safe doesn't come cheap or easy



as you can tell by now, i use the word “safe” a lot (wondering if it’s in most every post i’ve ever written?!?). i don’t mean to over-use it, but it is clearly something that i think it is an integral part of community, and since true blue authentic incarnational relationships are the thing i’m most passionate about, i can’t help myself from throwing it in all the time.   some have pressed back on the word “safe” over the years, thinking that it means that “anything goes” and “people are never challenged or encouraged to move”. i get where they are coming from, i don’t deny it’s tricky to pull off, but i think we need to keep asking ourselves as individuals, as communities–how can i as a person & we as a church become more safe for others?

i don’t think it comes naturally for most people.  i think our genesis 3 default nature is pretty much to be judgemental, controlling, selfish, self-centered–the cornerstones of unsafety.   also, many of us didn’t come from the most relationally healthy families where safety was really truly present.  and just to top it off, as christians many have been taught that our mission in life is to “speak the truth in love” to any and all who aren’t living out their faith or their lives the way we think is appropriate.   and since every church is made up of people, the cultures that get perpetuated tend to not be the safest places on earth (yes, i know that’s an understatement for some of you!).

i think as people, especially as christians, we need to practice becoming more safe.   as we become safer people, we cultivate safer communities.  when communities put a high value on safety, people who are part of those communities organically learn the art of becoming more safe and that safety gets extended to the people they are in relationship in other networks & places & ways.  focusing on it is always a win-win, i really can’t think of a downside.  and like most everything else, it doesn’t come overnight. we’re all always a work in progress, being more and more transformed into Christ’s likeness on our spiritual journey.  and the only way to practice, in my opinion, is in relationship with each other. that’s where we’ll rub up against our judgementalness, fears, insecurities, selfishness, woundedness, weirdness.  and hopefully, at the same time, our deep desire to live from a different place, to learn better manners, to learn more deeply the ways of Love.

safety doesn’t mean anything goes at no cost.  what it does mean is long-haul relationship where we are willing to accept other’s flaws and weaknesses because we are radically aware of our own, offer grace, and recognize that real true spiritual transformation takes time and looks different for every person.  it also means that we’ll have to learn how to be more honest, more willing to engage in true healthy conflict, and how to stay in instead of run away when the going gets tough.

in 2006 when we were just starting the refuge we ran a 4 week “mercy boot camp” workshop experience that was pretty intense and focused on getting in touch with christ’s mercy since unless we do, we most certainly can’t pass it on.  in the material we talked about becoming more safe & gleaned a few things from cloud & townsend’s book safe people.  i came across these lists last week in helping a friend work on some materials for group leaders. i think it’s so appropriate for us as individuals, as communities.  how can we cultivate a greater spirit of safety?  i think we can start with looking at some of the characteristics of both unsafe & safe people (the same things apply to communities, the wording just might change a bit) & notice areas we might need to consider.

unsafe people (and communities):

  • think they “have it all together” instead of admitting their weaknesses
  • are defensive instead of open to feedback
  • are self-righteous instead of humble
  • only apologize instead of changing their behavior
  • avoid working on their problems instead of dealing with them
  • demand trust instead of earning it
  • blame others instead of take responsibility
  • lie instead of tell the truth
  • remain stagnant instead of growing
  • resist freedom instead of encouraging it (can’t take no for an answer)
  • flatter us instead of confronting us
  • condemn us instead of forgiving us
  • stay in parent/child roles instead of relating to us as equals
  • unstable over time instead of being consistent
  • gossip instead of keeping secrets

ouch. some of these are pretty brutal & even though i consider myself a fairly safe person i cringed at a few, knowing that i do & think these things more than i wished.

safe people (and communities):

  • accept us just like we are
  • love us no matter how we are being or what we do
  • influence us to develop our ability to love and be responsible
  • create love and good works within us
  • give us an opportunity to grow & stretch & practice
  • help us feel comfortable being “ourselves”, to be on the outside what we are on the inside
  • allow us to become the us that God intended
  • use their lives to touch ours and leave us better for it
  • help us be more like Christ
  • help us to like & love others more
  • make the relationship more important than opinions
  • receive instead of just give
  • are humble & willing to say what they need
  • are honest, kind & don’t pretend
  • work through resistances instead of giving up

that’s what i mean by safe.  so many of these statements imply change, transformation.  this is why we don’t have to be afraid of the word “safe”:  a really safe relationship will cultivate movement, it just will.  a really safe community will cultivate spiritual transformation, it just will.  in the groups & friendships i am currently in & have been in over the years, the safety that was created never allowed me to stay stuck. in fact, it has always been just the opposite.  the container of relationship gave me a place to see–up close and personal–my character flaws & pain and motivated me to want to change.  they push me and pull me but it’s never out of “i’m up here and you’re down there and you better pull it off quickly or else i’m out.”  instead, it’s always out of “yeah, we’re all in this together but let’s not stay here for too long.”  every single person i am in relationship with (including myself), no matter how messed up, really doesn’t want to stay where they are.  we just need people who will love us where we are but be willing to hang in there long haul as we learn and grow and try to notice & feel & experience God in the midst.  that’s incarnational relationship.

