Failure to thrive

Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson discuss “Failure to Thrive” in this week’s missive from the

Alban Institute:

Brigetta was a tough-thinking woman who made most of the decisions at Good Samaritan Church. She had a strong, driven, Type-A personality. Brigetta had a clear vision of where the congregation should be headed, and she worked tirelessly at getting laypeople to carry out her vision. Although she had great ideas, she continually encountered lackluster support for these proposals from the board and committee members. Some lay leaders had tried to revise some of her ideas to make them more relevant to congregational needs, but she insisted on their doing things her way. Brigetta repeatedly rebuffed their attempts to gain some ownership of her plans by incorporating some of their own, and in the end, they acquiesced to her. Over time, members who had leadership capacities simply stopped serving on congregational boards and committees. Brigetta had not noticed that lay leaders lacked enthusiasm because they felt they were treated as lackeys whose purpose was to carry out her vision. She, on the other hand, complained to her colleagues that she wished she had just a few capable lay leaders who wanted to do something to make the congregation thrive.

On the other hand:

John was laid-back and easygoing. He also had a natural proclivity to pursue peace at all costs. Early in his tenure at St. John’s, he had tried exercising leadership but had found himself quickly overruled by strong-willed lay leaders who disagreed with the changes he wanted to make. After several attempts with the same results, he decided to offer the congregation excellent pastoral care and leave the leadership of the congregation in the hands of the strong lay leaders. He saw himself as carrying out the directions his lay leaders set for him, and he seemed willing to pay this price to keep the peace. Besides, these lay leaders were an intimidating bunch. They were tough, successful executives in their corporate settings, and in their opinion John knew little about either leadership or management. Sometimes he knew that what they were proposing would not work, because he was in touch with a much broader segment of the congregation. But he would bite his tongue and go along with their proposals, though his heart was not in them, and he gave only token support to implementing their ideas.


Here were two congregations going nowhere. In each case, there was no partnership between clergy and lay leaders. The congregations were stuck on alternate poles of this polarity, and both were experiencing more and more of the downside of their respective poles.

A polarity is a pair of truths that are interdependent. Neither truth stands alone. They complement each other. Congregations often find themselves in power struggles over the two poles of a polarity. Both sides believe strongly that they are right. People on each side assume that if they are right, their opponents must be wrong—classic “either/or” thinking. Either we are right or they are right—and we know we are right! When people argue about the two truths, both sides will be right, and they will need each other to experience the whole truth.

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