ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2015

A Safe-Haven Church: An Introduction to the Basics of a Safe Religious Community

Neil C. Damgaard

Safety is at a premium these days. It is feverishly discussed as an international health issue, in the realm of schools and security for students on campuses, and within the studies of interpersonal relationships and  social networking. But we are in a new era religiously in this vein because in the past 50 years or so, and with increasing public notice, safety within churches and within religious fellowships has become absent.

Churches and religious fellowships need to recognize and value the quality and feeling of safety within the boundaries of their ministries. However, although this may seem obvious, we are evidently in an era when a significant number of such organizations are doing anything but fostering the feeling of safety. I am defining safety in this context as the practice and sense of security, freedom, and respect as one is joined and engaged with a particular social system or a specific group. Safety is admittedly something of a subjective term, but in this paper I will seek to articulate a number of specific features of safety, and specifically applied to what I am calling a safe-haven church.

Allied to safety is a term familiar to thinkers who are historically Christian—the idea of grace. Although the secularly inclined may find this concept to be superfluous to our discussion here, I believe that it is relevant to those who have left unsafe Christian environments, and who use or misuse Christian terms such as grace.

This paper does not advocate a doctrine of grace from any one theological tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or other strain of Christianity. For our purposes, the classic theological definition provides a philosophical foundation for the notion of safety as used here. Most basically, grace simply means unmerited favor from God toward people. In the Old Testament, the term that most often is translated grace is hēnēn; in the New Testament, it is charis.[1] As the word grace is used in the Bible, it has many applications—to individuals, to the whole global family of God’s people, to particular groups and churches, to special assemblies, and so forth. As the biblical writings describe grace, it is a rudimentary attribute of God Himself, part of who He is, not just what He offers. And as such it is intended to spread from His people outward—within their assemblies and outward to the general community. We may view grace, then, as the active sharing of God’s love. Thus, a sense of safety can and should be built on grace.

My belief is that a great many churches and Christian fellowships are reasonably safe and do provide an edifying environment. However, it is unfortunate that too many have experienced and even propagated the antithesis of grace—control, undue influence, harshness, legalism, and any number of other unhealthy and unsafe maladies—at the hands of churches and religious organizations of almost all denominational stripes. I would deem these practices mutations of spirituality that damage and injure people even when at the same time they maddeningly espouse theological orthodoxy.

One experience highlights this sense. On Easter morning in 1992, a group of 50 adult new visitors appeared in our church worship service. They were from another church of the same theological stripe as ours, almost indistinguishable doctrinally from our church. Today there remain about a dozen individuals from that group who were successfully healed and enfolded into our church family.

The catalyst of the visitors’ troubles in the other church stemmed from a pastoral transition that involved a highly controlling and heavily legalistic new pastor, who at the same time was a man gifted at communication (ironically) and thought to be a competent public speaker. While presenting as an effective preacher, he gathered around himself a number of leaders with precisely the same perspectives that he held; and the series of conflicts that followed were very sad and led to a wholesale departure of most of that church’s members, including some longtime congregants.

Those members came to us damaged and hurting, and we nervously sought to help them. We felt like a M*A*SH unit, and my first step as pastor was to visit their pastor, which I did twice; I found him cordial but refusing to own any responsibility for the conflict. He called this group of 50 adults troublemakers.

Since 1992, this scenario has occurred two more times, with our church absorbing groups from conflicted church situations. We also have absorbed individuals and smaller groups of people from time to time who have suffered confusion, theological disorientation or excesses, or domination by overzealous or self-fascinated church leadership, either from cults, superfundamentalist Christian ministries, or other strange variations of evangelical weirdness. In addition, we have enfolded, for brief periods of time, several pastors and missionaries who came to us from injurious ministry situations. In all cases, we have sought to understand the circumstances of trauma or difficulty those involved had experienced—usually by tracking back to the source church to query the remaining leaders or pastors.

