Developing Safe Environments for Learning and Transformation

Resources for the urban pastor and community leader published by Emmanuel Gospel Center, Boston    Emmanuel Research Review reprint Issue No. 80 — July 2012

Resources for the urban pastor and community leader published by Emmanuel Gospel Center, Boston

Emmanuel Research Review reprint
Issue No. 80 — July 2012

by Rev. Dr. Gregg Detwiler, Director, Intercultural Ministries, EGC

I would like to address a question that we have been asked over and over again by Christian leaders and organizations that we have consulted and collaborated with in our work. It goes something like this: How does our organization (or church, denomination, school, etc.) develop a safe environment where our capacity to see personal and corporate transformation in and through our organization (church, denomination, school, etc.) is greatly enhanced? Or to put it another way, how can we experience transformation in our organization so that we have greater capacity to be an agent of transformation in our world?

A Model for Personal and Organizational Transformation

Over the past decade, we have with consulted many organizations on the topic of organizational change. In this process, I have often shared a model—or archetype1 — that describes the elements necessary for personal and organizational transformation. I say “personal and organizational” transformation because it is impossible to have one without the other. In our context, we often apply these principles to intercultural work but they are transferable to any desired change.

The elements involved can be illustrated in the following Venn diagram:

Figure 1: Model for Transformation

Figure 1: Model for Transformation

A brief definition of each element follows:

  1. Prophetic Vision is seeing God’s intention for a given situation and seeing the present reality as it really is. Our primary source for prophetic vision is the Word of God, but there are other sources that are also important: the community of faith, the leading and illumination of the Holy Spirit, and social/systems analysis. This prophetic seeing will always reveal a “gap” representing the distance between God’s high calling and where we are in relationship to that high calling. This prophetic seeing must be done with humility, recognizing that as humans we “know in part and prophesy in part.” Hence, prophetic vision is best done in community where others are permitted to share their perspective to help the learning organization fill in the picture as completely as possible and to arrive at “shared vision.”

  2. Prophetic Voice is declaring what we believe God would have us do at this point in time and space. Like prophetic vision, prophetic voice must also be shared and affirmed by a particular Christian community/organization for it to have any traction. While prophetic vision and prophetic voice can arise from anyone within a given Christian community/organization, it must be embraced and endorsed by the “authorizing voice” of that community/organization for it to gain legitimacy and traction.

  3. A Functional Infrastructure must be put in place to carry out the prophetic vision and voice. The core of this infrastructure is an aligned functional team and the necessary support structures to do the work.

  4. A Safe Environment is the necessary context for any and all three of the elements above to work and, hence, is perhaps the most important of the four elements. It is also, in my experience, the element most missing in Christian ministry, and the one that most often derails personal and organizational transformation. A safe environment is necessary for a community/organization to come together to understand prophetic vision, agree on prophetic voice, and build and maintain a functional infrastructure. A safe environment involves establishing, honoring and maintaining honest and loving relationships that have the capacity to sustain and learn from the inevitable conflicts that always arise in the journey of transformation.

Reflections on How To Develop a Safe Environment

The main question of this paper deals with this fourth element: a safe environment. Time and time again in our consulting practice, we hear our clients say something like this: “We clearly see the necessity of creating a safe environment for learning and transformation but we have one question, how exactly do we develop a safe environment?” What follow is a first step in attempting to answer that question.

What a Safe Environment Is and Is Not

Before answering that question, however, let’s first describe what a safe environment is and is not.

When I am consulting with a Christian group, I often get the group to reflect on this question by taking them to what I call “the most unpracticed verse of the Bible”—James 5:16. I read to them the verse from the New International Version: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. Or, my preferred rendering of this verse from the Message paraphrase: Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.

I then ask them a series of questions: Do we really “do” this verse in the church? Is it our “common practice”? The answer, “No, not so much.”

Then I follow with, “Why don’t we practice it?” The reply: “Because people don’t feel safe enough to do it.”

I then ask, “What would it take to make it safe enough to actually do it, to make this our common practice? What are the qualities that describe a safe environment?” The lists of qualities are always very similar, things such as:

  • Trust

  • Confidentiality

  • Being a good listener

  • Not judging others

  • Patience and longsuffering

  • Considering the best in one another

  • Not looking down on those who confess their sins/temptations/weakness

  • Not “defining” others by "freeze-framing” their identity by the sins/temptations they confess

  • Avoiding “cross-talk” (being too quick to give unsolicited advice to others)

  • Focusing on our own “stuff” rather than on others' “stuff”

  • Gaining trust and asking permission before attempting to speak into someone else’s life

  • A commitment to one another’s growth

It is also important to explicitly state what a safe environment is NOT. Many people identify the elements above but still misconstrue what a safe environment is because they do not understand the subtler elements of what a safe environment is not.

