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Safe Congregation Handbook Introduction
Safe Congregations, Conflict Management in Congregations

Our religious heritages—Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist (UU)—compel us to address the important, widespread, and complex social issues of interpersonal violence and abuse. Our faith is a covenantal faith with a relational theology at its core. Hospitality and justice are essential elements of our covenant with one another and with the Holy. The lifeblood of our covenant is community: community in worship, community in lifespan religious education, community in justice-making service, and community in caring relationships. Where we gather in communities of trust and faith, we call that place holy ground. When we gather we welcome others—newcomers and strangers—and we welcome our true, best selves. As we elicit the best in others we elicit the best in ourselves and thereby faithfully live our Unitarian Universalist values and principles.

In religious communities breaches of trust and safety undermine the foundations of our personal and communal covenants. Unitarian Universalist congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations are committed to practicing hospitality and promoting justice for all people.

In her Foreword to Creating Safe Congregations: Toward an Ethic of Right Relations, published eight years ago, Nancy Bowen reminds us, “Ministry is the work and the reason of Unitarian Universalist congregations. Everything congregations do is ministry.” Ministry is called to the particularities of time and context, which shape it with relevance, direction, and passion. In 1997, when Creating Safe Congregations was published, it was a response to the growing alarm that we had seen in our congregational life as a result of clergy sexual misconduct and child abuse. The stories, insights, and lessons that we heard from our professional ministry and lay leadership informed that book. While these issues remain a priority for Unitarian Universalist communities—and have been given renewed and deeper commitment after the alarming revelations of child and sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and the subsequent secrecy and subterfuge—we have not stood still. Congregations and their ministries change, as do people. We are gratified to know that candidates for our ministry, lay leaders, and religious professionals used Creating Safe Congregations as a resource to shape their calling and programs significantly.

The time is right for another book defining anew what it means to be not only a safe congregation but a healthy one. This book is not an effort to replace Creating Safe Congregations; we feel that those essays and workshops will remain valuable resources and opportunities for insight for many years to come. It is our hope that this new book addresses the changing and additional needs of congregations and ministries. We have explored congregational life, we have listened to UUs name the challenges and ministry they face, and we have identified what creates safe and healthy relationships. It is time to share what we have learned and heard.

Unitarian Universalism has taken a bold, clear, and intentional path toward naming and creating healthy congregations. Publication of Creating Safe Congregations; UUA vice president Kay Montgomery’s apology to victims and survivors of clergy sexual misconduct; the Safe Congregations Panel report; safe congregation workshops for seminarians, lay leaders, and religious professionals; the Our Whole Lives curriculum series; the creation of the Office of Ethics and Safety with the Ethics in Congregational Life Program, and now the publication of this book indicate that we have embraced the work of right relations as meaningful theological and spiritual work. With vision and deliberateness, we have become proactive rather than reactive by creating, supporting, and nurturing healthy and safe congregations. Yet there is more to do. The issues and challenges addressed by this book’s essayists move us closer to this goal.

Another assumption that informs this book of essays and workshops is that Unitarian Universalism is a maturing, growing, and deepening faith. One reason why lay and professional leaders understand the value of safe and healthy congregations is because our liberal faith communities are essential to people’s lives. Repeatedly, we have witnessed and heard from many people how life-span religious education, ethical and moral decision-making, pastoral care, and Sunday morning worship are integral to their well-being. UUs expect this guidance from their congregations; this is how they want to serve; this is the ministry they want to share. Unitarian Universalists have often been accused of being only tangentially committed to the maturing of their institutions. We have felt a noticeable shift in attitude: UUs want to nurture congregations that are safe and challenging, deep and affirming, structured and responsive. This book is just one of the many ways to embody this shift.

A third assumption that shapes our work is the explosion of shared and small group ministry in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It seems that everywhere—in congregations of all sizes—covenant groups, spiritual direction, pastoral care programs, worship associates, and social justice ministries are just a few of the ways that laity serves. In all of these shared ministry contexts, lay leadership now recognizes what professional religious leaders have known: Trust and power, caring presence, and responsive leadership need to be thoughtfully balanced with awareness, compassion, and faithfulness. As laity shares the ministry, we know that the issues and challenges named in this book can respond to increasing needs.

