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

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.

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