A safe environment is NOT:

  • A pain-free environment (growth is often painful)

  • Only about “me” feeling safe (it is also about helping “others” feel safe)

  • Uniformity of opinion (a truly safe environment welcomes different perspectives)

  • A permission slip for being obstinate, unyielding, and unwilling to work for the common good

  • A “free-for-all” for expressing raw emotions without considering the effect this sharing will have on others

Steps To Developing a Safe Environment

After describing what a safe environment is and is not, the next issue is how to get there. It is one thing to be able to describe a safe environment, it is another thing altogether to be able to create and nurture it. The following diagram describes the process I have observed in creating, nurturing and reproducing safe environments.


Figure 2: The Process of Creating & Reproducing a Safe Environment

Let’s now describe each of the stages of the cycle in more detail.

1. Willingness: A Community/Organization That Desires to Create a Safe Environment

The first step required to enter this journey is “willingness.” As the common quip goes, “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” Not many high-level organizational leaders will say that they do not want a safe environment within their organizational culture, but many simply have never experienced a safe environment themselves to the degree that they can provide the necessary leadership to cultivate it within their organization.

So the first step, plain and simple, is to find an organization or a community or (more likely) a subset within an organization/community that is willing to pursue a greater intellectual and experiential understanding of what a safe environment really is. In some cases—in a highly dysfunctional organization, for instance—the starting point may necessitate seeking out a safe environment outside of the organization.

2. Skilled Leadership to Guide in Nurturing a Safe Environment

The importance of skilled leadership cannot be overstated. This leadership may come from within the community or from outside it. The real issue here is the quality of leadership. There are certain prerequisites that a leader must have in order to serve as a guide to others in a journey toward a safe environment.

The first and foremost indispensable quality is that the leader must have already experienced the power of a transformational safe environment herself. It is impossible to reproduce and to guide others in what we ourselves have not experienced. The best guides are those who have tasted deeply of the refreshing waters of a safe environment for themselves.

The second quality is that the leader must be whole enough.2 “Whole enough” to have a healthy self-awareness, to appropriately share their journey with others, and to assist others in their journey. The term “whole enough” means that the leader is self-aware of her own brokenness and has already taken significant steps in her own healing journey. Some of the characteristics of a “whole enough” leader are as follows:

  • The whole enough leader is one who knows and can articulate her own self-identity in all of her complexity—good, bad and ugly. This self-awareness is demonstrated in her ability to see that she is (as we all are) “wonderful, wounded and wicked” and that God has taken this total package and has begun a process of healing and transformation. As such, the whole enough person can freely acknowledge her brokenness while at the same time seeing her goodness as a beloved child of God made in his image.

  • The whole enough leader is one who has learned how to appropriately share his own healing journey as a gift to others. As the whole enough one is secure in the love of God, he is able to share not only his strengths with others but also his weaknesses. As weaknesses are shared, others are called out of darkness and hiding into a place of safety, light and healing.

  • The whole enough person has been exposed to a safe environment to a sufficient degree that she understands the structural and spiritual elements necessary for nurturing a safe environment for others. In other words, the whole enough person is familiar enough with the air of a safe environment to recognize what it feels like and is skilled enough to know how to foster such an environment for others.

3. Group Learning About the Qualities of a Safe Environment

It is not enough for a leader to merely embody a safe environment; he must also lead a group of willing souls to consider together what a safe environment is and is not, what it looks like and feels like.

The aforementioned exercise (Group Reflection on James 5:16: confessing our sins to one another) is one of the most effective means I have found for leading a group into a better shared understanding of the qualities that comprise a safe environment.

Another technique is to get members of the group to consider the safest environments they have every encountered in their lives—places where personal and corporate transformation was made possible—and to get them to describe the qualities that were present in those environments.

