Our culture is polarized in almost every sector of life. Recent data published by the Pew Research Center suggests the trends toward entrenchment in ideology, theology, philosophy and politics is growing at an alarming pace, leaving little room for sharing ideas and potential solutions to complex problems.
Turn on the television day or night, and you will be blasted with venomous language from divergent sides of an argument with little to no effort made on any side to listen or to value the opposite opinion. Politicians, political candidates, religious leaders and media hucksters capitalize daily on this growing divide and often pour gasoline on the burning fires of rancorous behavior for profit or personal gain.
The environment for offering thoughtful solutions or even new ideas for consideration is polluted by accusations of biased influence and prejudiced indoctrination.
Faith communities and faith leaders unfortunately are right in the middle of these cultural battles. Churches often are a hotbed of conflict, and thousands of people choose to spend their time elsewhere rather than fight or argue in a place where “people of peace” presumably reside.
As one of my friends who recently took leave of church quipped, “I can get that junk (arguing, fighting) anywhere!” The Balkanization of church communal life has risen to epidemic proportions and often prohibits the ability of our faith communities to thrive and stay on mission.
In Managing Polarities in Congregations, Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson set out to identify and clarify the opposing ideas we live with every day in our congregations. They identify eight polarities that serve as poles around which energy flows in an “energy loop” best illustrated with the infinity symbol. These polar opposites are:
• Tradition and innovation;
• Institutional health and spiritual health;
• Management and leadership;
• Strong clergy leadership and strong lay leadership;
• Inreach and outreach;
• Nurture and transformation;
• Making disciples as both an easy and challenging process; and
• Duty and call.
Congregational leaders constantly manage the ebb and flow between these necessary but opposite strengths, they contend. Of course, the challenge is to inspire and lead the congregation to let go of either/or thinking and behavior and embrace a larger vision of what might be possible. I commend their work and the solutions they offer for building a process of discernment and decision making.
However, leading in this polarized culture is more than challenging and can be hazardous to one’s health and livelihood. Perhaps this is one reason church leaders often develop stress-related diseases, all the while assuming they should be more competent arbitrators through the storms of congregational life.
Like it or not, church leaders—clergy and laity alike—must learn to navigate these waters. Wishful thinking might suggest the strong and conflicting opinions of constituents will go away with more prayer and better teaching and preaching, but we know better.
Peter Koestenbaum has rightly observed: “Authentic leaders have absorbed this fundamental fact of existence—that you can’t get around life’s inherent contradictions. The leadership mind is spacious. It has ample room for the ambiguities of the world, for conflicting feelings, and for contradictory ideas … the central leadership attribute is the ability to manage polarities.“
Managing polarities is much harder to do than to recommend. I have lived in the midst of church battles over inclusion issues, membership requirements, choice of paint color for the sanctuary, name changes, property disputes and the proposed height of the fellowship hall ceiling! In each of these scenarios, I would have been helped by a greater awareness of how to manage the polarities rather than attempting “fix” the divides. I also question the validity of assuming a vote is always the best solution to disagreements in the local church.
How is it then that we “manage polarities”?
Certainly it means we learn to value oppositional positions. All of us can listen with greater openness and intensity. I often have been guilty of only listening to one point of view in a church family dispute. To value another position or opinion means I must let go of what I presume is the right answer and be open to new possibilities. It also means that we allow a “safe” space to exist in our congregations, giving opportunity for something new to emerge without fear or coercion.
“No yell” zones
In one church I pastored, I suggested to the leadership that we create a “no yell” zone in the confines of our building as we debated controversial issues. I wonder about other kinds of zones we might create in order to foster creativity, balanced thinking and synergistic solutions to thorny issues. Where are the “safe” places for open debate and dialogue?
A friend of mine placed a book in my hand a couple of years ago that presented a challenge in thought and practice. The Opposable Mind, written by Roger Martin, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Martin illustrates how successful leadership does not occur until something new is distilled from opposite choices. He is clear to say compromise seldom is the answer. And you don’t have to choose between two opposing options. He advocates staying open for what he calls a “leap of the mind” or what he defines as a third kind of logic. He invites leaders to consider the value of intuition and trusting one’s “unexplained logic.”
This sounds a lot like faith to me. Our faith communities have the responsibility and privilege to offer hope and clarity in the midst of confusion, fear and entrenchment. Hopefully, those of us who lead will navigate the great divides with a confidence born from above.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).
Randy Ashcraft is a coach with the Center for Healthy Churches, which distributed this column.