Saturday, September 18, 2010

Managing Polarities in Congregations -- A Review

MANAGING POLARITIES IN CONGREGATIONS: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities. By Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010. 251 pages.

It is a rare thing to run into a congregation that doesn’t want to thrive. Yes, there are faith communities that seem satisfied with the status quo, but that’s because the status quo is how they define what it means to be thriving. So, leaving aside those church folks satisfied with simply existing, most church leaders want to know how their congregations can grow in faith, in numbers, and in ministry. In our desire to reach this goal, many of us have run from one promising product to the next. We read about six easy steps to church growth and try each of them, hoping that something sticks. If we read that young people like contemporary music we may be inclined to toss the organ and hire a praise band. Perhaps the key to vitality isn’t flitting from one promised cure to another, but instead involves attending to and managing the polarities that are present in every community of faith? That is the premise of the new book by Roy Oswald, an ELCA pastor, church consultant, and author of several Alban published books, and Barry Johnson, President of Polarity Management Associates.

Oswald and Johnson use polarity maps, a concept that dates back to the mid 1970s to lay out principles by which congregations can discern a path to vitality. The idea here is that there are naturally occurring polarities, two seemingly opposite but interdependent pairs that must be managed properly. This is because they are “unavoidable, unsolvable and indestructible” (p. 209). They are, like a GPS, which when we make wrong turns, simply recalculate and offer an alternate route.

The polarity maps assume that there are two poles, around which energy flows in an “infinity loop.” To get a sense of how this works, think of breathing – we inhale and exhale, continually, as long as we live. The same is true for congregations, as long as they live, they will engage these polarities. They can choose to manage them poorly or well, and the manner in which they manage them will determine congregational vitality.

  • Tradition AND Innovation:  Another way of naming this pair is "stability AND change," that is, finding a balance between honoring the past and being relevant to the present situation.
  • Spiritual health AND Institutional Health:  This is a key issue in most congregations -- do we focus on the spiritual, the mission, or the institutional life?   Again, it's not an either or situation.
  • Management AND Leadership:  Management is about maintenance, leadership is about vision.  Vitality, requires both attending to the institutional life (management) and guiding the community into an embrace of its mission (leadership).
  • Strong Clergy Leadership AND Strong Lay Leadership:  Here the issue is shared leadership, instead of competition for power.  Thriving congregations need strong pastors, and yet they also need lay leaders who are willing to work together to achieve the mission of the church. 
  • Inreach AND Outreach:  This is again an area that easily lends itself to competition.  Do we focus on meeting the needs of the members or do we reach out to those beyond the congregation's walls -- both in terms of evangelism and social justice.  Is the church a chaplaincy or a mission station?  Or, do we need to make sure that both poles are managed well? 
  • Nurture AND Transformation:   We might call this -- loving people as they are AND helping them become who God would have them be.  It is a polarity of focusing on pastoral care and discipleship.
  • Making Disciples– Easy Process AND Challenging Process:  Here the focus is on the manner in which discipleship takes place.  The authors recommend two ways for persons to become members of the church, recognizing that the process of discipleship might need to come prior to membership for some, while for others the process might better take place as they are members already.  Either way, the goal is the same.
  • Call AND Duty.  How are we motivated to serve?  Is it a call or is it a duty?  On one hand the question is answered by attending to those things that emerge from our basic values, and at the other end attending to those things we feel a definite call to engage in.  On one hand there is the sense of making use of one's gifts, at the other side, recognizing that there are certain things to be done as a Christian. 
As one looks at the eight polarities, it is easy to see how easily it can be for churches to focus on one over the other, as if these are either/or premises. The authors write that “the more people value the upside of one pole, the more they will denigrate the opposite pole by pointing out why it is a bad idea and adding more items to the downside of the pole” (p. 37). The reality is that there are both upsides and downside to each pole. We make a mistake if we assume that one or the other pole is a problem to be solved, rather than a reality of life that must be managed. Thus, by emphasizing one over the other, which often is the tendency of church leaders, we’re more likely to fall prey to the downside of the pole we’re embracing, and this leads to decline. For instance, because institutional survival seems to always trump religious experience, there is the tendency to focus on those things that contribute to survival. Thus, there is the danger for churches that are struggling with survival to focus on inreach over outreach, but as the authors note, “congregations need to remind themselves continually of their primary mission.” Although the spiritual nurture of members is part of the mission of the church, surely the church is also called to evangelism and social justice. Vitality requires that this polarity be managed well.

In eight of the nine chapters the authors lay out the dynamics of the eight polarities, offering insight into both the upside and downside of each pole, show the ways in which the polarities can be managed poorly, offering a guide to early warnings, and also offering guidelines to managing the polarities well. Accompanying each of these chapters is a polarity map so that the reader can get a visual sense of how this works.

This book should prove invaluable to churches and church leaders who seek to move beyond the either/or thinking that so dominates on our communities of faith. By recognizing, as these authors do, that these polarities are naturally occurring and thus a gift from God, we need to receive them accordingly, and seek the proper balance that leads to thriving congregations. This is, therefore, a must read book for all clergy and lay church leaders.

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