Leading Through the Contention: Guidance from Open and Relational Theology in Navigating Conflict

By Kyle Roberts

Open and relational theology is well positioned as a resource for leaders to navigate tensions and leverage them for good in everyday decision-making.

What is contradictory can produce new life through the contention, if the differences are accepted as challenges.1

Life is full of conflict. Leaders encounter conflicts on a regular basis. Conflicts are often caused by tensions and oppositional factors that are inherent to the dynamics of social life and are persistent within organizations.

We can think of these tensions and oppositional factors as polarities; poles that reside on opposite sides of a tension, of a seemingly impossible choice, or of a persistent conflict. The tension created by these polarities creates contention for leaders and their organizations.

Leaders are often called upon to make decisions, to write and enact policies, and to adjudicate between seemingly competing sides of a conflict. For this essay, I’m indebted to Peter Krembs for articulating a compelling thesis about polarities in the context of leadership development. He argues that polarities should be treated not as problems to solve, but as tensions to navigate and ideally to leverage for the greater good of an organization.2 When leaders prematurely try to eliminate the contention created by the polarities, consequences follow: They create more conflict. Or, they truncate depth, expunge diversity, or result in a hasty decision with negative consequences.

What leaders often assume to be problems in need of an immediate or imminent solution are actually persistent and potentially constructive tensions. They require managing, negotiation, and navigation–not the implementation of a clear-cut decision.

When I was invited to contribute to this volume on leadership through the frame of open and relational theologies, I thought right away of this connection to this notion of polarities. Open and relational theologies provide a theological basis for recognizing and engaging polarities. They provide a basis for deconstructing the either/or thinking that plagues so much of our modern ways of operating and of leading.

Thinking about Polarities

It is easy to think of common polarities we experience in life and in organizations, for example: hierarchy/democracy, control/organic flow, freedom/limitation, dependence/independence, power/vulnerability, part/whole. Neither of the poles are wrong in and of themselves. Rather, they are phenomena of human and social life. One does not necessarily decide between these poles—rather, one recognizes their power and influence within a field of reference. Differing personalities and organizational styles will gravitate to one of these poles or to the other. The nature of the circumstance may also determine which of the poles has more gravitational pull.

When leaders are faced with decisions or are confronted by conflicts emerging from polarities, our temptation is to decide between options that we sense cannot reside together Leaders often rush to eliminate one pole or the other, thereby reducing anxiety and the persistence of conflict, rather than letting the tension remain and seeking ways to utilize the tension in productive and constructive ways.

In a broader context of organizational leadership, other polarities easily come to mind: external growth/inward maintenance, innovation/preservation, collaborative leadership/authoritative decision-making, adaptive evolution/strategic planning.

Again, the leader may find herself oscillating between the poles or choosing one over the other. Imagine a leader of an organization, for example, declaring, “From now on we will only focus on innovation—preservation of things that we’ve valued up to this point will no longer be our concern!” Or, “Now we will only be planful and strategic; no extemporaneous developments will change the course of our actions!” These are caricatures, but we can likely think of real-life examples where leaders make intentional choices between opposite poles.

Take the context of academic administrative leadership (my context as a seminary dean). In the higher education world, there are common polarities: academic freedom/fidelity to traditions; faculty governance/administrative leadership; student as consumer/faculty as expert; practical and vocational training/humanities and liberal arts; education for vocational preparation/education for inherent value; wider access/greater rigor.

Poles shift from one to the other within the educational arena, reflective of internal trends and external pressures. As educational institutions, colleges, universities, and graduate schools face the pressures caused by enrollment declines, decreasing revenue, and other challenges, leaders are tempted to dismiss academic freedom and to short-circuit faculty governance. When institutions focus on the student as consumer, attention to educational integrity may get short shrift.

In the face of these pressures and the pragmatic response by leaders concerned about economics and declining numbers, faculty may double down on traditions of academic freedom and faculty governance—and in so doing may circumvent innovation and undermine efforts toward growth and change—even in the face of a challenging present and an increasingly ominous future.

Guidance from Open and Relational Theology

Our western inheritance, which relies so heavily on dualistic constructs (body/soul, spirit/matter, right/wrong, individual/communal, competition/collaboration) and in which dualism undergirds so much classical theism and theologies framed by classical theological models, forms leaders to think of conflict and tension as “problems to solve, rather than tensions to navigate.” They rush to make decisions—with suboptimal or even destructive consequences.

The rush to decision, thereby eliminating one pole in favor of the other, reflects a theological underpinning based on a classical model of God and God’s relation to the world, which also tends toward prioritizing one end of any number of polarities: spirit/matter, power/dependence, justice/forgiveness, holiness/love, sin/salvation, divinity/creation, and so on.

A relational and open theology model more readily allows for the recognition that the poles are interconnected and it is best to acknowledge their interconnection and persistence.

The divine reality involves both spirit and matter, both prescience and learning, both power and dependence upon others. God can be both vulnerable and powerful—perhaps vulnerable in power—or powerful in and through vulnerability. This “both-and” rather than “either-or” theology means that the persistence of oppositional poles creates tension, even in Godself, but that—as with Moltmann’s quote earlier—the tension or contention can be constructive and life-giving if accepted as a challenge.

Creation itself can be imagined as a spirituality of polarities in which dualities are not stark and inter-connections are infinite. Material reality is connected to and with the realm of spirit. Justice can be interspersed with lavish forgiveness and love. Beauty is found within the midst of ugliness and terror. Order and chaos mingle. Freedom and limitation cohabitate, and in that cohabitation produce life.

For the leader who leads through contention that springs forth from polarities, decisions cannot always be held at bay. Leaders eventually need to decide between options, ruling out some in favor of others. Leaders certainly cannot please everyone, and leaders cannot indefinitely linger between polarities.

But to recognize the polarities of life and those that work within our organizations and perhaps even between ourselves provides a basis for letting the tensions reside within the whole, rather than eliminating one pole to reduce the tension. Maintaining and even leveraging the tensions for a greater, common good means that diversity is encouraged rather than discouraged, healthy pluralism is embraced rather than suspected, and relationships are deepened rather than reduced to an algebraic economic exchange, all based on a perception of a need to choose and to choose right now.

Leading through the contention is not a simple way to lead. It will not always be possible or even optimal. It will take the cultivation of wisdom and of contextual application to know when a polarity must be managed rather than eliminated and how it can be leveraged for a constructive end. It will call for leaders and co-leaders patient and thoughtful enough to discern the difference between polarities and decisions, and patient enough to leverage those polarities through the contention toward a constructive end.

That’s the nature of leadership within our complex fields of life—but it’s also the nature of life and of God under an open and relational framework of the divine being and of our human and created life.

Dr. Kyle Roberts is Academic Dean and Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He has been a professor and theologian for over a decade, publishing several books and numerous essays, and has served full-time in academic leadership since 2018.

1 Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 2000), pp. 171-72.

2 Peter Krembs lecture was presented during a course on Executive Leadership at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus School of Business, 2019.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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