April 4, 2016

Room for Doubt

For a few years in college I was a part of a small chapter of a national fundamentalist group called Campus Crusade for Christ. The other members were very kind and sincere, but they didn’t really know how to handle questions that lacked easy or pre-determined answers. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was not the right group for me.

Since then, I’ve occasionally (though not often) worked and volunteered in places where everyone had to agree. Questions were not welcome. It was stifling.

As we’re reminded in yesterday’s Gospel reading, a healthy community has room for doubt and questions. After all, not even Thomas was outcast because of his questions.

Fast forwarding a couple of millennia, recent research done in the Google offices indicates that one of the things that makes a team effective is psychological safety. This means you can throw out ideas without ridicule and be honest about what you think and who you are. It means you don’t have to pretend to be someone else, someone without any problems or questions.

To create this kind of environment leaders—in secular workplaces and in churches alike— need to create room for team members to express doubt and to ask questions. No one really needs permission to doubt, of course; they’re going to do it whether they have permission from leadership or not. Rather, they need to know that when those questions arise, they’ll have support. That’s good pastoral care. 

In our staff, vestry, and volunteer teams, it is also important to give others permission to ask questions and disagree. We have to feel we are safe to express what we think. Sometimes we will disagree. Sometimes we won’t like the direction the team is taking. If we can’t express this, then we’ll feel alienated, frustrated and possibly, useless.

Of course, there are some things people shouldn’t say, at least not to the whole group, and helping team members know what is appropriate and what is not is part of making a community safe. Leaders can model this behavior by being honest and open and listening carefully and compassionately. Make sure everyone is given the chance to speak and no one dominates the group too much. Talk about the group norms. Sometimes this also means telling people when they have done or said something harmful. 

This process is going to be messy at times. But ultimately, whether we call it creating psychological safety or something else, it’s modeling the community we see in the Gospel. We are called to be compassionate and honest with each other, to listen, and leave some room for doubt.

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