Congregational Safety: More Questions Than Answers

A few decades ago, congregational safety may have seemed relatively simple, a matter of determining how many fire extinguishers a church building needed to have or what the appropriate ratio of adults to children should be for Sunday school classes. In the years since, however, the issue has become more complicated. Shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue, a Quebec City mosque, and a Knoxville UU congregation have shown that religious communities aren’t immune to violent incidents. So how can UU congregations commit to being safe spaces, while also remaining welcoming and inclusive?

It’s a topic that is likely to result in more questions than answers. It seems clear, however, that if congregations haven’t yet taken a deeper dive into safety, they should start doing so now.

“I just want congregations to think about how they engage with people who object to some of what they say and do and represent,” says Rev. Linda Thomson, the CUC’s Congregational Life Lead for the Central and Eastern Regions,  “because there are potential safety repercussions to that.”

Thomson notes that while Canadian UU congregations have so far been relatively safe from physical threats to their property, some of them have been subject to hateful graffiti and the like for hosting events such as drag shows. While Thomson doesn’t want to discourage congregations from hosting such events or otherwise supporting the LGBQ2S+ community, she does want them to be mindful of the opposition they may encounter.

“If you’ve got a big Inclusivity flag out front, your likelihood of getting graffiti has just gone up,” she says. “You’re making a statement. And you’re going to piss somebody off.”

Thomson encourages UU congregations to work with other liberal faith traditions in their communities to determine how they can be literal “safe harbours” for each other when facing external threats. But as Rev. Danielle Webber, the CUC’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry Specialist notes, congregations need to pay close attention to safety within their own membership as well, particularly for children and youth at a vulnerable stage in their life. While precautions such as ensuring youth advisors have had criminal record checks remain critical, Webber points to the importance of taking a broader view of safety as well.

“In recent years, there’s been recognition that emotional safety is definitely a big piece of stuff that we need to navigate,” they say, “and also spiritual safety, from a place of the advisors grounded in Unitarian Universalist theology.”

While congregations can commit to making safety a priority, Webber also notes that there’s no “one size fits all” approach to this issue. Safety will be a particularly important consideration for children and youth from marginalized communities, and providing it will require an approach tailored to their individual circumstances.

“How do we create safety for them?” Webber says. “Because it can look different than safety for the general public.”

Creating a safe congregation will inevitably involve taking risks, for there’s no way to ensure all those who venture into a UU space will always be completely safe within its walls. But without risk, there is no reward: a place where people have the freedom to be their whole authentic selves.

Do you have questions? Would you like to engage in further conversation and exploration? Contact congregationallife@cuc.ca

 

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Call and Response, the Canadian Unitarian Council’s new blog, is a forum for sharing ideas, tools, and resources with people and organizations who want to create a more loving, just, and equitable world. 

Kenzie Love is the Writer for the Canadian Unitarian Council.

 

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