Four Guiding Principles for Managing a Polarized Congregation

This article is one of a five-part series on Polarization:
  1. What Causes Polarization by David Brubaker
  2. How to Lead While Polarized by Sarai Rice
  3. Four Guiding Principles for Managing a Polarized Congregation by Susan Beaumont
  4. When Polarization Becomes a Tug-of-War by Lawrence Peers
  5. What Cures Polarization by David Brubaker

The polarization of a congregation is frightening to watch. When the ideological middle gets thin and the extremes of the organization thicken, leaders often struggle to exert control and restore order. In times of polarization, the organization may be best served by behaviors counter to our natural leadership impulses.

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A healthy organization

The boundaries of a healthy organization are somewhat irregular—making space for those with differences of opinion to coexist in harmony. The ideological center of the organization is robust and operates as a buffer between those who reside at opposing margins. The center holds space for clarity about what the organization stands for, and the irregular boundaries allow for diversity of ideas.

When polarization occurs, the organization’s center loses its robustness and its edges become more rigid. Those who previously stood in the middle feel intense pressure to move to one of the two ideological poles of the organization. Those who can’t identify with either pole may leave or step aside and become passive observers of the unfolding drama.

A polarized organization

In polarizing times, leaders may be drawn into debates they’d prefer not to have. Or they may find themselves standing among the detached bystanders, watching helplessly as conflict intensifies. Managing polarization requires living with ambiguity and paradox. Four guiding principles can help a leader negotiate the disorientation and restore the congregation’s healthy center:

1.    Adopt a Wondering Stance

Our natural impulse in the face of polarity is to practice knowing, advocacy and striving. These behaviors help us feel in control. A more helpful leadership stance is rooted in unknowing, attending and surrender. This wondering stance requires three spiritual shifts.

The shift from knowing to unknowing is an interior act of suspension. It is about becoming suspicious of our own certainties. We observe our own thinking patterns and recognize our own compulsions and egocentric concerns. We invite others to do the same.

The second shift is away from advocacy toward attending, so that we can cultivate our capacity for seeing and listening. We become curious about the viewpoints of others and listen beyond the positions they assert to the needs and interests that drive those positions. We don’t make assumptions about why they believe what they believe. We trust that there is a way of seeing the organization that is beyond our current ability to understand.

The final shift is away from striving towards surrender. To surrender is to yield, to submit to the powerful reality of what is, to embrace the situation for all that it may teach us. Surrender is not giving up, abandoning others in their distress, or deciding that you simply don’t care. Surrender is embracing the present reality and yielding to the mystery of how it will unfold.

These three shifts demand a great deal of vulnerability. Tough spiritual work. However, on the other side of our knowing, advocacy and striving is a rich world of wonder and curiosity. A wonder-filled leader is better equipped to lead a polarized community.

2.    Re-Engage Healthy Bystanders

The key to restoring a robust center is the reengagement of healthy bystanders, those individuals who have not been drawn into the polar extremes but may be standing passively by, wondering what to do about the polarization. The leader can work with these individuals to assert their more centrist viewpoints and to pursue a common good.

What does a healthy bystander need in order to re-engage? Typically, they need encouragement to be more assertive. They may need help framing the message they want to communicate. They need to learn how to respond to inappropriate behavior from others. Most importantly, they need to be reminded of the mission of the organization, the common cause that supersedes the polarity and demands their more active involvement.

3.    Don’t try to Fight Fair with Dirty Fighters

Professor Hugh Halverstadt, explored the idea of fair and dirty fighting in Managing Church Conflict. During polarization, the leader must empower the fair fighters and mitigate the impact of the dirty fighters.

Fair fighting is grounded in the principles of respect, assertiveness and accountability. Fair fighters assert their own intrinsic worth, while honoring the dignity and worth of those with other viewpoints. Fair fighters articulate their own positions clearly, not aggressively, and they listen to the views of others. Fair fighters hold themselves and others accountable for healthy communal behavior.

Dirty fighters struggle to control the conversation. They seek partisan good at common expense. They manipulate and violate the rights of others. Dirty fighters act deceptively and avoid accountability.

During polarization, a leader must engage constituents in different ways, depending on their tendency to fight fair or fight dirty:

  • Fair fighters: Focus time and energy on these people, regardless of where they stand in the polarity. Fair fighters can reach across the divide and restore open, respectful communication. Do what you can to increase the influence of fair fighters. Give them access to information and decision making. Invite them into roles where their presence can shape healthier conversation.
  • Dirty fighters: Don’t invest your energy trying to turn dirty fighters into fair fighters. When someone demonstrates their unwillingness or inability to fight fair, quit trying to cajole them towards better behavior. You can’t fight fair with dirty fighters, so don’t waste your time and energy trying!
  • Minimize the damage that dirty fighters cause in the organization by ensuring they don’t get elected or appointed to positions of influence. Teach the fair fighters and the healthy bystanders in the organization to ignore dirty fighting tactics because attention feeds dysfunction. Counter the misinformation dirty fighters feed into the organization by continually providing better information.

4.    Be Transparent About Your Own Position

Leaders often believe they should hide their own positions about controversial issues. They hope that occupying the middle ground will enable them to relate to constituents on both sides of the divide. This only works well when the leader’s perspective on the issue is truly a centrist position.

However, when the leader holds a position that is not centrist, pretending to be neutral does not serve the organization well. A leader with strong convictions who pretends not to have a position will be perceived as inauthentic or inept. A leader can demonstrate conviction to a cause while also demonstrating care, concern, and respect for those with opposing views.

There are no quick and easy answers for how to diffuse a polarized congregation, but the leader who embodies these four principles will help the congregation hold steady amid its disorientation.

Inside the Large Congregation cover Susan Beaumont specializes in the unique leadership needs of large churches and synagogues. Her areas of expertise include staff team health, strategic planning, size transitions, pastoral transitions and adaptive leadership. She is the author of the Alban book Inside the Large Congregation.

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