Also informing this book is the assumption not only that Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to heal and transform the world (tikkun olam) but that our faith communities can be living embodiments of the Beloved Community: By living our vision of the Beloved Community as it is named in our Principles, UU congregations model for their members and friends, their children and youth, and the wider community our vision made real. Rebecca Parker reminds us, “In the midst of a world marked by tragedy and beauty there must be those who bear witness against unnecessary destruction and who, with faith, stand and lead in freedom with grace and power.” With Parker’s words in mind, we have set out to affirm that for any congregation to be healthy, it must work toward justice; for any congregation to be safe, it must be just. All our congregations can be models for right relationship guiding us toward the Beloved Community. Right relationships, safety, and health are fundamental to restorative justice, an idea that is intrinsic to our faith and to living in Beloved Community. With restorative justice as a guiding congregational principle, our desire to affirm and witness beauty, freedom, and grace can be made real and we can heal and transform people’s lives and the world.

Our final and most basic assumption is that people come to Unitarian Universalist congregations to be in relationships with ideas, a vision, our heritage, the Holy, and of course people. Rituals, creeds, and liturgy are some of the ways to establish and nurture relationships. For UUs, covenants, deeds, and polity have also been ways of entering into relationships. Ours is a covenantal or relational theology (instead of creedal or fixed) that is explored, deepened, and strengthened with responsibility and accountability, respect, and compassion.

We have seen and heard from many who have shared their personal and congregational stories. Relationships don’t maintain themselves or grow unaided. Guidelines, structure, and affirmation are necessary. Right relationships—healthy, safe, and just relationships—take work, and they must be celebrated. This book is written toward this end. We hope you and your congregation grow in our shared Unitarian Universalist faith because of the issues and challenges addressed in these essays and workshops.

Using the Program

Program goals for participants and congregations are to increase their understanding, expand their skills, develop their faith, and learn about resources that they can use when addressing and responding to the dehumanizing experience of interpersonal violence. This program complements and enhances the other printed and online resources available from the UUA as well as resource personnel from Congregational Services, Ministry and Professional Leadership, the Faith Development office, and Identity-based Ministries Staff Groups along with the twenty district offices and various associate member and affiliate member organizations. The editors of this book encourage further congregational work to discern healthy and safe relationships and appropriate actions in social ethics consistent with Unitarian Universalist values and principles.

This program can be used in a variety of settings and situations, such as adult education programs, timely congregational forums or meetings, religious education teacher development workshops, youth advisor training sessions, social responsibility programs, and family and intergenerational programs. Its open-ended format invites you to supplement the program with other resources important to your congregation.

The goals of the program for the whole congregation are to:

  • help participants and congregations integrate values from this program into their system of UU Principles and values
  • help congregations maintain the professional integrity of ministerial relationships, the integrity of lay leadership relationships, and healthy congregational relationships
  • help congregations protect vulnerable and/or historically marginalized persons through practices of hospitality, effective anti-oppression education, responsible intervention, and appropriate responses
  • help leaders provide opportunities for healing and justice, ethics, and self-care for their whole congregations.

The goals for individual participants are to:

  • become more aware of the complexity of issues in interpersonal violence
  • learn the components of a healthy and safe responsible congregation
  • develop an understanding of the leadership tools and justice-making practices of healthy and safe congregations
  • gain an understanding of the issues of power and boundaries in healthy relationships
  • learn about abuse prevention and risk-reduction policies and procedures
  • learn about available resources
  • probe participants’ attitudes and feelings and interpersonal violence and abuse
  • become more comfortable communicating feelings, values, and information about sexual violence and unethical conduct with others
  • protect, intervene, and respond appropriately to vulnerable people and/or victims explore ways to prevent abusive situations
  • provide opportunities for hospitality, justice, and healing
  • express and enjoy sexual and social ethics in responsible ways at each age of development.

Although this program offers a progression, it is not necessary to use it from beginning to end. It may be more meaningful to follow where the participants’ needs and interests lead. Your congregation may choose a thirteen-session, four-session, or eight-session program. Here are some strategies to help you choose what to read and how to plan your schedule.

