Some ministry tensions that exist in congregations cannot always be resolved, nor should they be.  Instead, these tensions- often referred to as polarities- must be communicated clearly and managed. Polarities exists when leaders must choose among more than one good option. When polarities arise, church leaders tend to avoid, discount or even resist these tensions rather than embrace them as a normal part of congregational life. For transformational leaders, they often become opportunities for helping people discover, develop and more fully articulate what matters most to their faith community.

In their book, Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities, authors Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson recognize that congregations often find themselves in power struggles over two opposing views and remind leaders to view polarities as pairs of truths that need each other over time. When leaders avoid “either/or” thinking and embrace a “both/and” or “yin/yang” approach where one polarity is more dominant than another, they are able to find an appropriate balance between the two tensions that maximizes their ministry. In their book, Oswald and Johnson highlight the following eight polarities.

  1. Tradition AND Innovation:How do we stay rooted in our historic faith and heritage AND foster creativity in our life together?
  2. Spiritual Health AND Institutional Health:How do we nurture our mission and spiritual health AND maintain a healthy institution that sustains our corporate life?
  3. Management AND Leadership:How do we create or sustain a well-organized, stable congregation AND create or sustain a congregation that inspires members to embrace change?
  4. Strong Clergy Leadership AND Strong Lay Leadership:How do we support strong leadership by our clergy AND ensure broad, active participation by our laity?
  5. Inreach AND Outreach:How do we respond to members’ needs AND take care of those outside our membership?
  6. Nurture AND Transformation:How do we manifest God’s unconditional love for us AND challenge people to grow spiritually and to serve others with commitment?
  7. Building Disciples AND Building Membership.How do we make it easy for people to become members “on mission” AND ensure that membership has meaning and depth?
  8. Fulfilling Calling AND Fulfilling Institutional Commitments:How do we help members recognize their particular call from God to serve others AND ensure that the mundane tasks needed to sustain congregational life are accomplished?  

Polarities within a church are not limited the 8 items mentioned above. Other frequently occurring tensions that leaders must balance include:

  • Depth AND Width (regarding discipling members)
  • Inviting in AND Going out
  • Leading AND Managing (moving into uncharted territories AND developing capacities for implementing what’s already planned)
  • Local AND National/Global
  • Giving AND Receiving
  • Discerning AND Doing
  • Catching our Breath AND Launching New Ventures
  • Short-term AND Long-term Horizons  

Vibrant congregations thrive in part because they recognize these polarities and learn to manage them well. They create synergies between the inherent tensions that lead to ongoing innovation rather than resistance and road blocks.  During visioning retreats and leadership training events, Vibrant Faith coaches facilitate exercises to help pastors and churches recognize and respond proactively to ministry tensions. Learnings that come out of these onsite activities often lead to congregations investing more energy and attention toward connecting with their local community, developing lifelong Christ-followers in addition tolong-lasting members, and finding ways to expand their leadership capacities and share the ministry more broadly.

At your next meeting, ask your leaders the following questions:

  1. Which polarities are we aware of, and do we regularly pay attention to?
  2. In our setting, which polarities need greater attention and emphasis?
  3. Which polarities do we pay too much attention to at the expense of others?
  4. Which polarity is in most need of “rebalancing,” and what would that look like to do so in our ministry setting? 

If you’d like to learn more about ways to assess and manage the polarities in your ministry, consider reading the Oswald’s and Johnson’s book- LINK HERE. You are also invited to register for one of our upcoming Leading Well Learning Retreats where this topic will be addressed. Follow the links below.

Upcoming Leading Well Learning Retreats:

Jim LaDoux is on staff with Vibrant Faith as the head of our coaching initiatives, including the Leading Well program. He can be reached at You can learn more about Vibrant Faith Coaching here

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