Making the Church a Safe Place Again
Making the Church a Safe Place Again
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
I pass a fire station on the way to and from my office each day. It’s “my” fire station, I like to think, because persons from that station would most likely be the ones to come and help me at my home in a time of need. I lift up a little prayer for them as I pass by. I am grateful for them. I pray when I see them roaring out in their engines to assist someone. I pray for them when I hear their sirens from my home in the evenings and early mornings.
There is a sign on my fire station. It is bright yellow, and reads “SAFE PLACE”. It is not only a body of people who come out to meet me in my time of need. It is also a place to which I could retreat in times of danger, and I could ask for help there at any time. If I were lost or disoriented, I could go in and get help. If I were being abused, I could pull in and someone would be concerned about my situation. There are many other situations in which a person might need a “SAFE PLACE.” I am thankful for those fire stations and the servant-hearted men and women who work in there and from there.
Just like firefighters and first responders, Christians come out from their bases (be they homes or churches) to meet others in their times of need. Where would our world be without loving Christian people? As one of my former church leaders always said to me, “What do people do without a good church in their lives?” Like firefighters, we are mobilized to where the action is, and to all places where a need has arisen.
The church, also, should be a SAFE PLACE inside. It was designed as such. The term “sanctuary” refers to a place set apart for holy work, hence the root sanctus. In the evolution of language, the term “sanctuary” became a synonym for a SAFE PLACE. Those who would be welcomed nowhere else in society, such as in the marketplace, were welcomed inside the walls of the church. Is your church such a place of sanctuary? Where anyone could retreat in times of doubt, danger, or disorientation? As a noun in contemporary parlance, sanctuary has come to mean “a place of refuge or safety,” even though its most ancient meaning reflects back to high altars and inmost recesses of sacred buildings. The church USED TO BE a safe place. Is it still?
Is your church a SAFE PLACE in this current season of division? I ask this for several reasons. One is very simple. We want all people to be physically safe from harm inside our churches. That is why our Safe Sanctuaries policies are so stringent. But let us also consider spiritual safety. Is your church a SAFE PLACE? Are conversations that are taking place within the walls of your churches (and in parking lots and group emails and at fellowship events) moments where all people would feel safe? Remember many ears are listening to our conversations; many people are reading posts and group emails. Young impressionable people, future leaders of church and society, people whose journeys have been difficult and painful, people whose eyes don’t see the world in the same way that you do … they are reading what you are writing and they are listening to what you are saying. Some very cruel things are being said “in the name of religion.”
We hear more and more about people who have been harmed by the church. Those people may never see the church as a SAFE PLACE again. Many clergy spend a great deal of their ministries trying to bring Christ’s healing into those lives, and trying to help convince people to give the church another chance.
What can you do to make your church a SAFE PLACE? I notice that in fire stations precautions are taken to be sure that people are safe. Firefighters work diligently to create and maintain an environment in which problems can be solved quickly and effectively. The daily mission is to keep their space SAFE for all and their communities SAFE from harm. They are the ones who attend to people in crisis and transition. They do not defame them. They simply help. They come in time of need. They are the ones who arrive first at unsafe spaces and help make them safe again. They drive right into violent situations and bring order and good care.
What would it look like for you to look out for the safety of your church? Sure, that means watching that someone doesn’t trip over a doormat as they come in, or walking someone to the car after a meeting. But it also looks like saying, “We are not going to speak about other people in that way in this church.” As one of my husband’s former church members was fond of saying to those who were doing harm within the congregation: “I do not give you permission to talk about people in front of me.” That usually did the trick!
Each of you who reads these emails is an influencer. You have tremendous influence and the ability to make your churches SAFE PLACES into which all persons can come and meet Jesus Christ, and out of which disciples venture to make the world a safer, more Kingdom-like place. We read in both Matthew and Luke that Jesus longed to gather his children together, yet they were unwilling. That grieved Jesus. He loved safe places, and he longs to see us create them. He knows our human needs.
The next time you ride by a fire station, lift up a prayer for those who labor in it and from it. Take notice of that bright yellow sign. And ask yourself, “Is my church spiritually worthy of one of those signs right now?” I hope you can say “yes.” And if you can’t, I know you can do something about that. You can mobilize to make an unsafe space safe again. Because you are a leader. And that’s what leaders do.
Peace and Health,
Rev. Bev Coppley