Safe Church 101

jan-reading-bookJust like in the 1980s, congregations throughout the United States are deciding to become sanctuary churches for undocumented immigrants.  You can learn how to be a sanctuary congregation here.

But that’s not what this post is about.

As I travel around the country talking with congregations and mid-councils about what I see, it occurs to me that growing and thriving churches are safe churches. Carol Howard Merritt’s new book Healing Spiritual Wounds got me thinking about this.  I’ll be reviewing her book later this week (spoiler alert:  you should read it) but today I’m pondering  – not so much how to heal after unsafe church experiences, but – how to prevent unsafe church experiences in the first place.

It’s no surprise at all that sexual abuse by priests in Boston and everywhere have gone unreported and unpunished because we in the church are a ripe venue for all kinds of abuse.  And more likely than sexual abuse is emotional and spiritual abuse.  This happens because:

  • We believe being Christian = being obedient to our spiritual leaders even when they are bullies.
  • We cling to the heresy of niceness.
  • We are afraid of personal retribution if we stand up to gossip and misinformation.

Abusers thrive in this environment.  It’s easy to see how a church shifts from being a community of broken people seeking spiritual comfort to a community of indifferent people wanting to steer clear of conflict.

How can we become safe as congregations and governing bodies?

  • Stand up to bullies.  Church institutions are the last place we should tolerate bullies – even if the bully is the pastor or the church pillar.  When we observe bullying behavior, we are called to say something.  (Yes, this is scary.)
  • Remember that all human beings are created in the image of God.  This includes people we might hate, people we might not understand, people who look/speak/think differently from ourselves. When we see a new person who is LBGTQ in a church full of straight people or a person who has dark skin in a church full of light skinned people or a person who is broken in a church full of seemingly not broken people, we stand with them.
  • Remember that not one of us has cornered the market on God’s Truth.  We might be wrong. We might be dead wrong. Listening to other perspectives is not about waiting for our turn to argue.  When somebody says something that makes our blood pressure rise, consider asking questions to learn more instead of shouting that person down.

Ask yourselves – regarding your congregation:

  • Is it safe to admit to failure here?
  • Is it safe to show vulnerability?
  • Is it safe to be different?
  • Is it safe to share another perspective?
  • Is it safe to disclose illness?
  • Is it safe to express doubt?
  • Are leaders trustworthy?
  • Do they expect the best of us?
  • Do they welcome us in spite of our imperfections?*

If not, it will be hard to flourish as a community of faith.  And it will be hard to flourish as a Presbytery/Conference/Association/Diocese.

We are in a unique time in terms of Being the Church.  The Mainline varieties – especially – offer spiritual community in a more broadminded atmosphere.  But we need to be worthy of calling ourselves “a spiritual community.”  Although our religious institutions say we are all about building a beloved community, all too often we are not even safe (much less beloved.)

But things can be different.  We can become safer than we’ve been in the past.  This begins by seeing each other through the eyes of Christ.

*Note: If our imperfections involve criminal activity, parameters will need to be established to be sure others are safe too.

Image: reading Carol’s book on my most recent flight.

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