What Makes a Ministry “Safe”?

Introducing Four Core Questions

of “Safe” versus “Sick” Systems

OVERVIEW: I have long held the opinion that it is not enough to critique what is wrong with something, if you are not interested in figuring out what is right with it and extending that, or doing something to help fix and then keep improving what is deficient. Much of my research and writing for the past seven years on futuristguy has been about evaluating problems and moving toward solutions. This article on what makes a ministry or system “safe” versus “sick” introduces four core questions to guide our thinking. Detailed versions of the questions and contrasting responses are part of a forthcoming curriculum for social transformation agents, “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm.”

1. Are we treating people with humanization and hospitality, or objectification and hostility?

  • Humanization places objective value on people simply for their existence, regardless of what they may or may not be able to do for the institution. Objectification values people for what they can do for those in power or for the part they play in keeping the organizational machine going.
  • Hospitality welcomes people in and lifts them up. Hostility keeps people out or holds them down.
  • A good indicator of humanization and hospitality is how we divide people into categories or classes, and treated some differently based on those factors (e.g., age, race, marital status).

2. Are our leaders qualified, unqualified, or disqualified from service in a responsible public role of authority, influence, and decision-making?

  • Leaders are qualified by reason of mature personal character and consistent moral/ethical behavior.
  • Individuals who seek leadership are unqualified if they are personally immature, and/or are under-skilled for the specific requirements of the role sought.
  • Individuals who seek leadership are disqualified by reason of bad personal character and harmful/evil behavior (i.e., immoral/unethical).
  • A good project for figuring out what constitutes role-model-worthy maturity is to create “must-have” and “can’t-have” lists of character qualities and behaviors for leaders, based on Galatians 5:19-26 (the desires of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit), and leader profiling in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5.

3. Are our organizations structured to dominate and control, or develop and give freedom?

  • With domination, the resources flow from people-as-pawns to their exploiters. With development, the resources flow from and among participants.
  • Control conditions people into functioning outside the demands of their personal conscience and the dreams of their personal direction, and puts the responsibility for directives of “good” versus “harm” on external/organizational sources and forces. Freedom releases people to function responsibly according to their personal conscience and direction, within communal norms of “good” without inflicting “harm.”
  • Very different kinds of organizational structures can still be used to dominate and control its members. For instance, control can be through compliance (like the former Soviet Union), chaos (like the Maoist Cultural Revolution), or charisma (Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple). Authoritarian leaders can control centralized, hierarchical organizations or can co-opt decentralized, “flat structure” networks. And it does not matter whether the scale of the dominated enterprise is small, medium, or large.

4. Are our collaborative social involvements designed for sojourners or colonizers?

  • Sojourners travel together as interdependent people of equal value who serve one another for the benefit of all. Colonizers take over with some people being more important/valuable, and make the rest subservient to those few.
  • Sojourners share, listen, and teach. Colonizers take, tell, and indoctrinate.
  • Either set of dynamics seem to be able to drive any scale of collaborative enterprises from the small and local (projects), or medium and regional (partnerships) to large and global (politics).


A “safe/healthy” space is one where people are treated with humanity, welcomed with hospitality, leaders are role models for their character and behavior, the organization serves to help people develop and find their wings, as the group travels the road of life together to the benefit of both individuals and the group as a whole. A safe space nurtures hope, helpfulness, and human flourishing.

An “unsafe/toxic” space is one where people are viewed with contempt and treated as cogs in the machine that benefit the few, where those in control consistently harm others, where the organization diminishes the personhood of the many to benefit the power-prestige-greed of the few, and it imposes its limited views and unlimited desire for control wherever possible. An unsafe space inflicts despair, learned helplessness, and abuse.


7 thoughts on “What Makes a Ministry “Safe”?

    • Thanks for your interest, raswhiting … it’s taken a long long time for me to get to where I could condense everything down to the framework that these questions give us. I hope that serves as a helpful tool to grapple with issues and systems of abuse. Also looking forward to getting the detailed material done that goes with this framework!

  1. You can also have a structure which dominates and controls and abuses without having a clear or identifiable leader at the top. In this case the control is by a groupthink consensus or the ideas of an absentee or long-ago founder.

    • That reminds me of some dystopian-type movies where the “Big Brother” figure has long since passed away, but the sayings keep playing over airwaves on the equivalent of Muzak, and a virtual-digital reconstruction keeps giving new speeches over the TV screenwaves. It keeps the compliance perpetuated … and the subjects devastated.

  2. Brad, I’m going to guess you saw this:


    Man’s bent towards sin cuts across all areas of life. Focusing on an individual pastor/sinner here or there seems short-sided when the evidence is all around us, as confirmed by Scripture, that mans’ heart was the problem in the past and is the problem now. I’m pretty sure there is no program other than Godly repentance that will change the heart of men.

    • Hi Seneca … thanks for the link – I saw it referenced on another blog, but haven’t read it yet. Part of why I have been writing from a systems approach about the Emergent Movement, as with the Mars Hill meltdown, is that they are both about how individuals’ particular brokenness and sin compounds the destructive effects in situations of abuse where multiple people create a gridlock of toxicity. And it does seem two main solutions are (1) repentance for the perpetrators and those who prop them up, and (2) prevention and protection of the flock, which is part of what overseers/shepherds should have been doing in the first place but weren’t, as the extensive evidence seems to show. I think there are big lessons to learn for the Church from both situations.

  3. Pingback: Annotated Reader’s Guide to Futuristguy on Abuse Recovery, Advocacy, and Activism | futuristguy

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