Sometimes compromise is good and productive. Sometimes its like kissing your sister (to be clear, I don’t have a sister, but I think I know what is meant by this colloquialism).
A community can’t function without a compromise every now and again. I think of Acts 15. As with many decisions in church, the full will of God was not totally embodied in Acts 15, but space was created through compromise for the Spirit of God to continue to pull the church forward.
But a compromise nearly always includes half measures. It often lacks boldness. It leaves both sides feeling like they lost so that there is little enthusiasm for the future. Sometimes it’s a way of rewarding the squeaky wheel for bad behavior. Sometimes, its an obstacle to growth.
This is why I like the idea of managing polarities. Let me refresh the notion here. Sometimes, conflict in a community’s life revolves around a seemingly irresolvable tension. This might be understood as two poles, or as a polarity. Polarities typically represent strongly held values that limit the potential for compromise. And because leaders abhor conflict, they tend to collapse the polarity by declaring one side or the other the winner. In a congregation, this means the losers dropout and start their own group devoted to their own side of the polarity.
This often plays out along the lines of tradition and innovation. Either the traditionalists win or the innovators, and the other group leaves. But a polarity typically exists because there are positive aspects to both sides of the polarity. Both need to be strong for a community to be healthy. The last thing you want to do with a polarity is to weaken both poles, which is often what happens in compromise. Instead, you want to strengthen both poles.
Here’s the deal. You usually can’t strengthen both poles in one decision. This, however, is not a weakness, but a strength of a managing polarities approach. Because you’re not trying to make everyone happy with this single decision, you can typically make a bolder decision which will have a stronger impact.
The key obviously is that those persons who represent the other side of the polarity have to be confident that other actions or decisions are being taken or will be taken that strengthen their side of the polarity. This takes time, which requires taking the long view strategically. It also might require starting small so that people learn to trust the rhythm of polarity management. A skilled leader can make this rhythm clear and assure members that over the long haul there is a commitment to both strengthening traditional identity and innovating.
My hunch is that if ministers take an inventory of ministerial initiatives, they’ll discover that they tend to strongly favor one pole over the other. They’re either guarding against the contaminating effects of new influences or pushing the congregation toward innovation.
Also, each side in a polarity has to see the life-giving value of the other, that both sides are needed for a healthy community. This requires trust in the system. In addition to trusting the rhythm of polarity management, systems engender trust when people feel truly heard and when they don’t feel like everything’s been decided by some group beforehand–that the game is rigged.
I think it is too often the case that leaders will trade trust for results. In other words, they do things that erode trust needed for the long haul in exchange for short term “gains.” This, in my estimation, is ministerial malpractice.
So, sometimes in the moment of decision it is necessary and beneficial to compromise. But for my money, the long game is best thought of in terms of polarity management and creating the conditions of trust necessary for that to work.