Making Space for Middle Ground

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

We are a nation divided and those divisions are creeping into congregational life. It grows increasingly difficult to hold an ideological middle ground in politics, theology, or leadership. Pastors climb into pulpits fearful that a simple sermon topic will be interpreted as a political statement. Decision-making is heavy-laden with ideological spin, making it difficult to set a direction.

Polarization is the division that occurs when a complex community falsely divides itself into sharply contrasting groups. Opposing sets of opinions or beliefs are used to foster a we/they mentality that forces people to declare their “side.” We don’t have to accept polarity as the new status quo. There are specific things we can all do to encourage the re-emergence of a healthy middle ground.

Signs of Polarity

A healthy congregational hosts a broad spectrum of thought. Outliers with extreme viewpoints are regarded as quirky and perhaps even endearing. The presence of a strong middle ground means that no one is too far removed from another with a similar ideology. There is someone near me in perspective who connects me to others beyond my reach, thus bridging ideological gaps. The ideology of the next closest person is a comfort to me, and they stand between me and those I find too extreme.

When polarization happens, we lose the middle. Some of the people who represented a safe buffer between extremes move into the extremes. Others who stood at our ideological center grow alarmed by the polarization and step out or silence themselves. They become bystanders to the dialogue instead of participants in it and we lose our mediation zone. We/they thinking begins to emerge. We lose our ability to separate people and problems and “otherness” becomes the problem. We focus on personalities rather than issues. Reality gets distorted and exaggerated. We begin defending ideologies instead of seeing one another and working together to resolve our differences.

Ten Things You Can Do

Restoring an ideological middle ground is key to addressing polarization. Here are some simple (and not so simple) steps that leaders can take to foster the return of a healthy middle ground.

1. Stay spiritually grounded. It is critical to remain non-anxious and connected to your spiritual source. Fear, driven by the reactivity of the congregation, cannot be your guiding force. You must have a bedrock Source that guides your behavioral choices and your personal decision making.

2. Maintain a sense of humor.  Healthy leaders and organization can laugh at themselves. Humor disappears as an organization polarizes. Use humor appropriately and invite others not to take themselves too seriously.

3. Regulate your own responses. Be clear about your own feelings. Don’t let your personal emotions cloud your perceptions and opinions. Use “I” statements to clarify your feelings and to let others know how their behaviors impact you.

  “When you approach me at the end of the worship service with a critique of my sermon, I feel ambushed and disrespected. In that moment, I am trying to make connections with every member of the congregation. I can’t properly respond to your ideas in that setting, and your ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I would prefer to hear your ideas later in the week, after you have had a chance to think through your concerns and I have space to receive them.”

4. Focus your energy on health, not dysfunction. We are often tempted to focus our time and energy on people behaving badly, trying to cajole or force them into better behavior. People who are unwilling or unable to make good behavioral choices rarely respond well to pleas or coercive efforts.

Your time is better spent with the disengaged healthy bystanders, the people who say and do nothing because they don’t know what to do in the face of heated debate or bad behavior. Help the healthy people figure out an effective way to engage. Invite the healthy players to stay engaged with you on middle ground and ignore the dysfunction as much as possible.

5. Help people clarify needs, not positions. As polarization intensifies, people make statements that are positional and extreme. “If you preach one more sermon on that topic, I am out of here.”

When people take a positional stance, help deescalate their position by focusing on the underlying needs. “What is important to you in a sermon? What draws you to worship each week? What is important to you about your relationship with me as your pastor? How is the sermon topic that I choose related to those needs?”

6. Challenge behaviors and ideas, not motives or worth. It is easy to make assumptions about the motives behind positions, and to project clusters of other beliefs based on what we have heard. “If you believe this, then you must also stand for that.”  

In healthy organizations, people attribute good intent to one another. They don’t categorize and label one another. They ask for clarification of ideas and intent, and they give one another the benefit of the doubt until clarification is provided.

7. Paraphrase the idea of others before responding. When you hear an idea or accusation that alarms you, pause before responding. Commit to paraphrasing first what you heard from the other before weighing in with your own opinion or response. Ask the other if you have properly heard their idea before suggesting an alternative idea. Ask others to engage in this same practice.

8. Stay in your own skin. Do not speak on behalf of others. In a polarized community, people like to speak on behalf of the group they perceive as theirs.  “Others are saying…”  When people speak on behalf of another, simply remind them to speak their own truth.

9. Start with what is possible.  A return to healthy dialogue sometimes seems impossible. We can’t imagine a pathway forward that takes us from where we are to restored community. You don’t have to visualize the entire path towards restored health. Get people to commit to one small step together. Success with that one small step will begin to restore trust and will shine light on the next helpful step.

10. Pray for one another. It is impossible for a community that is praying for one another to stand in long term opposition to one another. A genuine stance of prayer invites empathy, compassion and reconciliation.

Our national discourse is not likely to calm down anytime soon. People will look to the church to provide respite from this turmoil.  People need the church to model a better way of living with diversity. Your leadership presence has never been more relevant. Ask others to commit to these ten behaviors with you so that church remains a haven, a place where differences are explored and celebrated.