  • Examine the essays in the table of contents. The essays address many safe congregation issues, including congregational culture, leadership, programs, and justice making. Although many of these essays are used in the workshops, they are also valuable reading in their own right.
  • The program offers two workshops alternatives. Suggested participants are noted at the beginning of every workshop to indicate whose congregational leadership responsibilities would particularly benefit from the workshop content. The forty-five-minute workshops offer brief introductions to focused themes for specific leaders in your congregation. For example, the second workshop can concentrate an opening discussion of a board of trustees meeting on the issues of interpersonal violence and what actions and decisions the congregation needs to make. The two-hour workshops are educational components to some of the essays. Using these workshops, members of an adult education committee or safety and response team can grapple with safety issues through reflection on the corresponding essays, exploration of specific congregational situations and procedures, and integration of their learnings and decisions. An educational series of two-hour workshops on congregational safety on a weekly or monthly basis is an excellent way to educate leaders in the whole congregation. After an educational series, congregational leaders may decide to codify or revise their safety policy documents and procedures.
  • Examine the resources section at the end of the workbook. You may structure one or more sessions around some of these resources: The Abuse of Power: A Theological Problem by James Poling; Broken Vows, a video by the FaithTrust Institute; Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church, a video and educational guide by Richard R. Hammar, Steven W. Klipowicz, and James F. Cobble; and Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us, by Marie Fortune.
  • Read the first essay, “Healthy and Safe Congregations,” for an overview of the core issues, dimensions, and contexts of the program. With this essay, work through the spiritual and ethical issues that have arisen in your congregation.
  • Focus on an area of special concern in your congregation, such as justice making, healing the congregation, anti-oppression work, safety in religious education, or self-care programs.

Use this workbook as a motivator to gather people for education, moral discernment, spiritual nurture, and ethical action. Together you can help focus reflection and action toward safe spaces and healthy relations in a transformative process.

Program Leaders

We strongly recommend experienced, skilled, non-judgmental co-leaders who can deal responsibly with emotional and sensitive material. Co-leadership provides significant benefits for both participants and leaders. Co-leaders can share the workload, provide feedback to one another, and prevent feelings of isolation. They also provide participants with more perspectives, experiences, leadership styles, and role models than an individual can provide.

Try to create a supportive, safe, comfortable, and respectful environment in which participants can risk feeling vulnerable and can experience and share at the levels where conviction and meaning grow. Leaders and participants need to be willing to re-examine their own attitudes and engage in discussions with careful thoughtfulness and integrity.

Leaders must be familiar with the entire program and to be clear about their group’s decision-making process to determine the number of sessions, the scheduling of sessions, and the time frame for combining sessions in all-day or weekend retreats. Make a commitment to begin and end each session on time and ask participants for the same commitment. Respectful use of everyone’s time builds trust within the group.

Prepare and plan. Having all materials and resources available before each session creates a relaxed and efficient environment. The quality of the program will be significantly enhanced if you take the time to evaluate experiences after each session and plan for the next one.

In planning your congregation’s use of this workbook, acknowledge your religious community’s strengths and gifts as well as its needs and shortcomings. Before beginning a process component or session plan, agree on guidelines for openness and sharing. Consider the following example and adapt, modify, or devise your own group guidelines.

Guidelines for Openness and Sharing

This program offers much potential for open sharing. On many occasions you will invite participants to share what may be intimate material. Therefore it is important that you let people know that you encourage them to speak only when they are comfortable, that it is always okay to pass if they choose not to share.

Establish a norm of respect for each other and each other’s expression within the group. As much as possible, encourage participants to articulate and support this norm. Engage people in discussing the value of respect in a group and acknowledge that individuals are at different places in the journey toward a healthy and safe congregation.

To make this program work, participants must choose to be in relationship with each other for mutual growth and faith development and to help create a congregation of healthy relations and safe spaces.

If this book helps you to think in new ways about healthy relations and safe space, develop deeper faith convictions as Unitarian Universalists, and engage in more responsible, nonviolent, ethical actions as a congregation, it has accomplished its goals. It is now in your hands.

Read Next>> Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sexual Ethics

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