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Keith M. Douds on Creating Safe Space for Church Groups

Church retreats, church governance meetings, and church small groups require honesty, vulnerability, and transparency to collectively draw closer to God. Psychologist Keith M. Douds explains how and when to step in with grace and preserve safety so that everyone has a chance to share and be listened to.

Keith M. Douds is a psychologist in Long Beach, California. As a member of Grace Church Long Beach, he has participated in all of its annual or twice-yearly psalms retreats. In this edited conversation, Douds explains how to create safe spaces for participants in church retreats and other church groups. 

You have described your work as bivocational. Why? 

My doctorate studies were on alcohol abuse and compulsive-addictive behavior. I describe the psychological counseling I do now as helping people identify and address what Augustine called “disordered loves.” I’m bivocational in that I also operate as a spiritual director. At Grace LB, I function like a pastor and yet see my role as a counselor even though I am not an elder or staff member there. 

How would you describe your church’s psalms retreats? 

As part of a 2010 Calvin Institute of Christian Worship grant, Grace Church Long Beach (then Grace Brethren) organized a psalms retreat for staff and congregants. I wasn’t on the grant team but attended the first psalms retreat as a participant. I think I’m the only one who’s been on every retreat since. We take participants to a beautiful site from Friday dinner through Sunday lunch. The worship, teachings, and opportunities to write and share personal psalms and prayers focus on four main themes in the psalms: confession, praise and thanksgiving, lament, and hope and trust. 

We now offer a spring psalms retreat for Grace LB and a fall psalms retreat for pastors and Christian leaders connected with Long Beach Church Collective. When LBCC applied for a grant for post-pandemic care for LBCC pastors, I led a small team of pastors, counselors, and spiritual directors to develop the plan. It included funding for seventy-five pastors to attend a psalms retreat. 

What is your role at the retreats? 

I function as a sort of master of ceremonies. My opening notes heavily emphasize the importance of relational safety throughout the retreat. I invite participants to buy into safety as the critical currency or relational capital. This builds a foundation that allows the psalms and the Spirit of God to move us collectively. At the end of each retreat, I write a psalm of blessing unique to that group as a de facto benediction for retreat participants. 

What led you to emphasize relational safety?   

After that first retreat, I gave some input to Cory Willson, who was then a Grace LB elder and a member of the grant project team. I observed that we would have had greater participation if there had been an overall sense of safety. People need to know what to expect and have confidence that someone will step in to preserve safety. I grew up in metro New York, so I am more willing to address difficult interactions, even if someone needs to be called out. So the next year I returned as the psalms retreat facilitator. 

How do you define relational safety in these retreats or other church-related group settings? 

I often refer to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary on Fred Rogers. A conspicuous part of Rogers’ appeal is the simple conviction that, especially for children, all feelings must be mentionable to be manageable. Among what’s most beautiful about the psalms is that the full range of human emotion invites a community-based relational experience. Better still, this all takes place under God’s sovereignty. I define safety as the expectation of not being harmed, injured, or attacked.  

I’m not implying immunity from emotional or spiritual distress or suffering. Rather, safety is a relationally oriented belief in freedom from unnecessary loss or intended or threatened harm. Synonyms might include “health,” “sound,” “trustworthy,” “weight bearing,” or “home.” 

Can you say more about what safety is and isn’t? 

Safety is unity, not uniformity. Safety is not agreement, the absence of anger, or being in control. It’s definitely not knowing all the answers. We see that in Job 38 when God answers Job’s Why? with seventy-seven questions that Job can’t answer. In fact, safety frequently involves tolerating and embracing the awe and mystery of life.  

Safety is most often mouth closed, ears open—not mouth open, ears closed. I’m not suggesting that safety is being politically correct, but sometimes lack of commentary is healthy. Safety is a decision or choice for another. In the psalms retreats, our goal is to marinate in God’s Word, in the psalms, so that we’re drawn into a more intimate and passionate fellowship with God Almighty. Safety is a gift we extend to one another.  

