"I don't feel like I can be myself", or "the young people don't feel safe". It is something I hear a lot, especially in the evangelical environments that I used to be involved in. There seems to be something about Christian (evangelical) environments that make it very difficult to create a psychologically safe environment. I mentioned psychological safety briefly on my blog last weekbut it is such an important concept for churches and organisations to discuss I would like to highlight it again.
A psychologically safe environment is one where people feel free to be themselves, where they don't have to protect themselves by disengaging or holding back, where they don't fear negative consequences if they say what they think, make mistakes, ask questions express doubtor challenge the status quo. In contrast to vulnerability which is largely an individual’s ability to share on a personal level, psychological safety deals with the actions, attitudes and beliefs on a group level. For those of us in christian environments the biggest negative consequence of speaking our minds is the threat to our sense of belonging to the Christian community. There is still an
emphasis on ‘in’ and ‘out’ and the feeling of belonging is very (perhaps spiritually) important to members. Members may be reluctant to express themselves as the consequence is that they are labelled as non-christian or non-biblical, and their sense of belonging to the community is questioned.
Psychological safety is necessary to encourage innovation and learning. If we want to grow the individuals in our churches and our churches ability to keep up with societal changes we need to create psychological safety. Leaders have a role to play in creating a psychologically safe congregation, but the research shows that the members have just as an important part in creating safety. Leaders can help by modelling how to value and appreciate diverse opinions, by acknowledging the diversity of opinions within Christianity and within their denominations. They can admit their own mistakes and doubts, and importantly they can model that the status quo can be challenged, and ask for input and feedback. Members then need to be taught how to value and respect other's opinions, and how to be accepting of others doubts and questions. As an individual it can be difficult to create a psychologically safe environment, but it is possible to gradually make some small changes. The first step is to take some small risks in sharing your own thoughts and ideas, this may encourage others to share as well. Here are some questions to get you and your leadership thinking about psychological safety.
Is my church a psychologically safe environment for me? For others?
Do the people in my church seem different in contrast to when I speak to individuals?
3) What are the ways in which we re-in force belonging over not-belonging and hold it as a threat for those who don't conform?
4) Does the leadership admit their fallibility, not just in their personal or spiritual life but acknowledging their blind spots and asking for input?
5) How do I express appreciation for others opinions?
6) What are the small risks I could take this week to express myself fully?