Three Smooth Stones: Managing Polarities

ImageNearly a decade ago, I started collaborating with Pat Keifert, a theology prof at Luther Seminary and president of Church Innovations, and a leading voice in the missional church conversation. Part of that collaboration includes consulting work in a process that CI uses called Partnership for Missional Church. The total tonnage of things I continue to learn from Pat cannot be measured, including the glories of single malts.

But one thing is particular has become very important in how I think about ministry–managing polarities. This concept has been around awhile, associated with the work of Barry Johnson, but I learned it from Pat. The basic idea is simple. In all organizations there are unsolvable issues that can be expressed as a polarity–two opposing poles. For instance, Pat talks about the basic polarity in congregations around “belonging” and “trading.” Some within the congregation value the things that go into belonging–clear identity, tradition, stability, etc. Others, however, are willing to trade things for new growth. They value innovation, vitality, creativity, etc. And in many congregations, these people don’t trust each other. This in turn produces tension and conflict. And because church leaders fear conflict above all else, they tend to work as quickly as possible to reduce the conflict. This is usually done by collapsing the polarity by declaring one side or the other the winner.

But tension is not necessarily a bad thing. As Keifert likes to point out, at some points dying and giving birth feel pretty much the same. And in the case of belonging and trading, both are needed for a healthy congregation and the continuing presence of both will guarantee ongoing tension. But as the polarities people point out, this tension can be converted into energy. The key is not to make either pole weaker, but to strengthen both. 

Both poles have values that can be expressed in healthy ways. It’s important in the midst of tension to be able to name these values. It’s also the case that these values have a dark side. Belonging can be intransigence. Trading can be reckless and damaging. The key is to work on the plus side of the line.

In our PMC work where innovation is the goal, we assume that the belonging pole is overly muscular, so we begin by energizing the traders. But we don’t give them the keys to the store. We turn them loose on limited projects, both in terms of scope and duration. This helps the belongers to know that someone is concerned about the long haul and that everything is not going to change overnight. At the same time, we’re working the story of the congregation to find usable parts of the congregation’s history that will serve a new future. The belongers like this and it helps the traders to hear stories that bear meaning and identity. The PMC process is designed to strengthen both poles.

I have also found that it matters who represents each pole in congregational conversations. Ron Heifetz talks about protecting voices of authority in processes of transition. What he doesn’t mean is “protect the official leadership structure.” He means protecting persons of integrity and gravitas who line-up on either side of an issue. These are people who model how to get along in the midst of tension. They can listen without getting defensive. They can state their own views positively without demonizing the other or personalizing the conflict. They can even see and express the benefits of the other side. I’m constantly looking for these people and finding ways for them to be a part of processes.

The great thing about polarity management is that there can be win-win outcomes. Moreover, groups that know leadership is committed to strengthening values (not necessarily positions) can breath through the contractions of change. This also means that not everything has to be a compromise, which tends to weaken both poles. It’s a strong view of both leadership and human community. It’s affirming.

One last key. Leaders who are effective at managing polarities are good at narration. They can tell how values in tension have always characterized faithful churches. They know stories from the congregation’s own past. And they can provide a plausible narrative of the future that makes the difficulties now seem worthwhile.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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1 Response to Three Smooth Stones: Managing Polarities

  1. storythom says:

    Lesson for me (no surprise to anyone who knows me): finding yourself in a story is more important than finding yourself in a list of rules.

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