What does it mean to feel truly safe? I'm not talking about an isolated and insulate safety where we retreat to the corners of our own little worlds free from conflict but bound to stagnation. I'm talking about true safety; the kind that can only be manifested in connection with people.

To understand how we, as leaders, can form and invite people into a safe place, we must first understand what it means to feel safe and what it means to be a safe person.

There are people who have a utopian image of communal safety as being with people who are similar in culture, tastes, values, and ideals. The more homogenous the group, the more safe they feel. While these are important elements in the formation of a safe environment and community, it obscures the underlying reason why people feel safe.

When we look at the core of what it means to feel safe, what we find is that it involves expectations, integrity, consistency, personal ability.

  • Expectations - The range of assumptions on what people think, how people will react, why things are done a certain way, etc
  • Integrity - The cohesion between the covert and overt, what said and what is done, intention and execution, etc.
  • Consistency - The pattern of interactions and behaviors that form a baseline of normalcy
  • Personal Ability - The capacity to maintain our own safety regardless of environment

Our understanding of these four elements helps us to better understand the safety of person, environment, and community.

Let's look at a scenario of a co-worker to understand how this works. You've worked with this person for close to a year. Recently, you've felt this "vibe" from them that you couldn't quite place your finger on. Outwardly, they're polite. You still have sporadic interactions with them. You find out, through the grapevine, that they have been spreading rumors about you to derail your promotion in hopes that they will receive it.

What is clear about this scenario is that you are dealing with an unsafe person. This co-worker is out for their own interests. They will engage in shady tactics to get what they want.

Also, this is definitely not a safe environment. This incident can breed the expectation that other people will do the same, or at the very least, that co-worker will do this again. Integrity is also brought into suspicion. There is can be a second guessing of what people say and think. The ability to take people at their word has been compromised. There is also a shaking of consistency. This incident begs the question, "What is considered normal and not normal in this environment?"

The question we need to ask, though, is if someone would feel safe in this environment or not. Someone who is jaded, has "been around the block", and knows how to play the game would probably feel safe. Their personal ability to handle these situations would allow them to navigate things wisely. They might have also expected this type of scenario and considered it normal. Their level of consistency is such that this is no surprise. This type of person, though, usually lacks integrity.

We feel safe when the environment we are in matches the expectations we have, the integrity we desire, the consistency we are used to, and doesn't overwhelm our personal ability.

If we take this perspective and use it to analyze why people congregate into homogenous groups, it makes sense. When we are with people of similar cultures, we have an ease in navigating these 4 elements. There is a built-in system of behaviors that allow for certain expectations. There is a familiarity with the nuances between the covert and overt. Gestures and slang and body language is codified. The cultural touchstones and norms help us understand what is considered consistent. Through all of this, we do not exhaust our personal ability to handle all of these things.

In forming a safe community that can be a safe environment for people to feel safe, there needs to be careful consideration in how we establish these four elements. As leaders, we are the pacesetter for expectations, integrity, and consistency. We also hold the role of maturing people in their personal ability.

Our goal in forming a safe community does not come through the path of perfection. As a matter of fact, perfection is counter-intuitive to safety.

Rather, it is through:

  • setting realistic expectations (rooted in forgiveness, compassion, and honor)
  • following through with full integrity (doing what you say, and saying what you mean)
  • that we are able to establish the baseline of consistency (the communal acknowledgement of communal identity, purpose, and culture) 
  • in which we, as leaders, can train people in their personal ability (e.g. conflict resolution, vulnerability, encouragement, helping, etc) 
  • to cohesively form a place of safety

What this means is that we, as leaders, shouldn't hide our mistakes. We take full ownership of them. Yet, we are quick to apologize. We also train people to forgive and show compassion when someone causes an offense by exemplifying this lifestyle ourselves.

As leaders, we give people access to our internal lives so that they can see the covert and not just the overt. We help people by communicating not just what we do or how we do it, but also why we do it. We help them understand our motivations.

As we continually cultivate expectations, integrity, and consistence, and as we mature people (and ourselves) in personal ability, we will see an environment and community of safety formed.

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I'm forming teaching along these lines, and I'm excited to see how the people of God can rise when they are equipped in this way.

Published by Young Song