Opinion: About Safe Communities

by John Eichrodt, EUU member


In the Spring of 2024, we will have a workshop on Safety Policy* for our EUU Communities. This follows the EUU Town Hall Meeting on the subject in October 2023, and the presentation of the Draft Statement* on Safety at the EUU’s AGM in November 2023.

In my opinion, the present draft statement still needs significant revision for several reasons. One of the main reasons is because it does not sufficiently prevent safety malpractice in our communities. Safety malpractice can be considered the number one safety hazard in our UU communities.

Over the last 40 years, I have witnessed a significant number of conflicts and clashes in our communities, one in which I was personally involved. I understand fully the need for safe communities and welcome the EUU effort to promote safe congregations and fellowships. However, the prevention of safety malpractice needs to be more fully covered in our Statement on Safety.

Why is safety malpractice of such importance?

From my experience and present observation of the safety efforts in US and European congregations, malpractice can be considered the number one safety hazard in UU communities. This often results in long term, irreparable damage to the congregations and members.

What is safety malpractice?

It can be understood as the practice of ‘pacifying’ tensions and conflicts in congregations, sometimes for questionable reasons, sometimes with good intentions, by using tort methods often with the explicit or implicit acquiescence of members of the congregation. Sometimes, safety practice will be initiated with good motivations, but carried out negligently. In such cases, it also constitutes safety malpractice.

Safety malpractice will occur when there is a reasonable, foreseeable, probable risk of injury to the congregation or its members. It can have perverse and damaging consequences. Safety malpractice may discourage and even squash freedom of thought and free expression, engender a climate of fear, with recriminations that can send the congregation swirling into self-destruction. Doing more harm than good, it can cause lasting emotional injury, damage to the standing of and self-respect of members who have been subjected to the tort abuses of safety malpractice. Even though it is sometimes justified as a ‘mal necessaire’, or a necessary evil for the good of the community, it should never be tolerated and should be actively prevented.

Some of the possible safety malpractice methods (or abuses), most of which I have witnessed, can range from lack of respect, insinuations, finger pointing, restricting information, silencing (including on social media), mockery, ridicule, labelling (e.g. disrupter), shaming and humiliation, intimidating, bullying, personal attacks, character assassination, scapegoating, mobbing, slicing and dicing, and of course marginalization and exclusion. These tort methods can and do happen in our UU communities. And as said above, such abuses can occur sometimes as a result of the good intentions of the leadership who seek to make the congregations safe.

Another perverse consequence is that members can become so afraid of crossing the safety line that they become tongue tied, afraid to speak their thoughts, feelings, faith and even share their hopes and concerns. This can only cripple the flow of energy and creativity in the community.

How can safety malpractice be prevented?

First, our UU communities are fortunate in already having a covenant of 7 principles that promote ethical safety practice. Persons are to be treated with dignity, justice, equity and compassion. They are expected to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth. Our communities provide space and a forum for the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our communities are to respect the right of conscience and ensure the use of the democratic process. Our free will and conscience are our supreme authorities. Taken altogether, our UU principles constitute a bill of rights that should protect members from abuse. Normally, they should also help to prevent the temptation to resort to safety malpractice.

Second, good democracy and governance are important to the prevention of safety malpractice. Good democracy and governance is how we come together and is how we bring sense and life to our communities and members. The greatest safety malpractice hazard can result from apathy towards the healthy functioning of democracy. The best that can happen, is the accepted, enthusiastic participation of all members in the governance and life of their congregations and fellowships. This is essential to the well being and safety of our inclusive but diverse communities.

The need for good democracy, especially in small fellowships, was examined at a workshop at the EUU Spring Retreat in 2023. As a result, I have produced a pioneering study guide for exploring the principles and practices of good democracy, especially in small fellowships.

What now?

At this coming Spring 2024 retreat, our membership has been invited to a workshop to consider the revision of the draft statement on safety*, as well as the practical application of our safety policy*.

In my opinion, there is a foreseeable, likely risk that in its present form, the safety statement will be misappropriated, or used perversely as a weapon in power conflicts, and to pacify.

The draft safety statement* still needs further revision with more specific language:

  1. to prevent safety malpractice,
  2. to refer more clearly to our classic 7 principles, especially the fourth and fifth which are at the core of our UU faith.
  3. to promote good governance and democracy in the spirit of our classic, liberal UU principles.

Hopefully, our coming workshop will be able to fully revise the draft statement accordingly.

* Editor’s note: Note that the “Statement” and the “Policy” are separate documents. The workshop at the Spring 2024 Retreat will provide a forum for 1) further discussion of the “Preliminary Safe Community Statement” that was voted on and accepted as a “living document” hence, to be modified as needed, at the 2023 AGM, and 2) discussion and input regarding the related “Policy” (how our organization intends to support the existence of a safe EUU community) that is currently under development. The EUU’s Coordinating Council of representatives from all the fellowships is responsible for developing the Policy. The “Statement” and the “Policy” apply only to EUU functioning, and not to individual fellowships, which can develop their own such statements and policies if they wish.