In seventh grade, John* told me he liked me. My first reaction was not excitement or a sense of flattery. I was relieved. I saw this apparent crush as a way out of two years of consistent, vicious bullying from John and his friend, Caleb. So I told John that I liked him too. Within a week he told me he didn’t think it would work out. I wasn’t too broken up about it until the ruthless taunting continued. Only later did I find out that I was low-hanging fruit. Caleb had bet John ten bucks that he couldn’t get a girl to say she liked him.
Of all the things I experienced at the hands of these two young men, this stands out most vividly because of the intentionality. For four years, I was told that these boys didn’t mean to hurt my feelings—they were just being boys. Most adults in my life told me that if I ever really wanted the cruel words to stop, I needed to stop reacting. Every time I knew those boys and I would be spending time together, I got nervous. I was always on the defensive—trying to think of ways I could defend myself. Breaking me was part of their game.
By the time I was in high school, I didn’t believe I had any real friends. I didn’t struggle with body image, but I found my personality repugnant. I worried that I was annoying to other kids at school, and I thought that the girls who befriended me at church were being told to be nice to me by their parents or by our youth group leader. I saw myself as overly emotional, immature, and unable to control myself. Not until my junior year in college did I meet people who told me otherwise.
The destructive bullying I experienced in middle school and early high school was not at the hands of kids at the school I attended or any extracurricular programs in which I was involved. These kids went to my church. One of them was in my family’s small group. I firmly believe that the best thing that happened to my relationship with Christ was when their families left our church when I was in high school.
After they left, I still felt I had to prove myself to the people at church who had allowed the bullying to continue for so long. The adults who’d told me that I needed to stop reacting were my Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and church council members.
I still find myself rehearsing my reactions to questions from people at church in the hope that I will show my emotional stability to adults who once told me that I was overreacting. I frequently deny any feelings of burnout, stress, or frustration I may experience because I worry I will be told that my anxiety is unfounded. When something I do at church doesn’t go over well, I panic because I think that someone will see my failure as immaturity.
Since entering the adult world of church membership, I have found that my experience of being bullied at church is not isolated. In the last five years, I have heard stories of teens choosing not to go to youth group because of bullying, of young adults who desperately want to be included being ignored because they are single, and of families leaving church because of ostracism.
In order for our churches to be places of healing, we must find a way to keep them from being places of hurt.
*Names in this article have been changed.