Pursuing Psychological Safety Within Your Church

Posted by Aaron Buer on August 13, 2020

Have you ever had a moment where you feel multiple voices in your life converge around a central theme, and it makes you think, “I should probably listen to this!”?

I had one of those moments last week.

It was the merging of a book I’m reading, a Global Leadership Summit talk, and ideas I’ve been pondering and blogging about for years.  

I’ve blogged several times about one of my favorite books, Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull, which talks about the story of Pixar and their creative process.


The principles of collaboration, iteration, and candor have been a big part of my personal creative and leadership journey.

Here’s my summary of the book: Teams are capable of unbelievable creativity and excellence when we function in healthy ways that promote honest and constructive feedback.  

I’m also in the middle of a book called Midnight in Chernobyl, which tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in the mid-1980s.


The book is similar to the HBO documentary Chernobyl.

Here’s my basic summary of this story: Teams are capable of unbelievable short-sighted and unethical leadership when we function in unhealthy ways that promote dishonest and destructive silence.  

The Chernobyl story is mind-boggling to me. How could highly educated and smart leaders make such catastrophically bad decisions?!?  

The answer was made clear to me in a fresh way through a Global Leadership Summit presentation by Amy Edmondson last week.

The talk was on psychological safety in the workplace. Perhaps you watched it.

If not, here’s the next best thing: A TEDtalk Amy gave on the same subject.  

Edmondson’s main point is that great teams operate with psychological safety.

What is that? Here’s her definition:  

Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. 

At Pixar, and now, Disney Animation Studios, honesty and humility are high values.

Dissent and disagreement are highly valued because everyone is committed to the mission of the organization.

In fact, not speaking up would be considered a violation of the culture.  

In a church that is not psychologically safe, team members do not speak up because they are more concerned about protecting themselves-because dissent and disagreement are not welcome.  

So, here’s the question: As a leader, are you fostering a psychologically safe environment for the people you lead?


This question is incredibly important because, in a psychologically unsafe environment, the likelihood of arriving at the best decisions will be significantly diminished.  

We all have blind spots and weaknesses, and we will never make the best decisions or create the best ministry experiences without the perspective of our larger and more diverse teams.  

I believe that psychological safety is more important than ever before because we are in uncharted territory with all the turmoil we are experiencing in our country.

Church looks very different than it did a few months ago, and none of us know what will happen over the next months and years.

We need the best thinking, creativity, and planning possible, which will require high-functioning and high-trust teams, where everyone feels free and compelled to speak the truth.  

If you’re interested in pursuing greater psychological safety in your leadership, here are three action steps I learned from Amy Edmondson:  

  1. Frame your work as a learning problem.
    We have to get away from a “pass/fail” mentality and enter into a learning mentality.  Every “failure” is an opportunity to learn and fail-forward. Framing work as learning will unlock greater creativity and innovation.

  2. Declare your fallibility
    If you want to promote openness and constructive disagreement, you must be willing to share your failures. You have to be open to feedback and talk openly about the mistakes you make as a leader. The goal isn’t perfection: it’s growth.

  3. Model curiosity
    Lastly, demonstrating that you are open to new ideas and fresh approaches to ministry is  crucial to building a culture of psychological safety. If you appear to be stuck in, “this is the way we do things,” then your team will not feel safe to innovate and build for an unpredictable future.

Wrap Up

I hope this has been helpful. If you want to explore these ideas further, here’s a book by Amy Edmondson.



Topics: Advice

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