  • These experiences have served to humble our own congregation greatly. In reviewing our experience, we have been able to identify several basic features as contributors to our congregation’s receptivity toward those who are hurting:
  • A generally relaxed environment.
  • It is a delicate dance of balance to keep our serious commitment to orthodox evangelical theology connected to a lightheartedness in which we laugh easily, refuse to take ourselves too seriously, and find the expression of joy easy to generate. But this is the first thing I thought of to lead the list that follows. It is vital that people coming in can relax, be allowed some level of transparency, and be given the time to explore grace anew.
  • My own observation is that legalism will gladly fill any void created by ambiguity or weak leadership regarding church life.
  • One group who came to us talked about how rules upon rules grew as their previous church began to do more outreach. The pastoral leadership had felt the need to assert authority with a growing set of “standards,” where previously there had been only generalities. As other church leaders began to explore a wider outreach in the community, but without much strategy or discussion, the lack of good protocols in place invited the legalism that was subsequently imposed. The situation eventually became simply intolerable for people who loved grace at the root of their theology.
  • Clear articulation of primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrinal priorities, and of how leadership and congregation maintain and teach each category.
  • If there is one theme from my whole ministry experience that I wish I could bottle and sell, it is the ability to discern what is most important, and what few beliefs are essential for one to remain true to one’s faith.
  • Far more often, however, churches load most of their beliefs, customs, and preferences into the first tier: primary. In reality though, Christian theology has not developed as a single download from God—it developed over 20 centuries and mostly piece by piece, which is the study of systematic theology. Church members should be able to talk easily about those several beliefs that are essential to still be Christian; those that, while still important, are clearly secondary; and those, further, that are still under much discussion and about which there should and can be an appropriate diversity of opinion. Thus, affirmation of the Nicene Creed may be a first-level, propositional set of beliefs, while belief in the Rapture may be part of the third level of opinion.
  • Minimization of theological weirdness.
  • I seem to have the gift of smelling weirdness before it walks in the door. I can smell it in my brothers and sisters who have “gone weird,” and I find myself feeling close to other ministers and leaders who share the same gift. I am not sure I know how to teach this. And without a more detailed definition of weirdness at hand, I can only point to the inevitability that too many churches will “go weird” sooner or later. When healthy leaders and pastors pay attention to the beginning of weirdness, they can best act to kindly counteract it in appropriate ways with a good theological perspective.
  • Weirdness often shows up with leaders’ or a single leader’s unchecked ego and a need to control. It presents in strange visionary pronouncements and too much cozying up to popular trends taken directly from the culture. (We can cite Nazism’s sad seduction of the German ecclesiastical establishment in the early 1930s as a dramatic example.)
  • Ongoing practice of forgiveness.
  • We may not always be the best at doing forgiveness, but we value it and we keep trying to practice it. We explore the environment of “seven times seventy” (Jesus’ statement), and I would suggest that churches who wish to be safe must insist on forgiveness as much as it is within their power to do so.
  • Featuring films, books, and cultural examples of forgiveness in the routine life of the church goes a long way toward modeling this important “flavor” for church life. Do people in the church taste forgiveness in their life and the stresses that church life can hold? Or do people (even leaders) hold grudges, with no one calling out the bitterness and distancing that grudge-holding almost always entails? Robert Grant’s ingredients of forgiveness are helpful for study here, and are easily accessible online.[2]
  • Healthy power-sharing among leaders.
  • Churches do not typically admit to the same basic power-struggle dynamics that businesses, schools, the military, or government labor experience (and which have been widely written about). Church people, especially evangelicals, tend to believe that we are somehow immune to power battles. But when a church admits that power and influence are important commodities, and fully acknowledges that these two things can bless or destroy a church, it is far better off! Openness and a bold honesty, while perhaps daunting, give a congregation a better chance for promoting a feeling of safety.
  • Healthy balance of power and authority between leadership and membership.
  • Power and authority too often weigh out of balance on one side or the other. Leaders (pastors, too) insist on most of it. Or, in the other extreme, the “body” or congregation refuses to surrender any of it to the leaders and builds in protocols of polity that protect and retain most of the authority for the voting membership.
  • Periodic change of some, if not most individuals in positions invested with power and influence.
  • The crass term today seems to be term limits. There is, however, some common sense in the safeguard of occasionally changing names on the “depth chart” so that others, especially younger or less-senior leaders, can be assured some of the meaningful decision-making power.
  • As a long-term pastor (of more than thirty years), to even suggest this approach feels threatening. Significant power and the feeling of ownership seem almost inevitable for any leader who lasts a long time. Influence is a seductive commodity, however; and although it can be useful and edifying, it can become possessive of the person who has it. Healthy influence (mentoring, training, etc.) can mutate into undue influence all too easily.
  • Openness to questions.
  • I have heard this so many times: “In my former church I was not allowed to ask questions, and if I did, they were belittled or ridiculed.” A safe church allows and in fact invites questions. Openness and transparency, as much as appropriate and responsible, invite trust and loyalty. We cannot legislate the loyalty that we crave in the church by shutting down honest and sincere questioning.
  • Healthy communication practices (or just any communication!).
  • You cannot ever have too much communication. You can have too much talk and too many words, but you can never have too much real communication. Having the information they need, accurately and honestly, equips people to respond well, even if the situation concerned is uncomfortable. Withholding information—or worse, confusing people with misinformation or stonewalling—only makes people feel distrustful and basically unsafe. 
  • Too much reliance on electronic communication (email, social networking, text messaging) invites confusion and misinterpretation, I have noticed. Face-to-face communication is far more valuable, especially with issues that might be touchy.
  • Good balance of formality and informality.
  • This is a tricky balance, too, but people respond well and with gratitude when they understand that sometimes it is appropriate to act and be formal, and at other times (which are many) an informal atmosphere serves them well. 
  • Allowances for humor.
  • In seminary I heard fellow seminarian Frank Carmical say, “I take what I am doing very seriously, but I try to never take myself too seriously.” I love that sense of keeping humor. Church leaders who cannot laugh at themselves once in a while and who disallow humor under the guise of spirituality or responsibility do a disservice to the community of faith. Safe churches have a built-in sense of whimsy that protects them, at least to some extent, from demagoguery.
  • Balance of friendliness toward, interest in, and granting of space to visitors.
  • Close attention and maybe even some measure of giftedness is necessary for greeters to sense how in-their-face to be with visitors or new persons in a church. We want to be (not just seem) friendly. We also want to respect people’s privacy and their need just to be anonymous until such time as they feel safe enough to come out of their “visitor’s shell.”
  • Expectations governed by graciousness and patience rather than by agenda and productivity.
  • The older I become the more sensitive I get to how powerful expectations really are in life. Christians, because of our high theology (for which we do not apologize), sometimes match that theology with very high expectations. We need to be at least as vigilant to show graciousness and patience as we are to exhort people to become holy, Spirit-filled, and participatory in the church’s ministry. We may become victimized by our own ambition to grow and add new ministries if we are more passionate about productivity as a church than we are willing to practice love.
  • Church-membership status handled with a light touch.
  • Church-membership campaigns and the passion to boost the official numbers have become trendy in America. While we believe in a healthy sense and practice of membership, we need not communicate second-class status to those who for whatever reason are not ready to join our church.
  • Connections beyond the local church. As the final point, this is certainly not the least important idea in this paper! Few things help us not take ourselves too seriously like spending time with other leaders and church people who are not part of our particular church, but with whom we feel philosophically compatible does.
  • Becoming aligned with a parent organization (recognized denomination) or parachurch affiliation can safeguard against becoming too ingrown and self-sufficient. Involvement outside our own fellowship also enhances our perspective about the problems and challenges churches much like our own face.
  • Mutual dependency is an honorable value between churches, and to explore useful connections outside the boundaries of our own fellowship helps defeat isolation that can make an organization feel very unsafe.