the reason i think Alcoholics Anonymous is the most powerful underground transformational “church” in the world is that it has done an amazing job at nurturing safety.  we have a lot to learn from their culture.  i know they are not perfect, but in the DNA of the 12-step culture is a focus on cultivating humility, awareness of spiritual poverty and need for God’s help, and a spirit of nonjudgementalness because everyone there’s in the same boat.  they shoot straight & call others to sobriety, healing, restoration & reconcilation.  the door’s always open, the floor’s always available, the grace is always given.  the 12 steps are based on the beatitudes & everything about the beatitudes implies transforming more and more into the image of Christ.  integrated into our lives, our hearts, i think the beatitudes guide us toward being safe.

and we all know living the heartbeat of the beatitudes don’t come cheap or easy.  becoming a safe person, safe communities, doesn’t come cheap or easy either.  unfortunately we have a lot of black marks against us as christians, especially as churches.  people are waiting for us to leave, judge, tell, yell, critique, use, scripturize.   the only way we can become safe is to become safe.  just talking about it won’t cut it.   the true test will be actions over time.  grace offered over time.  the truth in love offered over time.   the ministry of presence over time.   the ability to stay in relationship with people that are different from us over time.  real, tangible unconditional love lavished over time.   i will blow it (i do all the time).  we will blow it (we do all the time).  but safe people, safe communities, do what they can to stay in, make amends quickly & live in a place of grace.

oh, over time, i do hope i can become more and more safe, we can become more and more safe. i think it makes the world better in all kinds of ways…

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • kathy…loved this post, thanks for it…

    …how i pray this type of safety can be embodied in my life, my home, my relationships, and in Christ’s ministry

  • That’s the second time in so many days I’ve heard you mention this bootcamp and have said to myself “hmmm…wish I’d known about this place when that was happening”. Any plans for another or other workshops?

    I’m currently reading Safe People as part of my journey. Usually when someone suggests a read to you, it means that you are struggling with the concept. I guess I struggle with choosing Safe People in my life (as I’m sure a lot of others do as well) and so a concentrated look @ the topic would be welcome.

    Thanks Kathy!

  • Kathy, this post puts into words what is slowly being developed in my heart as I continue to meet in a small group. I’ve come realize that it’s as important that I let others become safe for me as it is for me to become safe for them. I stumble often in both areas, but you’ve really hit on three things we seem to be doing well with: Not judging the other person, not walking away when conflict arises (which it invariably does if you stick together long enough), and being honest with each other as we learn to walk forward together. I used to hate any kind of conflict at all, but am slowly realizing that if conflict arises with safe people, it is the best place for growth in all of us. Peaceful times build trust, but times of conflict cause of to grow–if they’re done with safe people. Now I’m going to go send the link to this post to all my pals. Thanks again for putting into words where I’m heading in my life. I so want to become a safe person and to have my life filled with the same.

  • Hi Kathy,
    I really loved this post, you are so on the mark. As Tracy mentioned above, we’re in a major learning and growth curve with our group and one of the things that I am learning, and is beginning to grow within me in the smallest way, is that as you become secure in the safety of those you’re in relationship with you begin to have a general sense of safety within. This is a major breakthrough for me because I see the world as a very dangerous place due to alot of traumatic and violent encounters in my youth. I’m finding that as the group has helped me to grow in the safety within (my own heart) I am generalizing that sense of safety into other areas of my life and encounters with others in everyday situations, which plants the seeds for a sense of safety in them. Sounds like the title of a new book; “Safety Evangelism!” Secondly, I’d like to say that in Jonathan’s Thrive materials he makes a very powerful point in that safe people fight to maintain the dignity of others and the for the relationship! Very different perspective than trying to “speak the truth in love” and win the argument in order to “help someone grow” (forced change).
    Thanks for a greatly encouraging post.
    Rich AKA Mr. Tracy :>}

  • Great post again…Another aspect of safe people is that “safe people” don’t have lots of answers but are willing to journey with you in discovery. I was brought up in the tradition of “having all of the answers” made you more of a “leader”, more of a “person to look to”. I am finding as I grow older, fewer and fewer times I really have the “answer”. Hopefully I am becoming more safe to others.

