Acutely aware something was suddenly off internally, I quickly tried to access the situation to determine the cause of my unexpected feelings of anxiety. Just a minute ago I had felt fine sitting in the room full of about fifty or so adults as we waited for the Sunday morning equipping class to begin. Eager to learn my new church’s perspective on counseling, a subject I’m very familiar with from my previous church and life experience, I had been happily anticipating the six week class as soon as I had heard about it. Several other classes were being offered at the same time and I was the only one from my family in this particular room. Perhaps that was causing anxiety? But that didn’t make sense. When I had entered the room, I had not been anxious at all. A handful of the adults in the room were no longer strangers. A new friend had even sat down in the empty seat next to me.
Continuing to ponder, I redirected my attention to the teacher talking up front. Understanding began to dawn. This man didn’t know me from Adam. Or is it from Eve? Either way, we had no personal relationship whatsoever and we only had one slim row of chairs between us. This man’s character, personality, strengths, weaknesses, and views on the topic were all unknowns for me. When electronically signing up for the class, that reality hadn’t been a concern, but now that we were feet apart and face to face, it was. My trust with church as a whole was still in a fragile state (see this post for more details). Also, as the class had begun, the warm feelings about the topic had straight away melted as the discussion was reminding me of difficult counseling moments from my past. My anxiety now made sense. Meanwhile, an unsettling question had been forming and was now blaring loudly inside: “Am I safe?”
Unfortunately, within the past year, a situation occurred shattering my feelings of automatic psychological safety in a church setting. Wikipedia defines this type of safety as, “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” An excellent leadership book I recently finished titled Debrief to Win by Robert “Cujo” Teschner repeatedly emphasized the need for psychological safety in the workplace. I believe the Bible would also encourage Christians to provide similiar safety in the church, since such safety is really just an aspect of love (I Corinthians 13, Proverbs 15:1-4, and Galatians 6:1). While I have shared with you God’s gracious work in my heart to rekindle a love for the body of Christ, I have continued to wrestle with discerning how safe I really am in a church environment.
Several months ago an equipping class on a different topic by a different teacher had led to anxiety when I received an email requesting feedback on that class. The electronic survey form listed specific questions and required my name. Though I enjoy giving feedback, instantly I doubted the wisdom in filling out the form since past experiences had painfully taught me that speaking up could lead to unpleasant results. Was sending out the survey just a formality or were they seriously wanting my opinion? What level of detail were they seeking? I had no way of knowing. Finally, I figured the new church needed to know the real me so we could all figure out if this was actually a good fit. So I mustered the courage to complete the form and really hoped I wouldn’t regret this choice. The following Sunday, I immediately grabbed the teacher after class to explain my concern and to try to read the situation better. Assuring me the leadership wanted my feedback, however specific and detailed I wanted to get, he said he would follow-up with me if he had any questions after reading my form. Then, looking me straight in the eye and as if he was reading my mind, he said, “You are safe here. We believe the best.” I wanted to believe that was true.
How do you know if you are safe with friends, co-workers, church leaders, teachers, bosses, etc.? Well, how do you if a frozen pond is safe to walk on? You test it. Psychological safety with people can only be determined by vulnerably testing the waters as well. Recently Brene’ Brown’s words resonated with me: “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” So, as I sat in yet another situation wondering how safe I was, I vulnerably asked the unfamiliar teacher a question. His response calmed me. Continuing to observe how he responded to others, I was grateful the atmosphere of the room was only increasingly feeling safe and loving.
If we self-protect, it will be very hard to connect with people – even if they are safe and loving. And, don’t forget we do need others in our lives. We are designed to be dependent. Each individual Christian is a vital part of the body of Christ. (I Corinthians 12:12-27) At the same time, I’d encourage all of us to be very careful about how we view safe people. Though they are a tremendous blessing in our lives, they are not our Savior. Safe people, actually all people, are merely an instrument in the Savior’s hand to minister to us. People are limited in their ability to really be there for us as are we for them. Additionally, people do not always remain safe. When the frozen pond reveals a thin dangerous place in the ice, a person must find a new safe spot. So it is with people. If we are clinging to our safe person, how will we react when they eventually prove to be simply human? Our trust must be securely in the one and only truly eternal safe person – God. In His time and way, He will bring us the people we need to walk alongside us through this cursed world. We are much safer than we tend to realize (II Kings 6:8-23, Romans 8:26-39, John 10:29). Will you trust Him? Will you be vulnerable with others despite past pain? Will you reflect the image of God by being a safe and loving person for others?
“God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah.”