Finally, in conclusion,

Safe-haven churches do not damage the children of their attendees. A major concern and effort among therapeutic, criminal-justice, and religious organizations is to safeguard against the abuse, manipulation, and exploitation of children. Safe churches do their very best only to bless children in any of their ministries, and they exercise great vigilance to maintain a safe emotional, physical, and spiritual environment for any children that come their way.

Safe-haven churches allow people to leave them. Although it is hard to say good-bye to a treasured church family, it ought never to be hurtful to do so. Safe churches bless people as they leave and keep the door open should people decide to return later. What is unsafe is when people have experienced a disillusionment or disaffection for some reason with the church and are punished, belittled, or worse for trying to leave the organization. Safe churches work to make departing as painless as possible.

Robert Pardon (Director of the New England Institute for Religious Research) remarked to me, “the issue is being able to ‘pastor on the fringes’ and equip the leadership to do so.” Unless a church can learn and perhaps deliberately set out to receive damaged people who don’t necessarily join, embrace, or plug in right away, then only a small percentage of those visitors (who really want to find a good church home) will stay long enough to discover whatever strengths the church really possesses. As people have arrived in our church, it is has always been an interesting challenge to discern how inviting or how respectfully distant we should be. Often we can pick this up by their signals, but the response is more an art than a science. Some visitors appear private and guarded while they are really wishing someone would engage them with interest. Others are very personable initially even though they actually are being very careful and even wary.

We created a part-time position of enfolding leader, whose job on Sundays is to watch for visitors, greet them briefly, help them with direction if they need it, and then follow up and provide additional information in the days or weeks ahead. We interviewed five individuals for this position and settled upon the clear candidate. Her qualities blend a mature spiritual outlook with a personal openness and genuine interest in learning about visitors. She has served as first contact for many people who have come to us from a hurting (or damaged) background.

Recently I heard the word predatory applied to a large evangelical ministry by a non-Christian observer. Whether or not that assessment is fair, it raises the question about perception. Do we as churches (or ministries) come off as predatory, seeking to consume new people rather than to bless them? Do we “smell” dangerous?

If anything, a Christian church should feel safe. That obligation does not diminish the standards of Christian discipleship and orthodoxy in theology, and it does not coddle anyone’s willingness to compromise integrity. It means, though, that the Gospel, with its free offer of forgiveness, its hope for the future, and its guarantee of God’s love should be felt everywhere in the life of the church. Legalism, the feeling of being report-carded, excessive monitoring of accountability, and heavy-handed authority or oligarchy are all enemies of the feeling of safety. Churches should be the last place where people feel preyed upon or exploited in any way. And yet we have heard from many visitors that these are exactly the experiences they have endured in other churches. Their urge to flee, while they were strangely haunted by their need to be in some kind of fellowship, led them randomly (so it seems) to us.

About the Author

Rev. Dr. Neil Damgaard, ThM, DMin, is from Washington, DC and has been senior pastor of Dartmouth Bible Church (affiliated with Converge Worldwide, formerly the Baptist General Conference) in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts since 1983, and serves also as Protestant Chaplain in the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech (Industrial Engineering and Operations Research) and worked for Naval Sea Systems command until he entered seminary, where he graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary, having earned the Master of Theology (ThM) degree and later the Doctor of Ministry degree (DMin). He is married to Renée, who is a high-school math teacher, and they have two grown daughters (Jocelyn, a mechanical engineer) and Susanna (a registered nurse in public health).

[1] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996).

[2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201010/anger-forgiveness-and-healing