  • Hmm… to those who are worried about ‘anything goes,’ I would say that before someone who has been wounded – especially those that have been wounded deeply from young – can even afford to expend any energy on healing/changing/growing, they must feel safe. If we want to help people change (notice, I said help not make), we must first convince them that they can trust us to not abandon them or hurt them further in the middle of the very messing process.

    “…the safety that was created never allowed me to stay stuck. in fact, it has always been just the opposite.”

    43 yeart in and out of churches – grew up in church – and it was not until I found one (just one) friend that stayed through the crap (still does 😉 ) – and never expressed judgment or self-righteousness – was just honest and straightforward and cared, that I actually had the strength to begin the slow and painful (and messy and ugly) process of healing – changing – growing.

    Are these kinds of relationships easy? No. They require work – effort – commitment. But they are so worth it. Without them, we will not really live.

    By the way, that friend freed me to be the same kind of friend back – and she needs it as much as I do. =D

    And it is the kind of friendship that I always, since I was a small girl, knew was supposed to be… one based on love and respect and honesty where you could really talk about anything. And without it, I would probably not have survived the things that have happened over the last 2 years.

    As to feeling safe in church. Hmm… I have not found one that I can. The one I left a year and a half ago… I thought I was safe there – for a while – desparate hope. I was not – I was in every grave danger, actually. But I digress…

    I don’t know, at this point, if I will ever feel safe in a church again.

  • Kathy,

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and love the wisdom and insight you bring to the conversation. This post especially jumped out at me because I work as a Resident Director at an evangelical university and “speaking the truth in love” is so prevalent and so destructive.

    Would it be alright if I used this post with my resident assistants this coming fall? I would love to see them create truly safe communities in their dorms.

  • I like and agree with these thoughts. Safe places, places of refuges – (like in the Old Testament), places to grow, no masks, emotional scanners on low, acceptance radar off – a place to refresh, be equipt, what a gathered Body is all about.

  • BTW – I’m going to copy, paste, blow up and Blu tack your Safe People – list to our Fellowship’s front door this Sunday and I will Blu Tack your Unsafe People list to the backdoor.

  • Great post. We (Christ followers) have a lot to learn about creating “safe” environments when we gather. Katherine is right, wounded people need safety first and foremost before we can even broach the subject of change or growth. So, in our relationships with each other: safety first, for sure.

    In our relationship with God, maybe a little less safety is in order. After all, we can trust Him infinitely more than we can trust each other. Love Mr. Beaver’s comment about Aslan in the first Narnia book: “Safe? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King.”

    Thanks for this post.

  • like the thought about being safe. A few years ago I tried to get a group together here to start a safe place for each other and then to infect the rest of the congregation.
    I was amazed that only 2 showed up and in a short time those dropped away. Guess it is way difficult to really create a safe community.
    Thanks for the post. WaynO
    Oh, would like to use your lists unless you prefer not.

  • hey all, sorry for the late response. it’s been a nutty few days!

    nick – yeah, that is my hope, that this pervades into all my relationships…

    lisa – we should probably think about another mercy boot camp for sure. that was almost 2 years ago now…i liked the book, it was a helpful tool for sure & that question: why do i keep hanging around people who aren’t good for me? is a great one.

    tracy – it is so beautiful, what is happening in your group! and i love what you said how it works both ways and that that gets cultivated intentionally in your community. i am so with you on the conflict thing. i think so many of us are so stunted in the conflict department that any little boat rocking freaks us out and we assume the relationship can’t hack it. true safe relationships means we can work through conflict and stay in. ah, we’re all learning so much.

    rich – welcome!!! and thanks for your comments. i love what God is doing through the thrive materials and your guys hearts. i think you hit it on the head: so many have learned that the world is a dangerous place, relationships are dangerous ground, so self-protection is our natural defense. but in us is this deep desire for true relationship. i do think it’s so contagious, safety. when we become more safe, it passes on to others, and is really really compelling. it will be so fun one day to get to sit across the table from you and tracy and get to have some really really fun conversations! (ps: you know it, but you have an amazing partner. tracy is awesome…)

    john – good addition, i so agree. the more we let go of having all the answers the more safe we become

    katherine – i think you are so right, without a safe container, forget it, it just won’t work. a safe relationship gives the freedom that could never just automatically or synthetically be created. it is a gift that is nurtured and then gives us the ability to pass it on to others. the long haul is a huge piece. the non-judgement is a huge piece. oh if only this could be created more intentionally in an entire church, not just a few relationships!

    jessica – good to hear from you! welcome here. i think it would be so good for christian college kids to begin to think about these things really intentionally. sure couldn’t hurt. i think a big piece of spiritual formation must include these relational pieces. they are all intertwined. just give credit to the original material because that is what they were adapted from, we added some of our own to the list. would love to hear how they get integrated into dorm life there!

