious damage if he had not stopped his charge. Possibly, he could have pushed right through, trampling me and my father in the process.
Bulls are known for aggressive, threatening behavior; that’s why we call people who behave this way towards others ‘bullies,’ not a term derived from some other kind of animal. Giving a bull wide-berth is not only wise in a pasture, it’s also wise to create wide margins around a bully in ministry.
Whether your ministry has a child or adult with bullying behavior, the limits around such behavior should be narrow, and the margins for the bullied person should be broad. Narrow limits are particularly important in youth ministry, where Christian bullies learn early and well how to intimidate, harass and silence unpopular kids, while maintaining an air of innocence that can fool adults who aren’t paying attention. Such behaviors directed at a youth with high functioning autism, a developmental disability or a mental illness, a person who often feels isolated and alone, can be emotionally devastating.
One of my kids endured bullying of this nature in a Christian school for several years. On many occasions, when the teacher’s back was turned, the bully deliberately provoked my child. Right on cue, my child reacted with tears or angry words. The teacher then scolded my child for disrupting the class, while the bully giggled with her friends. Though Hereford bulls only come in the size ‘enormous,’ humans bullies come in all sizes. Even pint-sized little girls can be ferocious bullies.
Getting away with such behavior damages the bully, too, by stunting his or her spiritual growth. This behavior effectively denies the image of God in the person who is bullied. Youth pastors and ministry leaders should pay close attention to how the unpopular kids are treated by those who are socially skilled, to root out and correct such behavior. If inclusion ministry is going to be successful, social slights at the expense of the awkward students must be addressed seriously.
Once a kid has subjected another kid to bullying behavior, let there be a wide berth between the bully and the other kid. The popular boy who makes snide comments about the socially awkward kid several years his junior should be given a ministry job that eliminates the opportunity for both to be together. Likewise, the girl who is queen-bee can be given a responsibility that requires her to focus on serving, rather than using idle time to point out the odd behavior of the new girl in the youth group.
Kids who are socially awkward should be given plenty of opportunities to thrive, grow and use their gifts in ministry. If he can sing and likes to perform, let him be part of the praise band. If she’s great with technology, let her run the audio-visual equipment for the youth service. Let them exercise their ministry gifts with little to no interaction with kids who are more socially skilled, particularly if there is a history of demeaning behavior.
All the kids in your youth group don’t have to like everyone equally; everyone does not have to be a good friend. But making a little extra room for the socially awkward kids will allow them to grow and let others see their value as well. Both popular and socially awkward kids who are well-trained spiritually and are able to exercise their ministry gifts often grow up to be adults who do the same.
Catherine Boyle is the Director of Mental Health Ministry for Key Ministry.