In Andy Stanley’s last leadership podcast, Andy raised the issue of conflicts vs tensions. Conflicts and tensions are often conflated with each other. Conflicts are situations that can and need to be resolved. Tensions are situations that need to be lived with. Stanley contends that tension can be healthy in the life of an organization. He gives three questions to be used as criteria for determining whether something is a conflict or tension. The three questions are: 1) does the problem/tension keep resurfacing? 2) are there mature advocates on both sides? and 3) are the two sides really interdependent?
One major situation in the life of the United Methodist church are issues related to human sexuality. I have been wrestling with is the question is this situation a conflict that needs to be solved, or a tension that we could live with for the foreseeable future? When we identify a situation as a conflict, it becomes a problem that we need to solve. Sides are formed and anyone on the wrong side is exasperating the problem. It is hard to live with a situation where it is seen as a problem.
Framing a situation as a problem is seductive. Problems need to be solved. If you can name a problem, people then want to know how you think we should solve the problem. Naming problems in ways that appeals to others builds support for your solution(s). If you can make the problem into a crisis you can create real power. See Professor Thomas Long’s introduction in his 2002 edition of Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church.
A case could be made that the issues related to human sexuality in the United Methodist church are tensions and not conflicts using Stanley’s questions. The issues related to human sexuality keep resurfacing. While there are many sides involved in this tension, there are mature advocates on the different sides. Stanley’s third question is the hardest to conceptualize in terms of our issues with human sexuality in the UMC.
With many different sides, each might be claiming the same ground and the same values. The Bible, God’s truth, and God’s grace could be claimed by the many different sides of this situation. Interdependency then is hard to prove. In the podcast, Stanley gives tensions such as spending time at work versus spending time with family, or the tension between quality versus stewardship. Siding with one of the aspects of the tension would ultimately undermine that aspect overtime. Spend too much time with your family and you lose your job. If you spend too much time with your job, you ultimately lose your family.
Since there are so many different sides related to the situation of human sexuality in the church it is hard to prove interdependency. Many of the sides offer various solutions. The solutions and sides that would try to solve the problem may find that they are undermining their position and side in unexpected ways. If this is over power (whether we will admit it or not) in the church, will they really have more power if we adopt their solution? If this is over God’s truth, what truths and ideas will be lost if they achieve what they want? If this is over God’s grace, will God’s grace be better exemplified by the church siding with their position?
Tensions instead of being solved, need to be managed. Living with a tension is not an easy job. We all can get frustrated and upset in the process. As we wrestle with grace, truth, and power, we will feel like others are wrong in their understanding of grace, truth, and power Yet, if it is a tension that we agree to live with, we can work to acknowledge the various sides and that their perspectives and concerns are needed. While we cannot solve the tension, we can work to do the most good while living with it, and reduce the most harm from it. In the process of living with the tension, we can model love and offer a witness to the world of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.