Binaries, Polarities and the Unhealth of Congregations

On July 12, we had a visit from Cynthia Gustavson. I had spoken to her at our Synod’s annual Assembly back in May or June or whenever that was (I have since slept, and many experiences have managed to blend together, wiping out important and unimportant distinctions … but I digress), and I asked her if she would come and speak to us about healing.

This wasn’t an out-of-the-blue invitation: If you’ve been part of this congregation for the last 2-ish years, you’ll know that we’ve spend a good deal of time reflecting about our past. We worked with Holy Cow, Inc. and Kairos & Associates to do a Congregational Assessment Tool – sort of a Myers-Briggs snapshot of our congregation’s personality. We also completed (as a requirement of our Redevelopment grant) a Comprehensive Ministry Review, in which a number of faithful folks from our Synod came together to speak to the congregation and our partners in the larger community about Who We Are. In all of those conversations, one thing that consistently popped up among our “consultants,” was that there was a lot of unhealed pain and “lingering toxicity” from various traumas in the congregation’s past. All of these folks recommended that we bring in someone to talk with us about “congregational healing.” This was the background to that invitation to Cynthia.

She and I spoke on the phone. I relayed to her that several folks commented to me about how they would just like to move on and not have to deal with fallout from The Conflict any more. This comment may be why Cynthia approached our time together that Sunday the way she did. I admit to being baffled at first, since it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I wasn’t disappointed, per se – just a bit confused.

Well, she approached our meeting by talking less about healing than about thriving. She opened up, saying that many congregations (and other individual and corporate bodies alike) tend to think in polarities, in binaries. An object is either A or it is B. An event is either good or it is bad. This is true in fields like computer electronics where a machine is either on or it is off, but in human relationships, in emotional areas, in most of life, polarized thinking isn’t terribly helpful.

Before I talk any further about Cynthia’s presentation, I wanted to interject something kind of personal as a way of illustration.

Many of you know that I have been diagnosed with PTSD and with dysthimic disorder following PTSD. The short version of this story is that, as a kid, I dealt with a LOT of death. I mean, a LOT. My father, my sister, my grandmother, my aunt and cousin. Suicide, drug overdose, cancer, more suicide. All of this by the time I was 10. I’ve suffered a lot of loss since then, as well. More suicides, more overdoses, AIDS deaths, more cancer. It goes on. But it’s those early losses that shaped me profoundly. The trauma from those things can’t account for ALL of my personality quirks, but it probably does account for the way I “sensate” reality and how I attribute value to things and experiences. I am an “introverted feeler,” meaning that I process experiences internally, either incorporating/accepting things into myself or rejecting them. It’s either/or. It’s binary feeling. I like it or I dislike it. The Beatles rule. One Direction sucks. There is no in-between.

Trauma and binary or polarized thinking don’t always go hand-in-hand, but they’re definitely not strangers, either. Binary thinking is a quick way to categorize things, and it works really well in survival situations. This food is safe. That food is unsafe. This idea is helpful. That idea is useless. That group of people may kill me so they are bad. This group of people may help me so they are good. See what I mean?

While that works well for survival mode, it’s not always the best way to operate OUTSIDE of survival modes. When a person (or a corporate body) suffers trauma, they fall into survival mode. On or off, good or bad, safe or dangerous – not even really thinking that there may be multiple shades of grey in between.

Now, I didn’t debrief all of this with Cynthia, so I may well be talking out of my hat. But I suspect that she was trying to suggest that this may be where our congregation is situated emotionally – that we’re in this survival mode, which isn’t as conducive to THRIVING as we might want it to be.

She presented to us 8 Key Polarities to help us think about THRIVING rather than just surviving.

