We’ve heard a lot about safe places lately, but what does it mean to foster one in your women’s ministry or Bible study group?
The first time I attended a formal-ish Bible study I was a new Christ-follower at a summer camp for teens. After every message, girls would gather in cabins and talk about the Bible. Though I knew relatively little about even looking up a Bible verse, I participated eagerly. But I’ll never forget the look on my leader’s face when I began unpacking my upbringing—a tale of sexual assault, neglect, parental death, divorces, and suicidal thoughts. Her face radiated empathy, and later she asked questions as we took a walk together.
I didn’t know the proper Bible study protocol. I didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to dump-truck your story into the laps of other new believers. I was just so broken and needy, I longed for relief. My story had become so heavy, it was breaking me.
My insightful leader understood. She created a safe place for me to land, to ask questions, and, mostly, just to be loved. She put feet to incarnational ministry, entering into my tale of woe, praying for me, and weeping alongside.
How she responded is instructive for us today, whether we lead teens in a new Bible study, teach moms in the trenches of motherhood, or encourage retired women in their continued discipleship adventure.
Looking back, my leader did several things right:
- She didn’t shut me down when I opened up for the first time. She validated my pain, then followed up with me after our time together to make sure I was okay. She skillfully allowed for my validation while still giving other attendees space to share.
- She listened and asked clarifying questions.
- She wept with me, stepping into my grief. This made the deepest impression on me. It made me realize she saw my pain as valid and real. After not being believed or having other family members dismiss my story as petty, her tears communicated the severity of my trauma.
- She prayed for me.
- She didn’t treat me like a project. I didn’t feel like she looked down on me, or just tolerated my pain. I genuinely believed she loved and liked me.
- She shared her own struggles with me. This helped me feel less alone, less broken.
- She welcomed my questions, particularly the sticky ones like, “Where was God when all that rape happened? Why didn’t He protect? Doesn’t He love His daughters?”
- She pointed me to the Bible, but didn’t reduce it to clichés and simple formulas of victory. She allowed the Bible to be its messy self.
- When we were together, I felt seen, like she had no other agenda. Her undistracted attention communicated such love.
- We had fun together. She knew that if I stayed mired in my story without fun or joy, I would be swallowed by it. We laughed a lot.
- She sent me cards that communicated my value and her love for me.
- She put her arm around my shoulder when she sensed my struggle.
- She flat out loved Jesus and talked about Him with affection.
If we want to create safe places for the women in our care, Romans 12 offers incredible pieces of wisdom, things my leader seemed to know instinctively:
- Surrender ourselves fully to Jesus (v. 1).
- Let God give us a new perspective on those we shepherd (v. 2).
- Be humble (v. 3).
- Know our own strengths (vv. 4-6).
- Remember it’s about serving others, teaching well, and offering encouragement (vv. 7-8)—all with a cheerful attitude.
- Love people; hate the evil that’s been done to them; find the good (v. 9).
- Devote ourselves to others, giving them honor (v. 10).
- Love Jesus (v. 11).
- Serve Him with fervor (v. 12).
- Persevere in prayer; fight for hope in hopeless situations (v. 13).
- Bless those who are difficult (v. 14).
- Be happy with the happy; cry with the brokenhearted (v. 15).
- Associate with everyone in your care without pride or conceit (v. 16).
- Do what is right (v. 17).
- Keep short accounts and pursue peace (v. 18).
- Let God be the avenger of wrong (vv. 19-20).
- Acknowledge evil, but douse it with good (v. 21).
As I look over these commands for Christian leaders, the one that stands out to me is verse 15. We are to empathize, to enter into the pain of those we love. And we are to learn the art of celebration when things go well. In doing so, we create safety, a sense of belonging, and a welcoming atmosphere.
Today I received an email from a struggling woman. She had read one of my studies where I acknowledged my own battles and pointed to Scripture and the faithfulness of Jesus. She wrote, “I’m grateful for the women like you who have helped me find freedom. Jesus has used every one of you. I’m sixty-three now, and I’m still healing from the varied effects of lifelong traumas.”
She is an archetype of the women we minister to. May it be that we walk in the footsteps of my young leader as we create safe places for the broken to find hope and healing.
To read more of Mary’s story and learn how to come alongside others in restoration, pick up a copy of Mary’s new Bible study, Into The Light: A Biblical Approach to Healing from the Past available here.
Mary is the author of forty books, including her latest: Into The Light : A Biblical Approach to Healing from the Past and We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis. She’s been on CNN and featured in The Washington Post, and she’s spoken in Munich, Johannesburg, and Monte Carlo and planted a church with her family in southern France. She is a mom to three amazing young adults and a wife of 28 years to Patrick.