It is 7:13 pm on Tuesday. The doorbell rings and the last person has arrived for life group. It's Annie. She smiles and asks "How are you?" but you can see in her tired eyes that it has been another long day. You and the other group members have been catching up so you open up the circle and invite her in. Annie gives a concise description about her week, mostly focusing on the pressures and demands of the office. You move into the group study and she doesn't say much. Her prayer request revolves around someone at her work, and then she's out the door after a few minutes of closing small talk. All in all a pretty standard group meeting for Annie.
You find yourself frustrated at times with her. But you remind yourself that this is literally the only safe environment she has ever been a part of. Growing up, her parents were highly critical of their second child. College brought only competition and comparison, while the workforce has only brought more of the same. The walls that she has built up to hide her insecurity seem insurmountable.
But you think you can sense them crumbling a little. And that's the power of a safe environment.
All around us we walk in and out of unsafe places. At the office you face the pressure to produce in a dog-eat-dog world. At home you face the expectations of being a good husband/wife/parent/roommate. Almost everywhere you turn there are people who want something from you. All around you it feels like you're coming up short and falling further behind. And so what happens? You learn to keep your guard up and other people at arms length.
So how do you create a safe environment in the middle of all this? With people carrying in so much baggage from unsafe places, how do you turn the tide and make your life group a place where people can drop their guards? A place where people feel the freedom to be themselves? A place where Annie can come and learn what true community looks like? Though it is not an instantaneous or easy process, it is a critical one if your members are going to experience authentic community and spiritual growth.
Why is creating a safe environment important?
Creating a safe environment paves the way to community. It is an essential for building connections. When people feel the freedom to open up and share, it cultivates the relationships within the group.
It removes the obstacles and distractions that can get in the way of the Holy Spirit's work. If people don't feel safe in your group, they will close down, shutting themselves off from what the Spirit could do in their lives through the group.
A safe environment is irresistible. People are acceptance magnets and they will go where they feel they are accepted. Especially in an unsafe world, making your life group a safe place will make it like a light in a dark place.
What characterizes a safe environment?
What comes to mind when you think about the word "safe"? Baseball fans may think of sliding into home before the tag. Investors may think about something that is free from risk (i.e. a "safe bet"). But most of us tend to think of a safe place as a place where we are protected, or as the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it, a place where we are "free from harm or risk".
So how does this translate to life groups? Imagine if you were able to create an environment such as this:
- A place where you can let your guard down.
- A place where you can feel free to talk about issues without the fear of judgment or criticism.
- A place where you feel valued and can be vulnerable.
- A place where you feel accepted.
How do you create a safe environment?
You can begin to lay the foundation for a safe environment right from the start by using the Group Agreement. The Agreement is a great tool for setting expectations and for laying the groundwork for your group. Emphasizing the values of confidentiality, authenticity, and respect sets the right tone for creating a safe environment. As well, walking the members through the group guidelines will go a long way in keeping the group a predictable place where members know what to expect.
Another way that you can create a safe environment is by modeling the way. When you lead by example, it shows the other members what is expected. So it is important that you as the leader be a safe person yourself. It goes a long way when you model transparency, acceptance, commitment, consistency, and integrity.
How do you know if your life group has become unsafe?
If we aren't careful, our life groups can become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. Symptoms of an unsafe life group include:
- People shut down.
- Conversations tend toward superficiality.
- Members feel insecure.
- There is a lack of trust.
- People make excuses and don't show up.
- Prayer requests become third-party.
- Discussion is flat.
- People check out.
How do you correct an unsafe environment?
If you find that your life group has become an unsafe environment, there are some steps you can take to get it back on the right course.
- Revisit vision. Perhaps you could go back through the Group Agreement, inviting discussion from the group as to whether the group has lived up to the Agreement or not.
- Take personal ownership and responsibility. Look at yourself first before looking at your group members for why the group has become unsafe. Is there anything that you are doing that is making your group unsafe?
- Talk about it openly in the group. You can't simply ignore an unsafe environment and hope that it will somehow become safe again. You need to initiate discussion of where the group is and where the group needs to be.
- In diagnosing the problems in the group, you'll need to determine if this is a general group issue or just one or two members. If it is just one or two members, then you'll need to consider having private conversations with those involved. Do what you can to repair broken relationships. And when possible, encourage direct communication among the group members.