Skip to content

Polarity Management

Barry Johnson, the author of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, poses the question: “What would you do if you had to make a choice between breathing in and breathing out?” You are wondering, “What kind of a question is that? Breathing is not one or the other. Breathing has to be both—in and out!” And yet, there are so many situations in life that we treat as problems to be solved one way or the other. It’s either my way or no way. I’m right and you’re wrong. But often these situations in life, like breathing, are polarities to be managed, NOT problems to be solved. The two sides of a polarity are interdependent; you cannot choose one as a solution and neglect the other. Both are needed, and both are part of the solution.

It is time to look at some examples. A profitable business must be able to reduce costs and improve quality. Managers and employees need training and must do their work. All of us are faced with work commitments and home commitments. Notice in these examples that we have competing demands that are interdependent and connected in such a way that you need to be able to manage both. In polarities there is no such thing as one is good and the other is bad, one is right and other is wrong. Both are good, and both are needed. Polarity Management is especially important in a church. An Episcopal congregation in the East Bay has 2 worship services. One is called Noisy Worship, and the other is called the Main Service. A Peninsula mega-church has an 11:00 am service in the sanctuary and an 11:05 am service in what is called the Café. These are wonderfully creative ways of managing the worship wars that we are so familiar with. We struggle with whether children should be included in worship. Should the Session be crusaders or tradition-bearers? Should pastors be conservative for stability or revolutionary for change? Should we celebrate baptism for infants or believers? I hope you see where I am going with this. In all of our congregations, we are challenged with many unsolvable problems. They are unsolvable because the solution is not found in one side or the other. Both sides are needed in the solution. There is no one absolute right answer.

Barry Johnson challenges us to look at our seemingly unsolvable problems as polarities which do not just seem unsolvable but TRULY ARE unsolvable. Then instead of looking for a way to solve these problems, we can focus instead on ways to manage them effectively, which is the real solution. Johnson gives us two questions that are helpful for determining whether a difficult issue is a problem to be solved or a polarity to be managed. “Is the issue ongoing?” If so, that suggests a polarity, not a problem that can end by applying an appropriate solution. No attempted solution can truly end a polarity. It will remain an ongoing issue. “Are the opposing points of view interdependent?” If so, the issue is potentially a polarity. By taking only one perspective on a polarity, it may look like a solvable problem; but it will become clearer that it is actually unsolvable as soon as you start looking at how the primary perspectives depend on each other. Denominations today struggle with many ongoing, unsolved issues. How do we balance peace and purity, grace and law? How do governing bodies balance the functions of nurturance and regulation with pastors and congregations? How do we balance conscience and constitution, local autonomy and connectionalism? These issues are not only ongoing, but in each case, there is also interdependency between the two perspectives. Which leads me to believe that they remain unsolved because they are unsolvable polarities, not solvable problems.

Getting back to the earlier metaphor of breathing to illustrate the need for polarity management, we breathe in to solve the problem of lack of oxygen. Then when this creates a new problem of too much carbon dioxide, we breathe out, creating the problem of lack of oxygen again. And this goes on and on. The solution is not to breathe in more or breathe out more, but to do both. Too often we get stuck in unresolvable debates, with some taking one point of view and others taking another point of view. We argue as if it were a question of breathing in versus breathing out when the wisdom is in balancing the two perspectives, which are interdependent. The apostle Paul has the right word for us when we are faced with unsolvable problems.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes: You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which Christ has the final say in everything…I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together…God has put all the different parts into one body on purpose. The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part…if one hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance!

(Translation: Eugene Peterson, The Message)

2 thoughts on “Polarity Management”

  1. “…..looking no further than your own body” is so true. Fortunately and unfortunately when the host of the physical body is young and healthy, he/she tends to take for granted that when one part of the physical body fails due to wear and tear or trauma, the other parts of the body will automatically take up the slack, with or without modern medicine and manufactured appliances.. There’s no “Thank you, body, for doing all the work you do every day.”

    Our world would most likely be better if we deeply believe that we are all One Body and walk that talk.

    1. Thank you, Gwen, for your reminder that the body is not always as healthy as we would hope; and therefore the importance of factoring that in when called upon to address polarity issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *