The first and most obvious thing to do is to model safety. It is imperative that leaders treat people with respect and use language that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. If you say something in a harshly critical way that demeans anyone, even if they are external to the group and the group would likely agree with your assessment it will subtly change the dynamics of the community. People will learn subconsciously that they have to meet a certain standard to be worthy of love and acceptance. Many times broken church people don’t let on how they are broken. You might feel you are in the clear trashing pedophiles, drug addicts or the unemployed only to find later there are people in the room that aren’t so different from the people you are demeaning.
In any community there is going to be conflict, tension and disagreement. If everything always looks pristine that is a bad sign because people are either faking their way through relationships or have repressed their feelings. The goal shouldn’t be the absence of conflict, but finding healthy ways to process it.
It is best if leaders model healthy disagreement. In our gatherings my wife and I often disagree and challenge each other. It sends a message that people that disagree can still love one another. It also reinforces the idea that the leader doesn’t have all the answers. Paul talks about the manifold wisdom of God and Peter talks about the manifold grace of God. Manifold unfortunately is such a churchy term that has lost it’s traction. Literally it means something like “multi-coloured” but it implies that there are many expressions or facets of the wisdom of God. No one person can embody this wisdom by themselves. Think of salad what each person brings to the salad is a different ingredient.
A leader can gently and generously draw out the wisdom that exists in everyone to share. They might ask follow up questions to when someone shares. They might affirm what is shared by saying things like “that is a great point.” Don’t be insincere and praise things you know are marginal, just be eager to affirm what you feel in your heart you can affirm.
Facilitating a place of safety can be a tricky task because some people feel more safe in some environments than others. What makes one person feel safe isn’t what will make another person feel safe. For many this means clear boundaries and even schedules. For others it means being more open ended and fluid. Sometimes these personal preferences can be spiritualized. There are some who feel as though meetings aren’t truly spiritual unless they are a thinly organized form of chaos. There are others who become anxious when they perceive disorder. You’ll never find a group that is homogeneous in that respect. There will always be a fluid dynamic to organic church and relationships won’t form if you are slavishly devoted to some kind of program. However making things completely open ended all the time is going to put some people on edge. They aren’t going to be comfortable.
My brief experience interning as a bible college instructor taught me that good conversation and dialogue needs a good starting point. If I’m rambling on about such and such a topic and then open it up to the class for their opinion, I usually heard the opinions of one or two people of the bravest ones and then crickets. However if I framed the discussion and give the group some options to discuss or ask the group to weigh the relative merits of two options it provides something of an on ramp to discussion.
If someone does come across in a way that is borderline harsh or demeaning it is usually good to respond but not in a way that would make the speaker feel too awkward. You might say something like “I can see your point there, but I’m not sure I would take as far for such and such reason.” If someone says something that isn’t borderline harsh, but is just plain harsh, especially in disagreement with someone else then it is imperative that a leader respond. Initially don’t come down hard, just say something like “I think you are being a little harsh here.”