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27 February 2017

Leading for safer churches: the art and heart of communication

Leading for safer churches: the art and heart of communication

Justin Humphreys is executive director (safeguarding) at CCPAS 

“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” - Charles Dickens 

In a recent meeting with a great Christian leader of an organisation with whom CCPAS has had the great honour of a longstanding relationship, I was reminded of the value of personal connection. We talked about how we were in danger of losing the art of sitting down with one another and sharing a coffee in favour of resorting to the quick and easy electronic communication methods to which we have become so accustomed. He was right and in essence - perhaps unknowingly - was saying what Dickens had said of such new communication methods many decades ago. In falling into this trap, we not only entertain the risk of miscommunication, but we limit our ability to convey true heart, purpose and connection. 

In the safeguarding world, communication is an essential ingredient to effective practice on so many levels. Our ability to communicate our expectations and set an open, enquiring culture are as important as the manner in which we encourage those with a lesser voice to speak out to a listening ear. The need for leaders to model good communication can’t be overstated. We only need remind ourselves of the countless accounts of abuses within the Church over past decades, where victims and survivors of abuse have commented on their inability to speak out for fear of what their abuser might do or say – or even that they would probably not even be believed – to know that giving voice and creating truly open communication channels is of critical importance in our churches.  

Breaking the silence of such past abuses is absolutely necessary, but how much better would it be for those who have already suffered to have this acknowledged and dealt with appropriately nearer the time? Furthermore, as leaders of churches full of broken people – such as we all are – there should be an expectation that these issues will be lying under the surface for many. It’s therefore incumbent on us to create environments where effective communication acts as a critical agent for freedom, release and justice and also provides an environment where clear messages are given to create safer places for the prevention of such abuses in the first place. As Dickens implied, the encouragement of bravery and truth requires intentional human interaction and communication. 

A further area in which clear communication and setting of expectations is of the greatest importance is that of safer working practice. How many times have you as leaders found yourselves in situations that on reflection you ought not to have been in? Not because anything inappropriate or harmful necessarily happened, but because it could have happened or others might be forgiven for thinking it had. In the gospel of Matthew (10:16), Jesus instructs his disciples to be ‘wise as serpents, but gentle as doves’ in their ministry. As leaders, this is the exact same principle that we should continue to adopt in our contact with those who may be vulnerable or already at risk of harm. Being wise in our ministry or leadership means that we should give clear and serious thought to whether any given situation may not be sensible or safe to enter on our own – for the sake of all concerned.  

On too many occasions, our Safeguarding Advisors at CCPAS have been asked for advice on how to identify if a particular person was negatively motivated or had ill-intent towards another. These are typically extremely complex situations to fathom. By the time these questions are being asked, it’s often evident that safer working practices were not in operation, leading to the dilemma of how to deal with the aftermath without absolute clarity. 

The parallels between safer practice and the passage in Matthew continue; Jesus was speaking to the disciples in the context of a discussion concerning the "wolves in sheep’s clothing" who would seek to mislead and cause damage. On many occasions, the harm that is caused to others is inadvertent and the product of a lack of awareness or good, basic principles for safer practice. However, in some situations behaviour is intentional and those who are intent on causing such harm to others will have become well practiced at creating the environment with a public persona to cover their tracks, which is also known as grooming. 

For all these reasons, the task of the leader in communicating effectively and creating safer environments where safer practice is understood and adhered to is a skillful and deliberate one. So maybe it’s time to sit down, grab a coffee and share something of God’s heart for the vulnerable with our teams and what this means for our ministry. 

This article first appeared in idea for leaders, our bimonthly email packed full of article and reviews to help equip and inspire church and organisational leaders in their work. If you would like to receive idea for leaders, sign up here.