Polarity Leverage: Are We a Family or a Consciously Governed Ministry?

Published on: April 8, 2015

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Are we a family or consciously governed ministry? As a ministry consultant, this question frequently arises in board and leadership training sessions. When it does, it often causes creative tension within the group and I discover that, if it is coming up in the group, it is almost always creating tension within the spiritual community.

In pondering this question, I wondered—Can a ministry be a both/and? Can it be a ministry and still have a sense of family? Can it have the formal governance of roles and responsibilities and bylaws, etc., with their capacity to bring a greater sense of clarity and accountability within the system, and the informal system with its sense and feeling of “home and family” and “this ministry is important to me and fulfills a family dynamic that I need.”

Over the past few years, from a church consultant perspective, many articles I have read have spoken to the idea that “family” church (less than 75 persons) could not be sustained once you start to grow. Why? Because of complexity theory: As a system grows, the complexity it takes to support the system becomes greater. As a system grows, it takes great awareness to create a system that supports a clarity of governance and a sense of family, at the same time.

As I visit ministries for consultation purposes, I see firsthand the importance of this sense of family in ministries as it creates a deep bonding mechanism. It invites a sense of caring for and within the group. Yet, I also see that when the “family” cultural system leads the way, often, decisions are made informally, leaders are selected for charismatic impact or because they have always been around, because they are the informal matriarch/patriarch, the largest givers and wield their influence, and new people have a difficult time breaking into the “cliques,” even though the “church” says they want new people and want to grow.

Growth vs Let Us Be

Let me give you an example. I was working with a community that kept saying they wanted to grow. The new minister developed all kinds of programs and procedures that would invite in new people and bring clarity to the ministry and support the potential for growth. However, there was a matriarch/patriarch in the community that had been in the ministry for 25 years.

Each time a new class was scheduled, this person’s “clique” would subtly denigrate new class offerings, and when a new governance policy was recommended, there would be comments regarding—we are alright the way we are. Nothing seemed to make him/her happy, or the group, unless it had to do with a potluck or something they were familiar with. However, all evaluations and requests for information regarding the spiritual community and inter-personal communication, clearly stated—we want to grow.

What I noticed, as a consultant, was that this was definitely one of those times when the cultural modes of the spiritual community were in “creative tension.” So I began to ponder the idea, what would be the possibility that two culture systems could coexist consciously, simultaneously? What would it take? What could I bring as tools that might support a shift in what was happening within the spiritual community?

I knew, from a peace skills development perspective, that creative tension is necessary to a healthy, thriving ministry, yet, first, we have to acknowledge that it exists. Therefore, what might be required as a first step was to acknowledge the idea of creative tension existing between the cultural dynamics of family and governance.  Acknowledged in a mindful manner in order that it can be handled in a way that is conscious and responsible vs. a win/lose mentality. I also knew that this creative tension occurs when two cultural “systems” face each other; whether it be in times of peace or during times of difficulty.

This Isn’t a Problem: It’s Polarity Leverage

What I began to see was that this was two cultural systems within one larger system, called ministry, and that this is not a problem for which a solution is needed to be found but perhaps this is a polarity that needs to be leveraged. So, how do we, as a group, begin to do that?

I saw that perhaps by changing the lens to a polarity to be leveraged, we could invite the whole community into the process of viewing this creative tension as a new opportunity for conscious cultural system shift. From a polarity leverage perspective, we could look at all sides of polarity without making anyone side wrong and develop “flags” that would let them know when they have moved too far on one side or the other, and that it was time for a shift. Polarity leverage is not about maintaining a balance point, but it is about a continual movement of energy—and learning to be okay with the continual movement of energy.

It means having conscious conversations regarding polarity leverage and ministry dynamics. It means looking at how a spiritual community, regardless of size, requires formal governance processes in order to bring clarity to the system. From a ministry dynamics perspective, that doesn’t mean that the informal cultural family systems of communication and networks have to go.  However, they have to be used in a manner that doesn’t silently kill ideas and unconsciously “kick” people out—which often happens in a closed-culture system.

Family and Governance

Thriving and dynamic spiritual communities are, from a cultural perspective, a mix of both family and governance. The family aspect is apt to be cared for by longtime members; while leadership creates the foundation and platform for clarity and accountability through the governance system. Neither is wrong or old or not needed.

The question is, What are “flags” we can agree upon, that let us know that we are leaning too far in either direction? Once we identify those flags as indicators for shift, we can make a conscious choice to regroup, and thus live together in the creative tension of polarity leverage.
As a result, a spiritual community can come to see and know that both family and governance systems, and informal and formal ministry dynamic systems, are required to support a dynamic, thriving and “growing” ministry. It just takes each person in the community to be willing to:

  1. Be open to staying in conscious conversation,
  2. See their beloved spiritual community through the lens of another’s perspective—the lens of both/and—as a polarity to leverage, not a problem to solve.

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Toni G. Boehm
Peace and Transitional Ministry Support Consultant at Unity Worldwide Ministries
Rev Toni G Boehm, PhD, is Ministry Skills & Transition Ministry Support Coordinator for UWM. She has supported nearly 300 Unity boards and ministries in leadership skill development. She is the 2017 recipient of the Charles Fillmore Award for visionary leadership.

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  • Lyn Woods

    Hi Toni,
    Thanks for this! As usual, you provide some very helpful insights! I have found that having clarity about what the polarity is, provides two thirds of the solution. I know you are sending positive energy for us in your consciousness and we appreciate you!

  • Ric Beattie

    Thanks for this article which is very helpful.