4. Skilled Leadership that will Model & Maintain a Safe Environment

Once the group has reflected together and has a shared vision of what a safe environment looks like, the leader must lead the way by modeling a willingness to be vulnerable in sharing his own journey. The leader must be willing to share personal testimony that is authentic, transparent and bears witness to the power of transformation within a safe community. Not only must the leader model this, he must remind the group of the qualities of a safe environment and establish some basic ground rules that can help maintain it.3

It is also important to add here that creating and maintaining a safe environment is not like taking a straight-line stroll to the top of a mountain, but is more like a circuitous path of hills and valleys. It is often hard work because it involves fallen creatures that sometimes rub one another the wrong way. In truth, a journey toward a safe environment is not for the fainthearted; it requires ample supplies of humility, long-suffering, repentance, grace, and growth. It is important for participants to understand that this is the nature of the journey and that this reality, in fact, is part of what makes it transformational.

5. Reality Check: A Community/Org that is willing to be Honest About Where They are in the Journey

As a group reflects together on what a safe environment looks and feels like, and as the leader models and seeks to nurture a safe environment, the group will naturally begin to reflect on whether their group and their larger organization/community is a safe place. This sober assessment needs to be encouraged. If a community or organization is unwilling to honestly evaluate where they are in the journey, there will be little hope to see progress within the larger community. In many cases, safe environments must first take hold in smaller subsets of a community/organization before the larger community can be affected to any significant degree.

6. Continued Practice Through “Action-Reflection” Learning

The task of creating and nurturing a safe environment is not a destination but a continuous journey of “action-reflection.” Action-Reflection learning means that there is continuous effort given to putting into practice the qualities of a safe environment and continuous commitment to reflection, learning and evaluation throughout the journey. We learn how to be a safe community by practicing.

7. Reproduction: Members of the Community/Organization Reproduce Safe Environments in their Spheres of Influence

As members of a community/organization taste of the transforming power of a safe learning environment, they will naturally be drawn to bring its influence into their spheres of influence. In fact, I have found that people who have tasted of a safe environment will have a thirst for more and will want to bring it to others within their community/organization and beyond. This point goes back to the Genesis design that God’s creatures “reproduce after their own kind.”4 People who have experienced a safe environment, making personal and corporate transformation possible, will naturally seek out other willing souls and begin the cyclical process described in this paper over again.

Conclusion: Make this your common practice

When the three elements described in the Transformation Model (Figure 1) are practiced within the context of a safe environment, personal and corporate transformation is made possible. Examples of this transformation abound in both the personal and corporate spheres. I have experienced this in my own life, in our own work in Intercultural Ministries, and in our consulting with other organizations. A familiar example—on the personal level—that many people in our society would recognize is Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are many others.5


1 In the discipline of Systems Thinking, a systems archetype is a structure that exhibits a distinct behavior over time and has a very recurring nature across multiple disciplines of science. The foundational text that Systems Thinkers often refer to is The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge (Currency Doubleday: New York: 1990).

2 I learned the term “whole enough” as a participant in a healing ministry called Living Waters. Living Waters is one of the most effective programs I am aware of in nurturing a safe healing environment, especially for those who have experienced relational and/or sexual brokenness. To learn more about Living Waters, visit

3 These qualities and ground rules were mentioned previously in this article under the subheading “What A Safe Environment Is & Is Not.”

4 Genesis 1:11-12

5 For copies of these case studies please contact the author.

Rev. Dr. Gregg Detwiler is the Director of Intercultural Ministries at Emmanuel Gospel Center. The mission of Intercultural Ministries is “to connect the Body of Christ across cultural lines…for the purpose of expressing and advancing the Kingdom of God… in Boston, New England, and around the world.” Gregg works with a wide cross-section of leaders from over 100 ethno-linguistic groups. His ministry largely involves applied research, training, consulting, networking, and collaboration, especially related to intercultural ministry development.

Prior to joining the staff of EGC in 2001, Gregg served for 13 years as a church planter and pastor of a multicultural church in Boston and was elected as the overseeing Presbyter for the Northeast Massachusetts Section of the Assemblies of God. He served for five years as the Pastor of Missions & Diaspora Ministry at Mount Hope Christian Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. He earned his Doctor of Ministry in Urban Ministry in 2001 from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Ministry in Complex Urban Settings. His thesis, Nurturing Diaspora Ministry and Missions in and through a Euro-American Majority Congregation, has provided much of the direction of his ministry in recent years. Raised in Kansas, Gregg graduated from Evangel University and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. Gregg and his wife, Rita, live in the Boston area and have three children.

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