Safe. This is a loaded word in my life. I have felt the lack of it and flourished within it. I have known the power of its existence and felt the fear of its void. I’ve experienced the devastation of when it was and eventually was not. I have been safe in my own self and my own skin, and also been so detached from myself that my own body and mind was the most unsafe place to be.
As a leader, safety is a priority for me. I want my team, my family, my employees, and my community to feel safe with me. I believe that safety primarily means space for differences, for emotion, for healthy conflict, and for being truly seen and accepted. What safety cannot mean is space for cruelty, dismissiveness, demanded conformity, and counterfeit community insisting that everything is fine when it is not fine.
I remember being brought into a grueling 3 hour meeting in January. It was on the heels of a night in which I shared with a dozen women in my missionary community how worried I was about the lack of healthy conflict and vulnerability in our area, how frustrated I was at the sexism that continued to go unaddressed in our organization (despite repeated attempts from many for decades), and how hurtful it was to feel rejected within that very group for not fitting into the “missionary wife mold.” I knew I was taking a risk in saying those things. I hoped it would be a safe place to do so. Then I was called in to be told all the reasons why I should not have said it. Rather than discovering that my community was safe enough to hold these things with me, sort them out, and address whatever might be broken in our systems and relationships, I found that the community was unsafe. And strangely enough, I’ve come to realize that I am unsafe as well.
There was so much said in that 3 hour meeting, though none of it addressed any of the things I had shared. Instead I was reprimanded for saying anything at all. It didn’t matter that I spoke kindly. It didn’t matter whether or not there was merit to my words. It didn’t matter that my articulated goals were to work through these community problems that had been ignored for so long. It did not matter that what I hoped for was a healthier, more loving, and more effective community. The real problem, my supervisor and his supervisor said, was that I made people feel “unsafe.” They described me as “too angry and too aggressive,” but encouraged me that this was an “opportunity for God to fix some character flaws” that I had.
That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever heard anyone say about me. At the time I tried to reconcile this perspective with the feedback that I have gotten from many other sources – both from those I’ve led, those I’ve partnered with, and those I’ve worked under. It simply doesn’t match. My inbox is full of “I can’t tell anyone but you because you feel safe to me.” My life experiences are full of sitting with people in suffering, in trauma, and in grief because I’ve learned through a long process of my own healing (and a lot of therapy) how to just let people feel and think what they do without needing to tidy things up. I’ve learned to be safe especially for those who don’t need trite answers or a fast clean up of their pain.
Since that meeting 10 months ago, I’ve been wrestling with the words of these two men who barely knew me, who both admitted to feeling threatened by my ability to articulate my emotions and thoughts and not back down easily, and who claimed to be speaking for the wider community in that moment. I don’t think there was anything more disorienting or painful that they could have said. The idea that *I* could unknowingly be making someone afraid bothers me more than nearly anything else. There is simply no slur worse than “unsafe” in my vocabulary. On the wake of this feedback, I’ve spent a lot of hours thinking, a lot of money on counseling, and a lot of conversations with people I trust trying to figure out if these men were right. Am I unsafe?
I finally decided that they are correct: I am not a safe person.
I am unsafe for leaders who will not hear the voices of those they lead because I will not stop advocating for myself and for others who are being silenced. I am unsafe to fake because I insist upon authenticity in myself and in those in leadership roles. I am unsafe to oppressive systems because I can see them and I will name them. I am unsafe to those that think their position gives them a right to abuse their power because I do not and I will get in the way every. single. time. I am unsafe to disrespect because I believe it is tied to our humanity and not our positions or roles. I am unsafe to those who would knowingly bulldoze boundaries and think their authority gives them the right to do so because I do not allow my own boundaries to be violated and will stand with others if they need back up to maintain theirs. I am unsafe for those who use God’s name to justify their manipulation. I am unsafe in communities where conformity is required and shunning is an acceptable punishment because I will never believe that anyone deserves that treatment no matter how wrong they may be in their opinions. I am unsafe to patriarchal structures that insist men have been given license to dictate the lives of women and children without their consent. I am unsafe to hiding, to excuses, to blame casting.
I believe these men were right. I was unsafe for many in the missionary community I was a part of. I was unsafe because I pushed back against sexist norms that were unjust and unhelpful. I was unsafe because I was not afraid to take things all the way to the top if I had to. I was unsafe because I told the wives in the community that their lives and ministries were just as important as their husbands’ and that they should expect their missions organization to empower them equally. I was unsafe because I was smart and articulate and insisted upon being taken seriously. I was unsafe because I was honest when I was angry with God and when I no longer believed a theological point that was normative in that community. I was unsafe because I expressed anger unapologetically when others thought I was supposed to see it as a sin I should repent of. I was unsafe because I used profanity. I was unsafe because I talked about sex. I was unsafe because my sons watched PG-13 movies and knew what periods, abortions, and sex trafficking were. I was unsafe because I said “that’s not okay” when it wasn’t and because I asked for what I needed. I was unsafe because I called the parents who left my children out of activities where all the other kids were included and asked them to explain why. I was unsafe because when my children were told they weren’t allowed to play at a fellow missionary’s house anymore because the parents were angry with us, I called it cruel and condemned the leadership for enabling it. I was unsafe because I had no need to protect the organization before I protected the people in it or the people impacted by it. I was unsafe because I called some of our organizational practices colonialistic and racist. I was unsafe because I refused to believe that social justice plays second string to church planting. I was unsafe because I noted the inconsistencies that exist between our community’s words and practices. I was unsafe because I told my leaders that their behavior was spiritually abusive and wouldn’t take the words back when they said they didn’t mean to be hurtful and that it was more important that the community feel comfortable than that they know the truth. I was unsafe to bullshit and to those who were more concerned with the fact that I say bullshit than what is contained within the word.
So I guess they were right. I am unsafe. None of us can be safe for everything. We have to choose what we will be safe for and what we will be unsafe for. I still believe that I am safe for creativity and diversity, for the confused, marginalized, and abused. To be these things, I must become unsafe too. Unsafe to rigidly and conformity, and unsafe for those moored to their power, fearful of the “other,” and willing to harm in their own selfishness. The older I get, the more I realize how much in life is a paradox, and so I am learning to hold the tension of being safe and unsafe all at the same time, desperately hoping that I choose wisely who will find me safe and who will not.