DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Surfing Polarities

Written by: on March 7, 2019

Simple Habits for Complex Times by Dr. Berger and Johnston offers leaders a way forward among the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) reality we are all trying to lead in. I appreciate the emphasis on habits we can develop and their admission that there are no easy solutions. But leaders can advance in the following competencies: ask different questions; take multiple perspectives; and see systems.

It was easy to find many applications for their propositions since I have some awareness of how complex (chaotic, even) leadership has become in just my small corner of the world. A few simple applications extend to my tendency to narrow solutions to what is probable (instead of what is possible), obsess over clarity (instead of sit with the complexity longer) and communicate around difficult issues without learning (instead of letting go of my script and listening). But I was most struck by their allusion to surfing as a picture of managing polarities. I immediately saw the application to my personal research.

‘Polarities are issues that are never solvable in any way that could last…Whenever you think about a pendulum swinging from one side to then overcorrecting to the other, you have a polarity. Each side of the polarity mutually creates the other so they are interdependent; they need each other to exist.’[1]

Managing polarities instead of trying to fix the problem is like surfing a wave. It’s fluid and you do not ride for long. You get knocked down but you learn from it and try again. They even suggest we could enjoy it if we understood better the nature of polarities and their necessity in life and leadership.[2]I have lived this in executive roles at the last two churches. Again, there are multiple applications. One of my temptations in leadership is to resolve a tension by ‘fixing it’. I think of wanting to resist the complexity and discomfort of listening to both my senior leader AND to the team I supervise. There have been many times I have wanted to be one or the other – either the best friend and champion of my boss or of my team. Adored by one side at least instead of living in the uncomfortable middle and in between. Campus-driven or central services-driven? Deep or wide? Innovative or stable? And on and on.

Berger and Johnston suggest using a polarity map to help us understand the interdependencies once we have identified them. I have mapped a crude and quick grid of the polarities (which sounds a bit dramatic for my liking) I have been wrestling with – both in my research and my vocational opportunities. While the following is rudimentary, I am grateful for the language and the exercise as I hold these two together.

There are two kinds of ministry opportunities that have presented themselves over last several months. One is work within a fast-paced, passionate, missional organization, either local church or social justice oriented. It is exciting and important and results-oriented. The other kind of opportunity is in the arena of soul health and care for ministry leaders. It is caring and important and people-oriented.

How I long for simple and elegant solutions to the tension I experience with health and productivity. I will resist the temptation to drive too quickly to solution and avoid the complexity.  How easy to land on the side of either health or mission – or our purpose as either work or worship. But to do so ignores their interdependencies. And to do so may result in a pendulum swing of correction in the near future.


[1]Garvey Berger, Jennifer and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders ( Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 96.

[2]Ibid., 98.

About the Author

Andrea Lathrop

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, a wife, mom and student. I live in West Palm Beach, Florida and I have been an executive pastor for the last 8+ years. I drink more coffee than I probably should every day.

6 responses to “Surfing Polarities”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Thank you Andrea. I appreciate the imagery of fluid management . . . and the image of a surfer. As a lover of the water . . . I think he is living in the ‘soul health’ realm.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks Andrea for the post. I think you bring out a great point. As Len Sweet says, we have to learn to live in the tension of the Bible and that translates to leadership as well. Leadership seems to have morphed into “we must have the answer all the time” rather than “let’s work together to find a resolution” which may never come in the way we see it.

    My question is one that is more philosophical, but is there such thing as “balance”? Doesn’t it look different person to person, family to family, church to church? Yes, I think we can see the failure of overdoing it or under doing it, but who decides what the line is?

    • Andrea Lathrop says:

      I love your question, Mario. As you know, much has been said about ‘balance’ and whether it is a worthy goal or even attainable. I used to think it was and pursued it the best I could in my 20s/early 30s. I seem to have let go of it a bit the last several years. Maybe it is my exposure to authors and speakers decrying it. I appreciate the picture of someone juggling several balls at a time. Juggling seems apt to my life. Some of the balls are rubber and some are crystal. If you drop a crystal ball (family, health, etc), it breaks but a rubber ball can bounce back. Knowing which hats/balls/commitments are crystal or rubber isn’t easy but it’s given me better handles than seeing life as a scale of balances. At least this is where I find myself today. 🙂

  3. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Andrea. Some of “us” have a personality that has a propensity toward finding solutions and fixing the problem and it is deeply embedded in us (spoken from the voice of commonality). I am learning to be comfortable holding things in tension, taking more time, being ok without everything being neatly tied up with a bow, without the checklist being completed. It is a process of learning and unlearning, stretching and growing.

    • Andrea Lathrop says:

      Thank you for your example, Tammy. The finding solutions and fixing problems is a real requirement for leaders and often needs to be done. The discernment required to know the difference between a tension to manage and a problem to fix is a challenge for spiritual leaders. Grateful for the Holy Spirit and for spiritual parents to show us the way.

  4. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Andrea, Thanks so much for your thoughts and perspectives relative to your experiences and your part of the world. While having not experience with surfing, I appreciate your emphasis of this illustration. Perhaps viewed another way, this is the ongoing tension of living and serving in the both/and rather than the either/or. I look forward to seeing more of your research and will be praying for you as you discern your vocational path.

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