Conflicts at church: polarity management
In 1992 Dr Barry Johnson published a book called Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolveable Problems. This important book brought about a huge revolution in thinking in the whole area of conflict management, and shed light on a new aspect of confict.
You see, in the past all conflicts were thought of as problems, each of which had a solution. And if you worked hard enough, you would find a solution to ‘fix’ that problem.
However Dr Johnson realised that this was not always the case. Some conflicts did not come about as a result of problems that needed to be fixed - some were in fact polarities that needed to be managed!
Dr Johnson drew the analogy of breathing, asking the question: is breathing in or breathing out more important? The answer is obviously that both are important. You need to inhale in order to draw air into your lungs and oxegenate your blood. However, if all you do is inhale, the negative aspects of only inhaling become apparent – you start to get dizzy, carbon dioxide begins to build up in your body – and you need to exhale. At this point, exhaling becomes a welcome change, and you are able to expel all that poisonous carbon dioxide from your body. However, if all you do is exhale, your body begins to suffer from oxygen deprivation – and this leads to you needing to inhale.
In the analogy of breathing, you can’t say that inhaling or exhaling is more important than the other. Both are important – and what’s critical isn’t so much fixing the problem of inhaling too much or exhaling too much – but managing the need for the body to both inhale and exhale. And so breathing is not a problem to fix – it’s a polarity that we naturally manage.
Dr Johnson’s theory is that communities (such as churches) are continually rotating around two poles – and sometimes conflicts arose as the negative aspects of one particular pole becomes more apparent.
Take for instance St Blogg’s, with a leadership team that is primarily focussed around care and nurture of the current congregation (A). This is great for a while - but after several years some people become dissatisfied about the church’s involvement in mission and evangelism. The negative aspects of this pole become increasingly apparent (B). After several years of discontent this leads to a revolution in the life of the church – and the leadership team is replaced by one that is dynamic and outward looking (C). This is exciting for a while – until people begin to feel un-nurtured and exhausted. The negative aspects of this pole become increasingly apparent (D). And in a few years’ time this then leads to another revolution - back to a more caring, nurturing leadership team… (A).
Such a rotation can take seven years to work itself out – and in the mean time can lead to a lot of unnecessary hurt and damage. Churches can be rotating around several sets of poles at any one time – and the Alban Institute identifies seven common church polarities!
At St Blogg’s it wasn’t as though either pole was necessarily wrong. Both are appropriate - just as inhaling and exhaling are both important! It’s that the polarity needs to be managed before the negative aspects of any one pole leads to a throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. As the rotation moves along, what is intersting is that as people long for a D-A revolution, they forget all the negative aspects of Pole 1 that led to a B-C revolution three years ago. Instead, all they can see are the positives of Pole 1 that are the complete answer to all the negative things they perceive about Pole 2!
The first thing that churches need to do is to be aware that not all conflicts are problems that need to be fixed! Some conflicts may in fact come about as a result of a polarity, and should instead be managed. Having a common vocabulary for this will enable a church’s leadership to consider this possibility.
And secondly, it’s important for churches to manage polarities well. This involves having strategies in place to ensure that both Pole 1 and Pole 2 are accommodated for, and to listen carefully for adjustments that need to be made.
[ PS: what do you think may be some of these polarities in the life of a church? ]