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Congregations and councils across the US and Canada have begun making important decisions about resuming physically-gathered worship and ministry in their respective communities. These decisions are proving difficult as they expose competing values, frayed nerves, underlying conflict, and often insufficient decision-making data. Many leaders are entering the council (zoom) room convinced of the rightness of their own position and equally convinced of the wrongness of the other’s position. Unsurprisingly, some of these conversations are not going well. 

One tool your church may find helpful for making decisions in a conflicted setting is polarity mapping. On June 4, some of the staff of Pastor Church Resource met to talk about how Polarity Mapping may help councils struggling to make decisions about physically-gathered worship. Whether you follow the process to the letter or merely steal an idea or two, we hope this will help you approach these decisions more creatively. Here are the basics: 

The Benefits of Polarity Mapping

Polarity mapping creates a structured opportunity for a leadership team to step into the shoes of people with whom they disagree. You might say, it's a practical way to practice looking not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Each person is given a chance to acknowledge the values motivating those they disagree with while also conceding that there are downsides to my values, too. The process of naming a polarity, creating a simple polarity map and identifying your group’s Greater Purpose Statement come together to help congregations build trust, get unstuck and then make better decisions both right now and later. 

What’s a Polarity

In their book, Managing Polarities in Congregations, Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson define a polarity as a pair of truths that are interdependent. Neither truth stands alone. They complement each other. 

Think of it this way: some decisions represent problems to solve. The church roof is leaking. There may be a few ways to solve that problem. And choosing a solution will require a decision. But all you have to do is decide which way you’ll address this problem and, Lord willing, you won’t have to talk about it again for 40 years. 

But what about this: Should our church focus on caring for our own members within the church or should we focus on caring for people within our neighborhoods? This is not a problem to solve. A Christian church doesn’t have the option of deciding “we’re not going to care about our neighbors” or “we’re not going to care about our members.” Yet, any single decision of a council may push more in the direction of one of these poles than the other. There is no program that you can implement that will once and for all resolve this polarity. Until Christ returns, Christian churches will never solve this problem, they will rather manage this polarity. 

Other polarities discussed in the video include kindness and honesty. For congregations: tradition and innovation; strong lay leadership and strong pastoral leadership. For councils and classis: business and ministry; task and relationship, a prompt decision and a thorough decision. 

With each of these examples, both poles are important. And emphasizing one to the exclusion of the other will usually lead to downsides, the most negative expressions of that pole. Prompt decisions may become hasty ones. Or thorough decisions may really be indecision. Kindness becomes enabling permissiveness and honesty becomes self-righteousness. 

A COVID Polarity

Many wise leaders are recognizing that COVID is not giving us easily solved problems as churches. Rather, leaders are wrestling with some new polarities. 

For example, a church should seek the physical well-being of its people AND a church should seek the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of its people. A Christian church doesn’t have the option of deciding “we don’t care about physical well-being,” or “we don’t care about spiritual well-being.” 

COVID has lifted up a polarity for us. Both seeking physical health and mental, spiritual and emotional health are values of a congregation. But the spread of COVID means that leaning into gathering together (which normally helps build up our emotional, mental and spiritual health) may risk our physical health. Meanwhile, leaning into isolation for the sake of our physical health may risk our emotional, mental and spiritual health. Leaning into one to the exclusion of the other leads to downsides. 

Most of us tend toward one side of a polarity. We easily see the upside of our pole (we need to get on with our lives! We cannot hide away forever!) and the downside of the other pole (you people are living by fear, not faith!). As a group, you may be better able to recognize both the up and downside of both poles. By going through a 20-minute polarity-mapping process together, what you often find is that the other side really does have important values they are bringing to the table AND your side really does have some downsides. That doesn’t mean the decision is made. But it does mean you are in a position to make a better decision, with more buy-in and a higher level of trust. 

A Polarity Process

As a council, draw a blank chart like this. On each side, name the poles of your polarity, with an upside section and a downside section. 

Now, as a group, go quadrant by quadrant filling them in. First, fill in the upsides of the first pole. Invite wide participation, even among those who may be inclined to the other pole. Then fill in the upside of the second pole. Then the downside of the first. Then the downside of the second. 

When all four quadrants are filled in, try to write a greater purpose statement. What are both sides really trying to achieve? A faithful church? An authentic community witness? A flourishing, healthy congregation? 

Now, make your decision. Very few decisions are right down the middle, equal parts one pole or another. We tend to lean. That’s okay. But now everyone’s been heard (trust is enhanced). And you’re clear on the downsides of your present decision and the upsides of another decision. You can revisit this polarity map next time you meet. Maybe God’s spirit will show you the wisdom of leaning the other way. 

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This was outstanding! I wasn't very familiar with polarity mapping although recognize some of the basic concepts from visioning processes I've been part of. I'm going to forward the link to all the churches in our Classis. Personally it was quite revealing as well to find myself in one of those poles and being challenged to find positives in the other, so it can be a valuable tool for personal reflection and conversations about all kinds of issues.

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