I have been thinking about the difference between “making it safe” and “playing it safe.”
A key practice in helping people and communities engage in crucial conversations is to make it safe for people to stay in dialogue. That means setting some clear ground rules for the conversation. It is paying attention to our word choices so we are not attacking, blaming, and judging. It is listening deeply so that we are seeking to understand the other and their heart as much as we are trying to speak our truth with love.
As an annual conference, we made an investment in an online training program and background check process for local churches that is all about keeping our children, youth, and vulnerable adults safe. It is called Safe Gatherings because that is what we want. Every time we gather, people will know that our commitment is to make that gathering safe. No child will be put in harm’s way. No child will be at risk of inappropriate behavior by the adults who are around. Every child will be seen and treated as a precious child of God.
Risk management is a watchword in our organizations. Our insurance companies expect that we have the appropriate practices, policies, and procedures—and anyone who is part of our community or served by us wants to know that we are upholding our responsibility not only to do good but also to do no harm.
On the other side, we all can recall times and places when we have played it safe. For fear of getting hurt, we have not risked, not put our ideas out there, and not tried the new thing. We have hidden behind the potential liability and said we can’t do that.
Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, said we cannot get to courage and imagination without going through vulnerability. And vulnerability rarely feels safe. If we try to play it safe all the time in order to protect our fragile ego, ironically, we never get strong.
Jesus had something to say on this topic. He said if we seek to save our life, we will lose it. But if we lose it for the sake of the kingdom, we will find it.
I find that is a fundamental conversation going on in many of our churches right now. We are feeling vulnerable because of the aging of our people. There are fewer people and fewer children, and we wonder about our future. So we move into protection mode. We can’t spend that endowment. We can’t radically overhaul our ministries. We can’t risk it. We might lose the people we have. We need the money for a rainy day.
We play it safe thinking that will make it safe for our future, but it does not. New people don’t seek us out because there is nothing new about what we are doing. There is little excitement because we don’t perceive God doing a new thing in our midst. We are slowly losing our life because the gospel movement has never been one about playing it safe.
It has always been about stepping out in faith to follow God wherever God leads us, which is usually “out there” to new places, new people, and new ways.
Every significant period of growth in my life came when I pushed myself out of what was comfortable and safe, when I challenged myself beyond what I thought were my limits. Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I wanted to give up because it was hard and exhausting. But I have no regrets. Those are the times I look back on and feel I was most “me” because I was fully engaged, fully leaning into all of life, and therefore most alive.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter: “You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out” (MSG).
Do we believe that? Do we stake ourselves on that promise? If we do, we don’t need to worry about playing it safe because this is God’s church, and when we live by anchoring ourselves on the rock, on Jesus, that is what makes it safe for us to go all out in faith. Yes, it feels scary and daring and exhilarating all at the same time, but we never go alone, do we. This is the church of God, so let’s, with God, act like it.
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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