The Common Good

Churches Must Be Safe Places

Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”

Tarchyshnik Andrei and Colorlife/
Tarchyshnik Andrei and Colorlife/

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On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.

This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.

As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job, and education can’t overcome.

Recent violence against women revealed a similar safety problem. Many women flinch whenever a man draws near and feel demeaned on a daily basis by sexist behaviors at work. Abuse stories are common.

People need safe places, and church has provided that safety to many. In church, a young black male can play drums with the choir, serve as an usher, hang out with friends, and feel loved and accepted without any need to avoid eye contact with whites.

Years ago, after a horrible time in a congregation, a friend took me to a black church. He wanted me to rediscover safety inside church doors. There, among the marginalized, I was treated with dignity and respect and felt safe inside a church for the first time in years.

I have wondered why female clergy tend to hire female staff, to select female leaders, and to emphasize female needs. Was this the “sisterhood” taking over? Turning the tables on patriarchy?

No, I think it’s part of providing a place where women can feel safe. Not just in charge, but actually safe: free to be themselves, not needing to please men or to fear men, free to imagine God as more than patriarch.

A similar search for safety has led gays to seek out gay-affirming congregations where they can be fully themselves. Some churches are entirely oriented to gay constituents.

Young church folks tend to avoid congregations led by the elderly, because they want to avoid the glares and heavy-handed control battles common in older churches.

Because safety matters so much, established congregations have an even larger dilemma than grappling with financial stress and declining numbers. They need to be safe places first.

In too many congregations, people fight over trivialities. They bully each other over doctrine, tradition, lifestyle, or political views. Power struggles are more common than generosity.

Insecure leaders allow the hyperneedy and disruptive to poison public conversations. The anxious treat basic facts of life such as change and diversity as dangerous intrusions.

Living as a Christian in the world should be more dangerous than it is. But when the faith community itself is a dangerous place, who will speak truth to power in the marketplace? Who will stand with the oppressed? Who will turn away from the false security promised by wealth? Who will embrace the enemy?

Monochromatic congregations aren’t inherently safe, nor are diverse congregations inherently dangerous. Safety in church is a matter of solid and secure leadership, self-discipline by all, effective norms for behavior and putting dignity and respect ahead of winning and getting.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Illustration: Tarchyshnik Andrei and Colorlife/

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