A Hard Lesson I Learned About Dealing With Wolves

"Why I Warned About the Wolves" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Why I Warned About the Wolves” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward


This is a confession and an apology.

A few years ago, in my online community The Lasting Supper, we were experiencing some conflict. I was doing my best to resolve it, but regardless of my efforts and the efforts of the other facilitators, it blew up in our faces. We lost some members.

I’m so sorry this happened. These things are bound to happen in communities, but I regret the way I handled it.

There was lots going on, but let me be specific about one particular aspect of it where I particularly failed.

One of the men in the middle of the conflict was personally attacking others who he perceived were attacking me. Included in these others were women. I was told by some of the women involved that he was bullying them.

I made a mistake by not immediately guaranteeing to them that he would be removed from the group right away. Instead, under my direction, he removed the offending messages, offered an apology, and I suspended him from the group for a time of restoration. The problem was I didn’t do it fast enough, plus I was naive to think that he could be reformed to the point where he could be trusted again by the victims.

I was wrong. I was wrong to wait. I was wrong to ask the women to expect to welcome him back when I felt he was safe again. I was stupid and had more to learn about facilitating a safe online community.

There are groups that experiment with restorative procedures. But this group was not intended to be one of them. We appreciated the safe space it had provided for people who experienced abuse in the church, and for me to offer a bully another chance in this context seriously violated that sense of safety.

Do I ever regret that! I lost friends, and The Lasting Supper lost its hard-earned reputation as a safe space.

I learned a tough lesson from it. But an important one!

I’ve worked diligently for The Lasting Supper to regain that safety. It’s been years since this incident happened and I believe it’s working. We have zero tolerance for bullying now and I do not hesitate to enforce it. Although, that being said, we haven’t had any instances for a long time. I don’t begrudge the work. Being known as a safe space needs to be earned and proven. Perpetually.

The biggest lesson I learned is that when someone is acting abusive, you need to believe what you see and act on it immediately. Don’t mess around! Don’t disbelieve what you’re witnessing or hope for the best or that it’ll pass and be forgotten! You must overcome your insecure fears that you’re being too harsh, because the harshness the victims experienced was far worse! Active measures must be taken immediately to protect the people you are serving and to ensure the community survives as a safe space. If you don’t act immediately to protect others from a bully or abuser, you are complicit! Period!

That’s how I and the other facilitators act now. And I’m happy to say the community is far healthier and safer because of it. There are over 200 of us, and the feeling of safety, peace, and mutual respect and support is strong.

We were warned about the wolves so we could do something about it. And we are.

To those people who were bullied… by that man and by others, including by me, directly and indirectly by allowing it,. and for expecting people to welcome back a bully, I apologize and promise to never do it again.

If you have any questions you’d like to ask me about The Lasting Supper, please comment here or email me.

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23 Replies to “A Hard Lesson I Learned About Dealing With Wolves”

  1. You did nothing wrong by welcoming a bully back. Some people don’t recognize they are being a bully. Taking action to confront the person and suspending him was good. Letting him back in was good. Expecting others to immediately be forgiving…maybe not. Expecting him to change…not. But keep teaching forgiveness for what it is – letting go of past hurt, but not allowing the behavior to continue.

  2. Brandi: Sometimes I think you’re right about this. But in this instance, it wasn’t appropriate. I should have acted much more swiftly and definitively and permanently to restore the sense of safety TLS offered.

  3. IMO, the key was this: the greater community can welcome him back for ‘a second chance’; but not the lesser community.

    By way of example, in a small church of say 200 adults, if a man went out of his way to bully multiple people, that small church should remove him, attempt reconciliation, forgive him in time, and release him. He can go somewhere else. In small communities, reconciliation does not mean restoration.

    If the man had committed embezzlement – same thing (although you can add in the court system process). If the man had shown violence on the church campus – same thing. Sold drugs in the church parking lot – same thing.

    Small communities have a deep need to trust the members.

    There are a thousand other small communities wherein the former bully, former embezzler, former violent person, and former drug dealer can attend.

    No one should, in a small community, should be forced to welcome back the ‘repentant’ – because then they may be subject again to the background-fear that the bully will reappear, the embezzler will re-manipulate, the violent will again explode, or the drug dealer will tempt them.

    We can release the repentant to the greater community. And, it is ok. They can prosper elsewhere.

