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Besting the bully: Churches tackle age-old problem

Besting the bully: Churches tackle age-old problem

Editor’s note: October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Read on to see how Florida UM churches address this issue.

When a student showed up for Wednesday night Kids Club battered and bruised, Diana Crisler knew that something needed to be done to address bullying and violence toward children.

As the faith community nurse for Union UMC, Clearwater, and a registered nurse at a local hospital, Crisler has seen more than her share of abuse victims. Still, she remains surprised at how pervasive the problem of bullying and violence against children is.

“I was amazed by the number of children that came forward to say they have been bullied or witnessed others being bullied,” said Crisler, who conducted age-appropriate discussions of the topic at her church for children and teenagers.

Nationwide, about 28 percent of students in grades six through 12 report being bullied. Since 2000, incidents of schoolyard bullying have been on the rise. In 2009, one in five high school students reported being bullied on school property during the preceding year, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

This past summer, appalled viewers worldwide watched a video of seventh-graders mercilessly taunting their New York school bus monitor, a 68-year-old woman. The video was posted to the Web and made its way to national television. A resulting fund-raising effort netted enough money to allow the grandmother to retire.

Bullying is hardly new, but it has drawn more attention in recent years. Since 2006, the Pacer Center, founded to advocate for children with disabilities, has designated October as National Bullying Prevention Month. The nonprofit organization offers resources designed to educate and combat bullying at

In Florida, some United Methodist churches have developed strategies that are unique to their communities.

For example, many students in Crisler’s Kids Club are the children of undocumented immigrants who fear deportation if they report violence against themselves or their families. So Crisler turned to Haven House, a local domestic violence shelter, for tools that children can use to peacefully and safely deflect bullying behavior. 

 “I believe that children and adults who may be ‘different’ than their peers in some way, and in the minority, are often the target of bullies,” said Rev. Nancy Mayeux, Union UMC pastor.

“In our church, most of our children are ethnic minorities – Micronesian and Hispanic – which makes them susceptible. We felt it was important to equip them with strategies, from a Christian standpoint, to deal with the bullying some are experiencing.“

Other churches tackle the issue from a different perspective. In Fort Lauderdale, for example, Christ Church operates a Christian school that emphasizes character development.

“Our students in kindergarten through fifth grade participate in character education classes every week,” said teacher Anne Brantmeyer. 

Frameworks Bully presentation
Sarah Bonnema of Frameworks discusses different scenarios with parents who turned out for a workshop on bullying prevention at Hyde Park UMC.

“We use biblical principles to discuss various virtues, and our students complete a unit on bullying. Our character education program is designed to empower children, using literature, discussion, skits and other activities to teach children to make good choices.”

Another approach is to inform and equip parents.

“Last year we did a four-session series on proactive parenting for about 25 parents,” recalled Rev. Mary Susan Ward, associate minister at First UMC, Coral Gables.

“Bullying and how to deal with conflict were one of the sessions because we really felt like these were topics every parent needs to deal with.”

Some Tampa church leaders agree. In August, Hyde Park UMC hosted a “Stand Up to Bullying” workshop that drew about 20 parents. John Barolo, Hyde Park’s adult education director, said the church planning committee requested it because of numerous recent bullying incidents in local schools.

Sarah Bonnema of Frameworks, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to advance the positive social and emotional development of youth ages 8 to 18, conducted the workshop. She described how and why bullying happens, ways to prevent a child's participation, the role of empathy in prevention, and strategies children can use to be an “upstander,” not a “bystander.”

Bonnema also helped parents identify the signs that someone is being bullied, which include sudden mood changes or outbursts of tears, torn clothes and a desire to stay away from school or social events.

“Bullying is a behavior,” Bonnema said. “It’s a learned behavior and one we can correct.”

Frameworks serves the Tampa Bay area, and information is available at

Elsewhere, churches have tapped secular and nonsecular sources for help. Coral Gables UMC invited experts from the Peace Education Foundation to conduct a session on conflict resolution. Other churches have downloaded materials from Christian websites, such as

One thing all approaches have in common is determining what constitutes bullying behavior.

Most experts define bullying as repeated verbal or physical actions intended to hurt someone and exert power over that person. Examples include name-calling, ignoring someone you pass in the hall, gossiping, as well as physical violence like hitting, kicking and pushing. In recent years, cyberbullying, or using texting, e-mail and social network websites, has become a new and common form of the behavior, often with tragic results.

“Last year, a student at Zephyrhills High School committed suicide after being bullied,” said Julie Nipp, children’s ministries director at First UMC, Zephyrhills. 

Sarah Bonnema
"Bullying is a behavior. It's a learned behavior and one we can correct."   

She is working with BMX bike riders to provide 40-minute performances that include an anti-bullying message as they captivate students with extreme sport stunts. She hopes the church will be able to take the program to local schools.

Examples of bullying can be found among all ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds and go back to Bible times.

“Our program used teachings from the Bible, and one of the first sessions focused on who is a bully and showed that bullying is not new,” said Donna Lewis, children and family ministry director at First UMC, Stuart.

 “If you look at it in the biblical context, Saul was a bully. And even David could be a bully.”

Stuart UMC developed a four-week children’s program called “Taking Down Goliath.”

“We awarded honor belts to the kids that completed the course, presenting them in the church service to make it a big deal,” Lewis said. “Each session started out with a messy game that engages the kids, then settled into a 20-minute teaching session with a small-group breakout and then ending back in large group.”

Discussion rose from animated clips of Bible stories and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie and included factors that lead to bullying behavior and the importance of forgiveness.

“The curriculum was awesome and filled with biblical applications to which our children and adult guides could relate,” Lewis said. “But we learned that the key is to constantly emphasize these points to our children each week at our meetings.”

Similarly, Crisler said discussions at her church focused on the Golden Rule and the idea that “often people who act that way have violence in their life.”

 “We talked about how God’s love can empower you, and this program was our way of trying to support our children and give them a way to show God’s love instead of reacting violently when they are bullied.”