Signs that a church is 'safe'
What makes a church a safe place? This week a pastor wrote and asked me where he could get some training on that issue. His question made me realise that I have spent both time and energy encouraging understanding of diverse viewpoints and prompting people to recognise that the church community is often not a safe space. Now, I am trying to think more constructively about strategies to make it so.
I believe that the church needs to be a safe place for everyone, no matter what their age, gender, race or sexuality. I believe that if it is not a safe place for children, it will not be a safe place for elderly people. If it is not a safe space for women, it will not be a safe place for men or for people from a variety of different sexualities. If it is not a safe place for people of all races, it will not be a safe place for anyone. We are all in this together – or we need to be. And there are many, many more categories of people to be included…. Fill the gap with your favourite excluded group.
Creating safe spaces is a very subtle process. It won’t just follow because there are certain policies on the church books – or even when there are certain habits and practices. It won’t just follow from training workshops or reading books on the subject - though all of these can help. My sense is that, when it really begins to take shape, the ‘safety’ of a church will become evident in small ways – in subtle signals and through whispers rather than shouts.
So – for starters – here are some of the signals we need to see and the whispers we need to hear if we are to make our local churches safe places.
Signals of welcome – people on the church door at every event with pastoral hearts, with antennae out for first timers, relative newcomers, marginalised people, uncertain people, those with problems and joys who need to share them, those who need a quiet space, a listening ear…
Signals of inclusiveness in news of activities for all sorts of groups – ‘places’ in church life and on the website where the human challenges of discipleship can be discussed. Of course, women’s groups and men’s groups and parents' training are all vital but also - groups for teenagers to talk about their issues, groups for singles, for widows, for divorce recovery, mental health challenges, pregnancy support groups, grief recovery, groups for inter-generational conversation, managing money, facing death as a believer – and more!
Signals in the language of inclusive structures – little if any emphasis on ‘membership’ on being ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ – no definitions or descriptions of anyone by what they are not. NO non-Christians, non-Adventists, non–believers. A ban on language that assumes that ‘we’ all know what we are talking about. No words like, ‘we know, of course’ or talk of ‘our’ churches, or ‘our’ schools or ‘our’ institutions.
Whispers of inclusive language in committees, Bible study groups, prayer meetings and other gatherings – Regular process questions - Who is included in the discussions we are having? Who is being privileged? Is everyone represented in the standpoints we are taking and the programmes we are planning? Who are we privileging with the approaches we are taking? Who are we not remembering to pray for?
Whispers of inclusive language in presentations everywhere – especially in sermons. Inclusive pronouns – ‘he or she’, or even ‘she or he’! No mocking or patronising allusions to ‘typical’ women’s or men’s behaviour. Illustrations from the lives of all kinds of different people,– discipleship construed through the eyes of girls and boys, poor and rich, outsiders as well as insiders.
Whispers of inclusive language at all the major church events of human life, dedications, baptisms, weddings, funerals – neutral language… Clear signals of awareness that there will be people there who don’t know ‘our’ language, ‘our’ ways of behaviour…
There’s more of course – much more – I’ll come back to that another time.
I’m quite curious to know more about churches which have made ‘safety’ an intentional value in their policies and practices. I’d love to hear from anyone who has.