Not All Problems Are Alike!

Congregational leadership is often comprised of various problems that call for attention. Everything from sorting out a new insurance policy to discerning the next step for pursuing God’s mission can be on the table. Following the work of Speed Leas, [1] it can be helpful to recognize that not all problems are alike; each sort of problem requires a different approach.

  1. Problems – A real problem is a dilemma that has the capacity to be solved or for which a solution can be found. The air conditioning system needs to be replaced, newcomers to our services are not being welcomed, or the nursery requires some new furniture might be examples of problems. Problems can be assigned to an appropriate person or persons to brainstorm or research possible solutions and move toward a healthy resolution of the problem.
  2. Issues – Issues are value-laden points of conflict where various beliefs and convictions undergird the dilemma. Issues might include how to alter a worship service or whether or not to launch a new ministry for refugee communities in your city. Brainstorming or looking for simple solutions do not serve as appropriate ways to resolve issues. Rather, an approach to issues will require an intentional course of reframing the issue in deeper theological and missional grounds. Attending to issues calls leaders into a deep level of spiritual maturity, prayer, and listening well to the perspectives of the others.
  3. Choices – Choices are where leaders are faced with two or more options. When one of those options is chosen, then the remaining options are no longer on the table. The work of leaders falls into an either/or position. Choosing between two candidates for a staff position or making a decision to move to a new location would reflect the realities of choice. To attend to choices, wise leaders reflect deeply on the upside and downside of each possibility. Additionally, they make their choices allowing the mission and vision of the church to guide them.
  4. Polarities – Polarities are two realities that appear to be in tension with the other. An example might be that a church needs to focus on discipleship or it needs to focus on evangelism. Or, perhaps a church needs to care for the members who are present or the persons in the community who are not currently part of the congregation. Rather than seeing polarities as a problem to be solved, polarities are actually dynamic and constructive tensions to be managed by leaders. In other words, both realities in a polarity are needful and useful for a healthy, maturing church.

Next month I will explore more fully the way in which polarities function in a congregation. But for now, may I suggest that in your leadership groups, you may find it helpful to reflect on the sorts of things that your leadership team is dealing with—are they actual problems? Or are they issues, choices, or perhaps polarities? Knowing that bit of information will make a big difference in how you move forward!

Blessings as you live out your calling as leaders!

[1] This article and the one for next month draw from the work of Speed Leas, Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson. See Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson, Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities (Alban Institute, 2010).


Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.
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Author:  Publish Date: October 25, 2016

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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