Churches, large and small, can find themselves facing a divide over issues, large and small. The issue at hand can range from controversy over a new building to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality to the current pastoral leader to what kind of music to sing. Sometimes leaders suggest a change which seems innocuous to them but quickly spirals into a polarized conversation.
What can leaders do when they find themselves facing a great divide?
Ron Richardson describes in his new book, Polarization and the Healthier Church, “an approach that does not require the cooperation of others to get change to happen. It is not about what we can do to or for others. It is about change in self, based on an understanding of how we, has human beings, tend to function in high anxiety situations, and it is about how to be with others differently. To the extent that we are successful in our own efforts, there is greater likelihood that positive change will occur in the larger community.” (p. 9, emphasis added) It’s easy to blame others for the polarization but it doesn’t get you very far. When you can take responsibility for your own choices, rather than trying to change others, you’ll find it easier to walk through challenging discussions and decisions.
Here are some suggestions for approaching a polarized situation at church:
Stay light. Even if the matter seems very important to you, do what you can to lighten up about it. Remember that you can’t control what others do, and see to what degree you can let go of the outcome.
Stay connected to those who disagree with you. Work on relationships with them apart from the issue. Move toward acceptance of them as they are, even if you don’t like their position or their behavior. Particularly cultivate relationships with those who seem most mature.
Listen at least as much as you talk. Don’t try to talk people into things. Those who disagree can’t hear you anyway.
Don’t complain about others or spend a lot of time listening to others complain.This is classic triangling behavior, and it will only keep things stuck.
See it as research. This may be your most important continuing education this year. Become a student of yourself and your own responses, of others, and of the congregation as a whole. See what you can find out about the church’s history. Have issues like this come up before? Think about your own family story, too. What happens in your family when people disagree?
Finally and most importantly, focus on yourself. Spend more time thinking about what you think and how you are going to function than ruminating on what “those people” are thinking, saying and doing. Leaders who are calm, clear, and self-managed are a positive force for change.
Rev. Margaret Marcuson works with churches that want to create a ministry that lasts and clergy who want more impact on the people they serve best. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury, 2009). She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts for thirteen years.