dt_IDENTITY_PMA_arrow_poles_1200One of the most influential mental models that I came across during my time serving on the first Mid Councils Commission (2010-2012) was the concept of polarity management. On the recommendation of one of the executive presbyters we met with, I picked up Barry Johnson’s book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. You can download a brief summary introduction to the basic ideas here. I can’t say that I’ve become an expert in this, but here are some key takeaways:

  • Polarities are ongoing unsolvable issues.
  • Polarities have two or more “right” answers that are independent of each other.
  • Trying to address polarities with traditional problem solving skills—which is the way we have been taught to think through most of our formal education—only makes the situation worse.
  • Managing polarities is essential for one generation to pass key socialization elements of its culture on to the next generation.
  • There are extreme advantages to supplementing either/or thinking with both/and thinking.
  • A well-managed polarity capitalizes on the inherent tensions between the two poles.
  • To do this, it is critical to understand the upsides and downsides of both poles. This involves appreciative listening to the “other side.”
  • In order to manage a polarity you must identify structures, policies, and practices that will gain and maintain the upsides of both poles.

The application of this way of thinking to the PC(USA) is clear. We are and have been struggling with several polarities, most notably those involving our understanding of human sexuality and biblical/theological interpretation. It is not realistic to expect that one side of this polarity will convince the other side to change positions. Yet we continue to operate with a parliamentary problem solving mechanism that strives for one single answer to every contested issue. In this system there will always be winners and loser and it is unrealistic to expect people to live in harmony after battling each other in winner-take-all contests.

Might there be a way for GA221 to set aside this inappropriate and unhealthy decision making process in favor of a polarity management solution that truly fosters peace, unity, and purity? I’m not exactly sure what this might look like, but it would be a radical, forward thinking, and faithful response to the realities of our denomination and the world we live in.

With regard to the contentious issue of same-gender marriage, perhaps an Authoritative Interpretation that is permission giving yet not binding or compulsory is the best way forward. Or perhaps there is a polarity management approach we have yet to consider.

When it comes to Middle East issues, I believe that this paper from the Presbytery of Chicago’s Ecumenical and Interreligious Work Group provides a “third way” between the extreme positions in our engagement in the Middle East peacemaking. “Perspectives on Presbyterian Church (USA) Support for a Just and Peaceful Compromise of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” prioritizes listening to the narratives of both peoples as they understand it themselves, advocating for a legitimate compromise achieved through the self-determination of each people, and supporting human rights for all. This paper has been the only development leading up to GA221 that gives me hope that Presbyterians can contribute something constructive to the stalled Middle East peace process.

What do you think? Is it possible for GA221 to embrace polarity management instead of single-solution problem solving? Could we gather a critical mass of commissioners bold enough to find a new way of living together as a connectional church?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. John, you’re such an insightful thinker! I wish more of the PC was able to follow your model. Andrew is one of my 6 boys now, though he and Joel are ostensibly out on there own back in Chicago, while myself, two 18 year olds and 6 and 8 year old brothers call Antioch home now. What I wanted to say is that the polarity you speak of may, just possibly, go far deeper down and youthful. Before Steven became so ill, I attended the 6th grade sessions with him often, which for the most part featured cartoon videos attempting to demonstrate old testament parts in an accessible way. But as fact. It was obvious as an observer that only a couple, if any, of the kids in the room bought the idea of a bush talking, on fire or not.

    The high school program as you ran it was among the best on the planet, literally, and I found that your approach took the kids’ righteous misgivings in stride and focused on the human, developmental gains of spirit and morality. I still try to carry a model of your thinking and reactions around in my head as my own kids’ traumas circle my head. Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply