What Safety Requires

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

See Video here.

“Building bridges between our divisions, I reach out to you, will you reach out to me? With all of our voices, and all of our visions, friends, we could make such sweet harmony.”[1] I will not be surprised at all if you find this song to be wildly out of sync with the story I read from the Rev. Tom Schade, “Troubled People in the Church,” about a man who disrupted church activities, behaved disrespectfully, made people feel uncomfortable and, at the suggestion of police, was barred from church property.[2] The song and the story are out of sync. The song is about building bridges between people who are divided. The story is about a division—between a troubled man and a church—that is, at least in this moment, unbridgeable. In a moment like this our good news that all are welcome, that each may enter as they are, hits a wall—Tom Schade calls it a brick wall. It turns out there are circumstances when not all are welcome, when not all may enter as they are. Sometimes our collective safety requires that we set limits.

When I write these words—our collective safety requires that we set limits—when I hear myself speak them—something about them doesn’t feel right. And the source of that feeling is clear to me. Unitarian Universalists gather our congregations around seven principles.[3] As is the case with any principles, we ask a lot of them.  We often embrace them as ideals. We often expect a kind of ethical clarity to emerge from them. We often regard them as pure and elegant statements of human wisdom, as essential guides for living. We treat them as inviolable—at least we aspire to. So when our safety is at stake, when we are forced to bar someone from church property, when we utter the words “You are not welcome here,” it might feel like a violation of our principles. In kicking someone out, isn’t it possible we’ve disregarded their inherent worth and dignity—our first principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve failed to treat them with justice, equity and compassion—our second principle? Isn’t it possible we have failed to accept them and encourage them in their spiritual growth—our third principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve trampled upon their right of conscience, that we’ve somehow violated the democratic process—our fifth principle? In my view the answer is no, we haven’t failed on any of these counts. We haven’t violated our principles. But it can feel that way.

Our ministry theme for May is relatedness. When I look back over my sermons from this congregational year—and really over the last decade—relatedness is a central—even essential—spiritual theme for me. The language of relatedness on my lips should be familiar to you. I often refer to the biological and physical fact of our relatedness. With every breath we take we are reminded, if we are paying attention, of our relatedness to and our dependence on the green plants and algae that convert the sun’s energy into oxygen. We would not exist in the absence of this relatedness. This is a fact. Furthermore, it is not wrong to say that we are related to the planets and the stars. We are made of the same stuff and we come from the same place—the same primordial soup—13.75 billion years ago. As the late physicist Darryl Reanney once wrote of the mysterious beginnings of the universe, “somehow, out of that mystery there exploded a fireball of unimaginable power. And this we can say confidently: all that was, all that is and all that shall be, was contained in that fireball.”[4]  I often speak—we often speak—of a oneness with all there is, a connectedness to all there is, an interdependence with all there is. Our condition is not ultimately one of separateness. Our condition is ultimately one of relatedness.

This fact of our relatedness has ethical implications. From our perception of ourselves as related to the whole of life emerges our sense of obligation to care for life. From our perception of relatedness to other people emerges our sense of obligation—even our desire—to care for other people; to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world for all people. From our perception of our relatedness to other people emerges our capacity for compassion towards other people.

Well, when our spiritual task is to perceive our relatedness to the whole of life and, in response, strive to bring justice, equity and compassion to other people—to build bridges between our divisions, as the song says—it will always feel somewhat disconcerting when we need to prevent someone from coming onto church property, when we have to say to someone, “You are not welcome.” Setting such a limit doesn’t feel very compassionate.  I had to say it to a member of the congregation I served prior to coming here. It’s a harsh thing to say. It’s a hard thing to say. It’s distasteful.  I can assure you it is the last thing clergy want to contend with. But there’s a lesson here: The ideals to which our principles point cannot always be realized in practice, especially when the health and safety of the community is at stake. And the fact of our relatedness to the whole of life—the fact of our oneness, our connectedness, our interdependence—does not mean there should be no boundaries, no borders, no limits.  Borders, boundaries and limits are also facts of life. I like the way Rev. Schade puts it: “Animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.”[5]

I confess I have an agenda this morning, and here it is: As a congregation we are about to begin a conversation which will last for many months, possibly longer, about policies to ensure congregational safety. The incident at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester didn’t happen here, but something like it could happen. No house of worship has control over who decides to visit its public events. If the incident had happened here, how would we have dealt with it? Answering that kind of question is the purpose of a safe congregation policy.

Of course, a disruptive person like that is one kind of threat to the health and safety of a congregation. There are others. The one that is most prevalent in the public mind today—and has done more to shape attitudes and practices around congregational safety than anything else in recent memory—is the child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. While there were many unique factors in the Roman Catholic structure that created the conditions for this tragedy to become as widespread as it did, I contend no religious body should consider itself completely immune from this kind of threat. It’s never the path of wisdom to convince ourselves that it—whatever it may be—can’t happen here. It is a good practice, a healthy practice, a safe practice to put in writing what our expectations are and how we intend to maintain safety for everyone.

Ever since I’ve been serving as your minister, our leadership has talked about the need for a comprehensive safe congregation policy. We began working on the policy four years ago. We’ve been moving ahead slowly and methodically. We’re being proactive rather than reactive. That is, we feel our congregation is already very safe and we’re trying to codify in writing what that means. We are not reacting to a specific breach of safety. Congregations that try to create safety policies in reaction to a breach of safety often overreact and, in a state of panic and chaos, create policies that are too restrictive and impossible to put into practice. We haven’t been reacting. We’ve been researching what works; we’ve been studying best practices. We’ve been striving for balance. Over the last five years, many people have worked on different versions of the policy. Rich Thralls led a team in writing the first draft. David Cloakey and John Saddlemire spent some time with it. Denielle Burl, who officially became a member of UUS:E this morning, did a total re-write for us last summer. Our former president, Jo Anne Gillespie, and I have prepared the most recent version, with input from Vicki Merriam, our Director of Religious Education; Josh Hawks-Ladds, Wayne Starkey, and Crystal Ross from our Personnel Committee, and the current Policy Board members. My point here is that a lot of people, over many years, have had a hand in creating this comprehensive safe congregation policy. I am deeply thankful to all of them as this is not easy material to wrestle with.

But we’re not done. We’re not officially putting the policy into practice until all of you have had a chance to read it, wrestle with it, and provide input. We want the entire congregation to be familiar with a variety of critical safety issues and how we would respond to them in the unlikely event they occurred. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible with topics that, by their very nature, are uncomfortable. For example, what kinds of behavior qualify as disruptive? (Your sense of ‘disruptive’ might not be the same as your neighbor’s.) What kinds of behavior would lead us to remove someone from membership or bar them from our property? (It is unlikely it will ever happen, but having some consensus around this as a congregation—and writing it down—is one of the structures that will ensure it will never happen.)

It gets more uncomfortable: What if someone who has been convicted of a sexual offense—someone who has served time in prison—wants to start attending services and other activities? Can we welcome such a person and maintain safety? (Congregations have had to deal with this very situation.) Even more uncomfortable: How do we respond in the event that some kind of abuse takes place on our property or at one of our programs? Do we know our obligations under state law when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse? And finally, while we already require criminal background checks as part of our hiring process, there are some congregations that now require them for any volunteer who works with children. We aren’t proposing that now, but should we move in that direction? These are hard questions to answer, but being a truly safe congregation requires that we answer them, together.

There was a time when congregations never talked about these kinds of issues. People could barely conceive of these things, let along imagine they could happen at a church. People who did dare to talk about them found themselves discreetly and not so discreetly shushed. Today, we can imagine them. They’re in the media with great frequency. They’re in the public consciousness. We do ourselves a great service by talking about them and agreeing collectively what we will and will not tolerate and how we will respond to breaches of safety in the unlikely event they occur. As we have these conversations I expect to find, and even encourage, a range of opinion and some amount of healthy conflict around how much freedom to allow and how much freedom to curtail; around where the rights and needs and conscience of the individual bump up against the rights and needs and conscience of the community; around how much skin, bark and shell we require in order to ensure safety.

Liberal religious congregations like ours are places where freedom matters: freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, freedom to search and explore, freedom to question, freedom to doubt, freedom to engage with others, freedom of expression, freedom to speak (as in from this pulpit), freedom to love who we love (whether straight or gay). We deeply value freedom. Some might feel that in the act of naming limits on behavior in a safe congregation policy we might be putting ourselves on a slippery slope—that if we can put limits on certain egregious behaviors, perhaps we will feel emboldened to put limits on less egregious behaviors and our freedom will slowly begin to whither. We will slowly stifle its essence and its power in our lives. So what’s the right balance? Because we also know freedom suffers when people don’t feel safe. If, for example, someone rudely dismisses you in an angry and threatening tone every time you speak, you likely won’t feel free to speak. We could argue that the person who treats you this way has the freedom to speak to you however they want—this is a free church—but if the result is the silencing of your voice and the diminishing of your spirit, then we don’t have safety and the congregation is at that point failing to carry out that part of its mission which says we are “an open-minded, spiritual community seeking truth and meaning in its many forms.” We don’t want a slippery slope that begins to stifle our freedoms, but we do want balance, and that means being clear as a community about what safety requires.

Rev. Schade talks about this in the context of providing ministry to people with mental illness. About the disruptive person who visited their church he asks, “is he mentally ill?” His answer?  “It does not matter; bad behavior is not acceptable, no matter the cause. This congregation,” he goes on, “includes many people who suffer with various forms of mental illness. In fact, if a church is to serve people [with mental illness], it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected.”[6] He’s right. Mental illness in adults—often, but not always—can be linked to a pervasive lack of safety in one’s earlier life. Providing a truly safe congregation is the first step to providing effective ministry to people with mental illness. We can extend that notion. If the church is to provide effective ministry to anyone, it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot pursue our ministry to its fullest. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot freely practice our religion. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we risk the erosion of our principles and the weakening of our prized freedoms.

Our relatedness to the whole of life is not just a pretty spiritual metaphor. It is a fact. When we commit to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people—our first UU principle—our commitment is grounded in the fact of our relatedness. When we commit to practices of justice, equity and compassion in human relations—our second UU principle—our commitment is grounded in that fact of our relatedness. But “animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.” Our relatedness happens in the midst of borders and boundaries; some divisions are not bridgeable; and our collective safety—the collective safety of any human group—requires the setting of limits. We look to our principles with faith and love in our hearts, trusting they are the surest path to our ideals: that all are welcome, that all may belong as they are, that we each may live according to the dictates of conscience. But we know our ideals are not reachable in all instances; we know life can me messy and harsh and we are sometimes called to make decisions and take actions that may feel like we’re moving against our principles. So we do our best. Friends, we do our best. We agree on those instances where our ideals are not practical. We establish safety as best we can. We do so, trusting that our freedoms will flourish, that our ministries will thrive.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] The Women of Greenham Common Peace Occupation in England, 1983, “Building Bridges” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1023.

[2] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012. See: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Troubled-People-in-Church.html?soid=1102662658575&aid=BBJ4iQi4cxI.

[4] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure in Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 18.

[5] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.

[6] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.