Do you offer any ground rules? 

It’s non-negotiable that there will be no fixing, no saving, and no advice giving, especially unsolicited. Remember the “healthy lack of commentary” posture so that no one tries to set one another straight. We observe silence in the chapel and ask people to sit at different tables during meals so they can follow up with questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that lament psalm you shared?”

Sometimes Christians feel annoyed by people who conversationally dominate a group, yet they also feel guilty for not being more patient.

It’s common for virtuous people to chide themselves to be more patient. But the truth is that one person can hijack a group of twenty or thirty, whether at a retreat, in a church class, or at a board/vestry/council meeting. It’s important to have at least one person willing to risk awkwardness by confronting such hijacking. Someone needs to do it to maintain group safety. One time a woman went on and on and then broke into a contemporary song, so I stood up and sang with her, and then she sat down. Sometimes I break in with “Thank you very much.” Sometimes I physically move and put my arm around someone’s shoulders till they stop.

Do participants feel safe when the psalms prompt someone to express grief, pain, or lament?

All of us have probably heard James quoted about being slow to speak and slow to anger. But there will always be anger issues. After every retreat we ask for feedback about what spoke to people and what we might do better. We’ve learned that when someone shares a psalm they’ve written, it’s usually raw. People feel uncomfortable. Anxiety may drive them to say something distracting just to break the tense silence. So, we give people liturgical language to respond, like “Lord, have mercy upon us” or “Thanks be to God.” Otherwise, the person who shared feels exposed. We also now do an orientation about a week before the psalms retreat so people can see where we’ll go, learn what will happen, and get briefed on relational safety.

Can you share a story of how expressing difficult emotions blessed someone else?

A man spoke up about how angry he was that his sister had just died. He said, “She wasn’t honest about how bad her condition was. She didn’t give me a proper chance to say goodbye!” That prompted a woman to stand up and share that she’d been diagnosed with cancer and would start treatment soon but felt frightened to make it public. She said the man’s lament and anger sparked her conviction to speak up.

Other than maybe in a small group, church members corporately have very minimal exposure to vulnerability. They have little to no chance to practice godly intimacy in safety. Our psalms retreat has lots of praise and worship songs and hymns interspersed with sharing our personal psalms. Most of us want to avoid sitting in ashes. We’d rather say a Hallmark platitude and move on. But when we sit with one another in sorrow, that’s worship. It creates a communally held space for people to ask, “Where are you, God? How long will you hide your face from me?” It’s good news for this New Yorker to know that, even if I’m not in a good mood, other brothers and sisters will hold me before God. 

How else do you see people act differently when they feel safe to be vulnerable?

To be clear, vulnerability is not the highest virtue. Obedience is. But you have to come as you are and respond honestly so that you can be transformed under God’s sovereignty. At the psalms retreats, we see more embodied participation, like people crying, kneeling, or willing to move to the side of the chapel for prayer. Moreover, this climate of shared trust tends to yield a greater sense of communal unity. 

We see the changes back at church too. We have way more lay leaders leading congregational prayers, leading the corporate invitation to communion, and participating differently in groups.

What’s special about the closing blessing you do at the retreat? 

I call it a psalm of blessing. It’s unique to each group. Throughout the retreat, I jot down phrases that others share in psalms, prayers, and conversations. At the end, we silently—and isn’t silence an underdeveloped posture of worship?—process from the chapel and join hands in a circle. I say my closing psalm, using participants’ own language, as I touch each person’s shoulders. I always end with words from the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6:24–26. One of my favorite phrases is from an LBCC retreat where a pastor addressed the Lord as “God of cathedral and garden and grave.” 


The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship offers worship grants for teacher-scholars and worshiping communities. Learn more about Long Beach Church Collective. Search the keywords “confession,” “hope,” “lament,” “praise,” “prayer,” and “trust” at Art and Theology, Global Worship, and Zeteo Preaching and Worship to find relevant multicultural art, music, and other worship resources