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Healthy and Safe Congregations

Qiyamah A. Rahman

Many Unitarian Universalists share Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of Beloved Community. Our Principles, which reflect on the interconnectedness of life—the significance of social justice, democracy, equality, and our search for truth—reflect those values that so many of us yearn for and seek to live out in community. Efforts to identify and address factors that compromise the safety of our Beloved Community have given rise to new and challenging initiatives, such as safe congregations and right relations. These are fairly new terms that continue to evolve as we expand our understanding about what it means to be in covenantal relationships within a community of Unitarian Universalists (UU) that shares vastly different theologies and beliefs. The Unitarian Universalist Association book titled Creating Safe Congregations: Toward An Ethic of Right Relations singularly addresses the two most common risk factors that pose potential and actual threats to congregational safety—compromised child safety and clergy sexual abuse. When was published, society reflected very clear guidelines about appropriate contact with children and we had many good examples and protocols to draw from. Thus we made great strides in our efforts to pinpoint child safety, what we believed it should look like, and how it might be accomplished in our congregations. Much of the credit for the early awareness about child safety in our congregations can be attributed to the good instincts and deep caring of our religious education professionals, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Religious Education Department, and the Liberal Religious Educators Association.

But another risk factor was equally real and took longer to detect—clergy sexual misconduct. Several factors pushed the issue into the light of day. The increase in the numbers of female ministers in our Unitarian Universalist (UU) movement, coupled with the heightened sensibility of female interns and ministers who had experienced clergy sexual abuse, provided a strong incentive to challenge some people and remove others from our professional ranks. In addition, the larger women’s movement and the Women and Religion movement captured the collective voices and concerns of UU women. This combined momentum over time that produced a climate ripe for truth telling. The courageous action of victims who came forward, demanding accountability, led to the development of policies and procedures naming sins and evils that many UUs were often afraid to name. To name them might mean acknowledging the illusion of safety. While we understand the reluctance to name the lack of safety in our midst, we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand like ostriches. Instead, we have to be willing to be influenced by the facts.

Our congregations must experience a cultural shift in order to engage effectively in a conversation about healthy and safe congregations. We must create the necessary context. This conversation requires the courage of our ministers, lay leaders, staff, and members. It requires each individual to bravely bring his or her whole self to the discussion. We can begin by telling the truth. This workbook represents an opportunity to continue the sacred work by naming the issues, thus reconceptualizing healthy congregations to include a range of behaviors that compromise the safety of our communities.
Patricia Hoertdoerfer’s essay, “Toward an Understanding and Faithful Response,” reminds us that our faith “calls us to practice our relational theology by respecting the worth of every person...while honoring the wholeness of doing no harm and acting responsibly.” Kenneth Hurto uses systems theory to help us think about the creation of authentic, balanced, and meaningful relationships. He urges us to remember that transitional times stir things up and produces the potential for both conflict and creative thinking. Learning how to be a non-anxious presence and practicing this skill is a worthy goal.

Phyllis Rickter and Betty Hoskins examine the subject of leadership in “Leading a Community in Right Relations.” They suggest that effective leadership facilitates right relations and safe congregations. But this requires a willingness to engage in open discussion and further the development of a covenantal community of right relations, thus fostering a culture of safety. Ken Brown and Angela Merkert round off the presentation on leadership with “Leadership with Vision.” They share eight characteristics of strong congregational leadership and conclude, “If we truly want to develop and be transformational leaders, we need to take seriously the responsibility for making our congregations safe for all.” Covenants have become a meaningful and explicit tool to structure congregational relations, especially as it affects leadership. The essay “Writing a Covenant” fully explores the use of covenant as a means of achieving health and safety in congregational life. Fredric Muir not only provides an historical perspective on covenants, but also includes examples of covenants that have honored the rich diversity of our congregations. Leadership is often faced with issues of confidentiality, privacy, and anonymity. While there might be implicit understandings about these challenging issues, difficulty distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy secrets can pose challenges for all leaders and congregations. Rebecca Edmiston-Lange’s essay, “Boundaries and Confidentiality,” helps us reach clarity about the different kinds of secrets and apply issues of confidentiality more appropriately. “Mental, Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Self-Care,” while written especially for religious professionals, is equally applicable to lay leaders. Fredric Muir recommends self-care as a way to prevent behaviors that may result in boundary violations. He provides a helpful definition to educate and engage the reader and identifies some common boundary violations, leaving no confusing gray areas. Supplementing this essay is a piece by William Finger and Debra Haffner, who are to be commended for tackling a difficult but important issue head-on in their essay titled “Sexual Attraction for the Religious Professional.” Their advice to religious professionals on expressing sexuality encourages “holiness and integrity.” Their concrete examples provide guidance to the reader while putting a face on the challenges and issues that religious professionals confront.

Tera Little and Laurel Amabile call on readers to, “stand up, dig deep, and let life emerge.” As religious education professionals, they urge us to set up clear limitations and expectations and not leave to chance our interactions with the children in our church, nor assume that everything will be all right because we are all good Unitarian Universalists. Their central tenant is love, which causes us to be good stewards and work to create safety in our congregations. Their insights are invaluable, regardless of where readers might find themselves in the process. Debra Haffner’s “Balancing Compassion and Protection” requires the reader to hold both the victim and perpetrators in a space of justice, compassion, accountability, and safety. She reviews information about child safety that is equally helpful for the novice and the more experienced reader. Haffner’s stories from the trenches about lay leaders and clergy, grappling with sex offenders, and other real issues are compelling. She offers steps to take to keep or remove individuals whose past and present behaviors may pose a threat to community and some examples about what others have done.

Sarah Gibb believes that working toward a safe congregation is an important vehicle for evangelism because the “opportunity to create and enforce safety policies is an opportunity to strengthen Unitarian Universalism.” Her “Creating Policies with Youth Groups” should be recommended reading for all youth directors and advisors.
The essay titled “Just Relations in a Faith Context” uses the seven elements of justice making described by Marie Fortune, a well-known minister and activist. In this section, Fredric Muir demonstrates how our Unitarian Universalist Principles and sacred scriptures support a paradigm for just relations in a UU faith context. Tracey Robinson-Harris’s “Working for Safety and to End Oppression” links justice, safety, and anti-oppression efforts and explores the need to “develop cultural competency that allows us to speak out of our own experience and listen to the experience of others without labeling or redefining it.” She asserts that creating healthy and safe congregations allows everyone to bring their whole selves to religious life. Anna Belle Leiserson’s and Phil Thomason’s essay, “Healing,” addresses the woundedness and brokenness that we experience when clergy sexual abuse occurs. They speak to the healing that is necessary to rebuild trust and include a compelling case study.

This new program about healthy and safe congregations represents a true reconceptualization of our work. That is, it moves us closer to addressing the intersection of diverse behaviors and relationships that promote safety and integrity in our efforts to build Beloved Community. It names those factors that compromise the safety of our communities and concludes with a final challenge and invitation toward a more inclusive vision of healthy and safe congregations. Debra Haffner’s essay, “Toward a Vision of Sexually Healthy Faith Communities,” invites us to look deeper, reach farther, and become ever more faithful to our prophetic and pastoral Unitarian Universalist faith.

May our work continue to inspire the creative energies of community, because as the FaithTrust Institute reminds us, “Our faith communities are sanctuaries of safety worthy of our trust.”

Read Next>> Toward an Understanding and Faithful Response

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