    And, if we wish, we privately can reconcile with the repentant. And, it is ok. Only we are taking the chance.

  4. I joined the community after the incident. I saw references to it but was not familiar with what happened and didn’t seek to be enlightened. At that point, it wasn’t my business and I was trying to recover from my own experience with community bullying. I have a very high standard for community safety as a result of my own experience, so it is no small thing for me to say that I feel safe at TLS. I do not consider the leadership at TLS to be responsible for my safety. That is my job. But i do appreciate their efforts to create an environment where such experiences, as much as it lies within their power, are prevented and/or quickly contained. Communities tend to be messy but they don’t have to be mean.

  5. Thanks for your work, and thank you for sharing your experience. It really does help. In society, I as a woman don’t have many models of bullies being decisively, immediately, effectively dealt with.

    We may forget, in our desire to “forgive” all the time, that bullies have other places they can go and it’s really not OK to pull them back into the group where they bullied. For many reasons. Forgive them, support them in restoring relationships if BOTH parties wish to, but don’t bring them back in.

    This is the only way I’ve ever seen a bully change. Losing something. Even that doesn’t always work. Thanks for learning from this and protecting your people, and for sharing it here.

  6. After experiencing abuse as a leader in my ex-church, I struggled with the fact that many long-term relationships were completely destroyed and that we (as christians who were supposed to have a better way to live!) utterly failed to acknowledge or resolve the situation. Eventually, I realised that the only options open to me were to shut up and “submit” to the crap, or leave the church. I left, badly damaged and heart-broken.

    But I was determined that that failure would never be repeated again in my life, and so in my ‘christian’ workplace where I was the office manager, I made space for a bully. I thought I could manage her and help her to reform. Now, that included confronting her over her behaviour at times, but it was all to no avail. She and her husband started becoming very pally with the boss, even socialising with him and his wife, so that when she chose to make life hell for a new, younger staff member and I tried to deal with the situation, she and the boss colluded together and the whole thing blew up in a very nasty way which ended with most of us leaving that workplace. It cost me my job, but I will never regret standing up for what was right. (Fortunately, the law sided with the young employee and she was awarded compensation!)

    It is very hard when you want to believe the best about others, and see everyone included. But I also learned the hard way that giving space to someone who acts in ways that are damaging to others is not being kind and loving. It only takes one bully to make life miserable (and unsafe) for everyone.

  7. David, I understand that feeling of regret. At the same time, I believe it is an indication that we have allowed our failures to help us to grow and become better, healthier versions of ourselves. (I think maybe that is what Jesus was talking about when he called us to repent.)

  8. Thank you so much for this. I was attached in not an online but an in person group where I was trying to recover and although I still love everyone and am still in contact with everyone except the person who did it, I can’t tell you how much harm happens when someone lading a group attacks you in a place where you were promised it was safe. What is saddest is i would have been led back to reconciliation by other leaders but it happened in a public place that happened to be my number one hang-out so several people I knew saw it. They’d been biting their tongue about patterns they’d seen with this person for a long time but when they witnessed that they stopped biting their tongue and pulled me aside. Fortunately, one of the people who witnessed it was a licensed counselor with 30 years experience on top of her education, and she took me under her wing and gave me a year of free counseling and helped me recover from it. Recovering meant not only dealing with what this group leader did but it also meant looking at the patterns I had long justified – as one example of many, talking about everyone in the group like they were crap and I ignored it until that attack revealed she had been talking about me in the same way for a long time. So, my take on this is maybe there is a time to give someone a break from the group or take them out of a leadership position and then welcome them back (and believe me that is far better than justifying the behavior and doing nothing about it at all), but I think the key is looking for patterns. If someone has patterns you’ve been trying to ignore, like you said in this article – admit what you are seeing. If there are patterns, it is best to cut ties, remove them from the group and not invite them back for the safety of everyone you’ve promised a safe space.

  9. Yeah being able to look back on this experience over time, I realize I defended the bully, too. I let my emotions and desire to protect TLS run the show. I am sorry to those I hurt, too. Much love to you, David.

  10. Safety and honesty go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. If communication is incomplete, uninformed, or dishonest, protective actions may fail.

    Among leaders the responsibility toward honesty, especially self-honesty is greater due to their greater impact of their choices and actions. I agree with you, David, that sequestering the offender quickly is the appropriate step. But always make sure the full story becomes known. For if the sequestration was done erroneously, then greater harm is created.

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