One of the most helpful insights I have gained in recent years for understanding the leadership culture of congregational life is the concept of managing polarities. Polarities are ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable. They are the hardest issues we face. Attempting to address them with traditional problem solving skills only makes things worse. There is a significant advantage for those leaders, teams, or organizations that can distinguish between a problem to solve and a polarity to manage and are effective with both.
In his book, Managing Polarities In Congregations, Roy Oswald says: “Congregations often find themselves in power struggles over two opposing views. People on both sides believe strongly that they are right. They also assume that if they are right, their opposition must be wrong–classic ‘either/or’ thinking. A polarity is a pair of truths that need each other over time. When an argument is about two poles of a polarity, both sides are right and need each other to experience the whole truth.”
To be sure, there are many questions that have a single, clear answer. For example: Jesus is the Messiah. The Bible is the revealed Word of God. We practice congregational polity. There is a long list of single answer questions. Some estimate that 95% of our concerns fall into the category of one-answer solutions.
However, the remaining 5% of issues we face in congregational life are where the vast majority of misunderstandings and disagreement occur. Thus, there is great wisdom in being able to supplement traditional problem solving (either/or thinking) with polarity management (both/and thinking). Both combined will outperform either alone.
In congregational life, typical polarities include internal/external focus, tradition/innovation, and clergy/laity leadership. Remember, polarities are those issues where there is no single right answer, but there is a polarity to be managed. Such polarities have two or more right answers that are interdependent.
For example, when we ask if our church is going to be inwardly focused or outwardly focused, the best answer is a resounding “Yes!” The two polarity poles in the ensuing discussion are programming and care for those who are members of the church (internal focus), and a burden and care for those who are not part of the family of faith (external focus).
A healthy church will constantly ask itself how it can do both, not which one is right and which one is wrong. Such a conversation will lead to an ongoing and vigorous discussion about how our church will live a both/and approach to ministry internally and externally.
Polarities help us discover the both/and life of faith rather than always insisting on an either/or answer to every question. Neither side of the equation has an exclusive hold on truth. Neither is the right answer all the time.
Another polarity every congregation faces is the way in which we navigate the tension between predictable traditions and unpredictable innovations. Healthy congregations know that both are essential for our life together. From his earliest teachings, Jesus held in tension the Law and the Spirit. He honored the traditions of his day but also challenged those traditions with his both/and teaching. His insistence that the Sabbath laws was not intended to suppress the life of dynamic faith (Matthew12) put him in conflict with those who preferred an either/or approach to the question.
The 21st century finds us engaged in the same struggle. Living between the polarities of tradition and innovation continues to create great anxiety for churches. Wise leaders will place this highly charged conversation in the proper context of a both/and polarity management process, rather than force a congregation to choose whether to be traditional or innovative. Jesus loved the traditions of the Law, but he also loved the movement of the Spirit, and managed to blend those two into a whole. So must we.
What about the ongoing question of whether a congregation is to be staff-led or lay-led? Once again, choosing a yes/no answer to this perpetual question nearly always invites discord and dissension into the family of faith. Instead, treating this as a polarity to be managed not only mirrors the biblical instruction, but generally leads to a more mature and effective leadership culture. Both laity and staff have key roles to play in the leadership of a congregation. Neither can fulfill their calling and potential without the other. Some days the laity lead, some days it is staff, some days it is both, but always it is leadership under the Lordship of Christ.
Many of the most vexing issues we face as congregations will never be addressed in a healthy fashion by either/or thinking. It is only when embrace the proverbial “genius of the and” that we can have a transforming impact for Christ upon our people and our culture.