Church as a Healthy Environment: Old First E-pistle 01.31.13

More and more, I see church as an alternative, even liminal subculture. “We Christian folk” need to be fluent and competent in the dominant culture. But we hope our deeper roots and true orientation are found in the subculture of our faith community.

This means everyone from church serves in some sense as a missionary, bringing the good news from the deeper, truer context to the foreign world of the dominant culture in which we live. A presentation I heard yesterday from Jaime Romo made me think more about this. I am sharing his work with you all (in an adapted form) that we might think how our community is safe for people and promotes healthy relations.

Responding to the past decades’ increasing awareness of sexual harassment and abuse, the United Church of Christ works to make all settings of the church safe spaces. We commit to creating and maintaining programs, facilities and communities in which people can be present and interact and serve together free from all forms of discrimination, harassment, exploitation or intimidation.

The national setting of the UCC has a specific program, commonly called “Safe Church” (actually, the full title is “Making Our Churches Safe for All”) that means to help local congregations move in the right direction. Old First could work through Safe Church to make sure we offer a healthy environment for all its participants.

At the Young Adult Learning Service Community (YASC) training Billi and I attended in Cleveland this week, Jaime Romo from Pilgrim UCC in Carlsbad, CA, shared how that congregation analyzes its strengths and weaknesses at being “safe space.” Pilgrim Church in Carlsbad is one of the congregations across the denomination that is known for having had a convicted sex offender ask to be welcomed into their community.

Jaime prefers to speak of “healthy environments” and has devised a “healthy environment matrix,” which he introduces with a simple question: “what does a healthy environment look like, sound like, feel like?”

His matrix is structured around 16 positive statements against which to gauge how a community might be experienced as either fostering safe relationships or promoting unhealthy ones. With each statement, he offers four possible metrics — from negative to positive — with sketches describing each level. He typifies the four levels as “deforming,” “conforming,” “reforming,” or “transforming.” For example, his first statement is:

1. “People feel safe… there is not undue cost or suffering caused by being honest, admitting differences or mistakes.”

Someone using the matrix is then asked to decide where s/he thinks the community in consideration falls in regard to the statement:

Level 1 (deforming); Feeling unsafe; experience shame for making / admitting mistakes; silenced or self-editing/silencing rather than confessing differences; debate or disagreement is experienced as about being right or wrong.

Level 2 (conforming) Feeling embarrassed about differences and mistakes; ask peers rather than authority figures for clarification

Level 3 (reforming) An environment that feels safe — no dings / costs for openness and honesty, for admitting mistakes, or for not knowing and needing to find out; enough safety in their uncertainties to risk; mistakes seen as inevitable and even needed along the way for personal learning and growth; people enter into dialogue

Level 4 (transforming) Engaging in dialogue to understand, learn, and / or join community; confidence that mistakes are useful for group / systemic data; freely voicing different experiences / learning for the group that comes from working with uncertainty.

For each of the following statements, Romo also offers sketches of how the 4 levels could be described. I’m just going to offer you the statements, and ask you to think whether we actively promote such a situation, are pretty good at it; struggle with such a commitment, or are the opposite. Each community will find some of these easier than others and if we are honest, some will also be problematic.

2. People are accepted; experience being respected, invited to express their thoughts and feelings, listened to.

3. People are appropriately challenged — offered opportunities, work and service that inspire, excite and stretch their abilities.

4. People are recognized, acknowledged for talents and their individual achievements, and rewarded for their accomplishments.

5. People receive constructive, non-demeaning feedback on how performance could be improved, positive suggestions rather than negative critique.

6. People perceive innovation as expected; their opinions and suggestions are solicited, desired, welcomed, needed.

7. People have easy access to the information they need to know for their involvement in the community; the relationships between the progress and goals of the institution and their individual efforts is obvious.

8. People are given authority appropriate to what is being asked of them, and for which they are accountable.

9. People are encouraged to take initiative, make decisions and exercise judgment.

10. People are given clear cut and non-contradictory definitions of communal and individual goals and tasks; they are given helpful guidance about expectations; they are provided workable structures and processes with which to navigate and negotiate within the community.

11. People are encouraged, empowered, expected to solve as many of their own problems as possible.

12. People experience rewards for successes far exceeding any penalties for failures.

13. People are encouraged and rewarded for learning.

14. People recognize the congruence between the mission, vision and ethos of the faith community and the behavior of its leaders and participants. They see integrity exemplified and are motivated to match what they see.

15. People experience and witness fair and just treatment — the community presents a comprehensible and trustworthy environment.

16. People believe in and take pride in the value of what they produce. They recognize their efforts are genuinely useful and their work is worth doing well.

I get “droopy” sometimes about the state of the church these days. Not Old First, but the church in general… at least in its North American incarnations that I know. It’s often stuck like a deer in the headlights, lost its way, disconnected from who it’s to serve, sort of dying on the vine. But the past few days with leaders from Church of the Beatitudes/Phoenix; 1st Congregational/Saginaw; Keystone/Seattle; Pilgrim UCC/Carlsbad; Wellington Ave Congregational/Chicago; Westmoreland Congregational/Bethesda — all churches that are hosting YASC participants — have reminded me of the impressive, alternative (albeit too invisible) faith communities in the UCC. Let’s be one too.

See you in church (but not this week!),

Michael