The Gospel Workers Advocacy Group (GWAG) is not a trade union – it’s not seeking pay rises – but it has one of the key functions of a union, to help workers when they face a difficult situation at at work. These can include “abuse, bullying and in some cases the unfair termination of their jobs, with the associated consequences for health, family, church, ministry, employment, community and housing.” They want to listen, provide practical advice, and want to make churches better places to work. They wish they did not need to exist: “GWAG believes in the sacredness and centrality of faithful gospel ministry and for that reason alone would be delighted if there was no call for this group.” John Sandeman
GWAG’s spokesperson Blair Courtney-O’Connor agreed to answer Eternity’s questions.
What are the main forms of abuse you are concerned about?
We are most concerned about bullying within church staff teams, most normally by the senior pastor acting within the staff team. Bullying may also spill over to involve volunteers and lay people, but the main focus of the Gospel Worker’s Advocacy Group (GWAG) is on helping paid staff.
Several in our network are involved in Sydney Anglican churches, so some cases we face are peculiar to that situation. But our group was founded by a Melbourne Presbyterian and we include in our number both women and men from other independent evangelical contexts.
What is a typical scenario?
One of the members of our network went for a scheduled performance review and was handed a letter of resignation, previously drafted by the wardens (church members responsible for finances), that this staff member was expected to sign immediately. He was given three months’ notice, which meant a nearly immediate loss of their job, their church, their accommodation and their community. The staff member’s wife was in the late stages of pregnancy so that when she went to hospital to give birth, it was not clear where the family would go when they came out. This caused enormous ongoing stress and distress to the family, with significant long-term repercussions. The reasons given for dismissal were unclear, as the senior minister gave different accounts to the staff member, the parish council (local church committee), the members of the church, and the diocese. Half-a-dozen staff received similar treatment within the space of two years.
As a gospel worker’s advocacy group, we are in contact with literally dozens of similar stories, a small selection of which can be found on our website gospelworkersadvocacy.org
What would help? What changes should be made to Christian groups and the way they manage?
Typically, victims of bullying in church teams are told that there is no legal recourse for their situation, because the normal coverage afforded by fair work legislation does not apply in church contexts. That view is mistaken, and GWAG has been working at a number of levels to correct this misunderstanding (noting that GWAG does not recommend seeking to resolve matters through the court system).
So one clear and positive change would be for people involved in difficult situations, as participants or observers, to be more aware of the various legal rights and responsibilities affecting members of church staff teams and their senior pastors.
One disappointing aspect of the local situation in many Sydney churches is that bullying ministers are either allowed to remain in place, or face no practical consequence from the denomination beyond a requirement for further training. One senior denominational official, confronted with a clear example of the difficulty, said to a particular victim of bullying “What do you expect me to do about it?” We would like to see a change in that type of attitude.
We also believe that lay people in churches possess more power and responsibility—speaking biblically, morally, and legally—than they are aware. If we believe that the congregation is the body of Christ, then the members of that congregation will play a key role in helping put an end to bullying, and assisting the victims of that bullying.
Have the recent discussions in the Sydney Anglican Synod (church parliament) produced an improvement?*
It is too early to say. We can say that it is very encouraging to people who have been through bullying to know that the extent of the problem here in Sydney is becoming public.
We are aware of cases that have been referred on the Professional Standards Unit of the Diocese of Sydney. We know that there are discussions on this topic at Sydney’s Standing Committee..
One continuing concern is that it is not entirely clear how such cases are being resolved in a way that clears the name of innocent individuals. So a bully may be moved out of a particular context, only to reappear in a different ministry elsewhere, with no-one the wiser as to what has gone on. Sometimes the victim of bullying may themselves be suspected of stirring up trouble, and yet be unable to point to any formal finding within the church that highlights where the real difficulty lies. This seems a clear breach of 1 Timothy 5:20.
Nonetheless, we recognise that there are more people aware, and more people praying as they realise the extent of the problem. If prayer is accompanied by positive action to remove bullies while protecting those affected, that can only be a good thing.
If a work relationship is starting to go wrong what should a worker do?
The best advice, as well as praying, is to seek help early on from others outside the situation. You may have some close friends you can trust who can hear your story and give you feedback on what you are saying. If there are specific areas of concern, start taking specific notes of the situation in the form of a diary.
By all means, make contact with the Gospel Workers’ Advocacy Group, which at the very least can offer personal support from outside the situation. They are also able to make you aware of the legal protections and avenues available to you. Above all, pray that God would continue to protect those in the church who are seeking to do his will, for only God can bring about a perfectly righteous yet perfectly merciful resolution.