    mark – it is always fun to hear from you. your comments always make me smile 🙂 that was the idea behind the word when we planted the refuge & it was funny because some people were like “oh, that word implies that it’s inwardly focused and how can you be missional with that word?” (yeah, irritating to me). the world need places of refuge. when we get refreshed, replenished, healing, hope, we naturally pass it on to others. “refuge” goes beyond our “walls” (not that we really have any anyway) all the time because it goes with us as people. that is so fun, posting at your community’s gathering. would so love to hear more about what you all are doing!

    blake – yes, the safety first will allow us to move. safety definitely doesn’t mean challenge. for some, safety will be one of the most challenging things that we ever do–to actually really let someone else in and learn to truly trust. and yes, i love that narnia quote and i think it is so appropriate to remember: God is wild and challenging, and that is what creates spiritual transformation in us. but the basic security we can all have is knowing God is with us, present, and will not ditch us no matter what. in the material safe people they speak of some qualities of Jesus’ safety: dwelling, grace & truth. incarnational/present, unconditionally loving, honest & willing to say hard things. thanks for sharing…

    wayne – yeah it is brutally hard to really nurture, with all kinds of ups and downs! of course, you can use, just give credit to the original material since that’s what it is adapted from…would love to know how things are going out there!

  • I love the discussions that go on here…

    Kathy’s mention of refuge missionally extending beyond their walls reminded me of a scene from A Series of Unfortunate Events…

    Anyone see that movie? The scene I’m thinking of shows the three Boudelaire children being browbeaten and threatened by their new “benefactor” Count Olaf — this coming after they’ve just lost their parents and their childhood home to a fire.

    Their response? To create their own “sanctuary” — a place in the midst of a hostile environment where they could recapture a sense of family, safety, and belonging…

  • steve – i never saw that movie, i missed it, well, i will have to add it to my never-ending list! i love what you described at the end “a place in the midst of a hostile environment where they could recapture a sense of family, safety, and belonging…” beautiful!

  • bethany – thanks for the link love.

    zionlutheran – welcome! and sure, just give credit to the original material since that’s what i adapted it from. i truly believe these so all apply to communities, too. would love to hear your sermon!

  • Kathy:

    Thanks, I have been by before. You have comments from me via my blogger account; jeff greathouse (

    I will give sweeping credit to everyone involved. I am still developing the sermon that is going to be the launching pad to encourage folks to join our care groups.

    Thanks, I love your writing.

  • jeff – ah, got it now. i hate when that happens because when a new email comes through it looks like a brand new commenter. now i know it’s you. thanks, i have definitely read your blog before, through kingdom grace 🙂 nice to put it all together. it is great that you are trying to infuse your care groups with a spirit of safety…

  • Kathy – i LOVE your blog!!! You just put things into words/articulate what i’m thinking and also challenge me further. Thank you. I just blogged about this =)

  • really good! soo much here to digest. i think my take away is just to bookmar this post and come back to it regularly hehe. and also my take away is how much I desire to be safe. an honest yet completely loving & compassionate & kind friend. one who won’t run away from friction instead using flattery or gossip to vent… but will instead love enough to engage and make myself uncomfortable doing the right & honorable thing. tough tough tough!

  • This is beautiful. I have been in the “speak the truth in love” environment, and am struggling to learn how to be safer toward others, without those “anything goes” or “slippery slope” fears. The more I have found safe people the more I have found safeness the right thing to pursue in the way I am toward others. I have also seen what a burden someone’s worried concern can be, and what a blessing it is to have someone’s unworried confident acceptance.

    • thanks so much for taking time to share. it’s always nice to know some of these older posts still linger. i was just thinking about this list yesterday, too, so it was funny that you posted today. peace and safety to you!

  • THANK YOU for this old post popping up. Perfect timing. I am struck with the truth that most people will never experience this safety in normal american church life. I see God changing that!!!! I DO! and getting so many more people into real, close, relationships. Relationships build over time – so that trust can be built – so that there can be safety!

    I see Him building up His Church and moving more and more people into that family setting. but until there is that family setting…(that true Church life. The family of Christ. the Body of Christ… experiencing life together in participatory, open, equal, mutually edifying unselfish relationships)…. it can’t happen. God will use others places – the nuclear family, other relationships, other ministries….. but you are right transformation won’t happen in places that relationship is not the focus and isn’t given priority.

    To have safety you must have trust… to have trust you must have closeness…. to have closeness you must have a focus on relationship…. to have a focus on relationship you must be willing to give great time & effort……. to give time & effort you have to make it clear that relationship is the priority of your Church… and not any other thing… any other person, way of doing things, worship experience, performance. But relationship. Relationship with God, relationship with others.


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