Instead of thinking of these as either/or propositions, we can think of them as both/ands.
We need:
1. Tradition AND Innovation
2. Spiritual health AND Institutional health
3. Management AND Leadership
4. Strong clergy leadership AND Strong lay leadership
5. Inreach AND Outreach
6. Nurture AND Transformation (alternatively, Pastoral AND Prophetic)
7. Making disciples as a process that is both Easy AND Challenging
8. Call (Vocation) AND Duty

Most people at the meeting that day seemed to think that some of these areas we are already working on pretty well, especially Tradition and Innovation. I think we can challenge ourselves a great deal more in this area, but overall I agree that we have a solid liturgical tradition that we feel free to play with a little bit (musically; in terms of where we place various liturgical elements such as the passing of the peace, etc.)

The places where people felt (or at least most boldly spoke up about) need the most attention are numbers 2, 4, 5, and 8.

We seem to think a lot more about our spiritual health (doing healing services, caring for one another, having fellowship events, doing small group ministries amongst ourselves) than we do thinking/talking about Institutional Health (Budgets, property issues, etc.). It might be interesting to talk about WHY that is…

One person believed we place too much emphasis on strong clergy leadership and not enough on strong lay leadership. (I was not that person, though I don’t disagree! :)) There are probably good reasons for this stemming from past traumas, but remember that we want to move out of “surviving” mode and into “thriving” mode!

One person commented that we focus far more on Inreach than we do on Outreach. As traumatized people, again, this makes sense. But we need to move out of a primary healing mode into an outward focus, remembering that Jesus commissioned the Church to work for the sake of the world, not for ourselves.

One person believed that we need to balance our thinking in terms of Call (Vocation) (“I feel called to do music ministry … and maybe not much else.”) and Duty (“Somebody needs to sit on the CORE Council; Somebody needs to mow the grass; Somebody needs to count the money; Maybe duty to the church’s mission binds me to to that important task, even though it’s not what I love to do.”)


Even though I admit to having been a little confused at the time about WHY Cynthia chose to talk about these binaries, as I reflect back on our time together, I think this makes a lot of sense. We DO tend to see ourselves as survivors. That’s not a bad thing. It needs to be celebrated. But we ALSO need to focus on a THRIVING mission!

As Cynthia said (and I had to laugh, because I used this very analogy when I was interviewing here), the breathing cycle includes BOTH the inhale AND the exhale. You simply can’t have one without the other. Are we a congregation that has been “waiting to exhale?”

1 Comment

  1. steenaw says:

    One of the things Cynthia asked us to do was to highlight areas where we felt we needed work, I underlined them as people called them out:
    Institutional Health
    Strong Lay Leadership

    That’s a lot to work on and it made me feel like I did as a kid when I had to clean my remarkably messy room – “Where do I even start?” I’m a planner, a mapper, a lister – organization is key to successfully completing a task. So I tried to start finding the thread that connected these polarities together and came up with a sort of step-by-step guide.

    Strong Lay Leadership –> Duty: Strong lay leadership will help to encourage the value of duty, as well as call. Strong lay leaders will pinpoint gifts and foster lay involvement.

    Duty –> Inreach/Outreach: Having more individuals invested in the church and its ministries, allows the church to expand its ministries, both inreaching and outreaching.

    Inreach/Outreach –> Institutional Health: Having a congregation focused on its mission, the Gospel, and serving our communities, leads to institutional health – both tangible and emotional.

    Institutional Health –> Innovation: While we’ve had a fair bit of innovation in the fast few years, I think it is fair to say that we haven’t quite managed to pull ourselves out of survival mode. We’re timid in our attempts and wary of failure. A congregation that is healthy is much more likely to feel comfortable taking some risks, trying new things, and doing daring dos.

    Innovation –> Transformation: A congregation that is comfortable trying new things, is willing to be challenged. As Cynthia’s polarities show, Nurture AND Transformation are vital to the health of a congregation. It seems to me a church in survival mode is a bit like a sponge that will soak up the good and ease one another’s hurts but is not willing to be wrung out for the stranger.

    That’s as far as I got though. I’m still mulling on how one achieves Step 1: strong lay leadership. But it’s a place to start?


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