Our culture is polarized in almost every sector of life. Recent data published by the Pew Research Center suggests that the trend towards entrenchment in ones ideology, theology, philosophy, and political leanings is growing at an alarming pace leaving little room for the common sharing of 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 are unfortunately right in the middle of these cultural battles. Churches are often a hotbed of conflict, and thousands of people are choosing 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.
Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson writing in, Managing Polarities in Congregations, set out to identify and clarify the opposing ideas we live with every day in our congregations. They identify eight polarities which serve as poles around which energy flows in an “energy loop” best illustrated with the infinity symbol. These polar opposites are 1) tradition and innovation; 2) institutional health and spiritual health; 3) management and leadership; 4) strong clergy leadership and strong lay leadership; 5) in reach and outreach; 6) nurture and transformation; 7) making disciples as both an easy and challenging process; and finally, 8) duty and call. It is their contention that the leaders of a congregation are constantly managing the ebb and flow between these necessary but opposite strengths. 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 of the reasons church leaders often present to their doctors and healthcare professionals with stress related diseases, all the while assuming they should be more competent arbitrators and leaders through the rough and tumble storms of congregational life. If your legs are stretched across the divide and the ground shifts just a little you may get split in half!
Like it or not, we must learn to navigate these waters. Wishful thinking might suggest the strong and conflicting opinions of our constituents will simply go away with more prayer and better teaching and preaching, but we know better.
Peter Koestenbaum has rightly observed that, “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, and 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 have often 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. 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 title of the book is The Opposable Mind, written by Roger Martin who is the Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Martin illustrates quite convincingly that successful leadership does not occur until something new is distilled from opposite choices. He is clear to say compromise is seldom the answer. And you don’t have to choose between two opposing options. He advocates that we stay 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 ones “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.”