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Leading in the Tension

If you're a leader, you have encountered conflict within your team. But how do you lead well in a polarizing culture? This is for you.

These days, tension feels almost unavoidable. Nowhere feels safe from the potential land mines of disagreement, conflict and misunderstanding. It’s everywhere in culture which can be difficult enough. But that polarization often has a way of causing tension in our teams. So, what do you do when the place where you—and the people who call your church home—go to find refuge is experiencing tension? What happens when your team is navigating polarization and tension? 


As leaders, the best thing you can do when there’s tension starts with a simple, but not always easy directive: acknowledge it. Our tendency can be to hope it goes away, pretend it’s not as bad as others (or we) may think, and fix it—but only on a surface level—so things can go back to normal as quickly as possible.


But like most difficult things, with tension, the only way over it, is through it. Tensions rarely just disappear. In fact, our avoidance of dealing with it often adds layers of complication. And, in the gaps in the stories we end up filling in with less than helpful assumptions, fears, and narratives.

To lead through tension, we have to be courageous enough to acknowledge it—and our potential role in it—in the first place. 


While we all want peace on our teams and in our churches, the biggest temptation is to convince ourselves that peace is simply a lack of conflict—including acknowledged conflict. We think to bring it up creates more of a disruption.


We’d rather keep peace than make it because making peace sometimes requires things to get messier than we’d like. 


Making peace requires honesty, vulnerability and humility. 

Making peace means having conversations that challenge us. 

Making peace means being part of a process that doesn’t always go according to plan, that can face setbacks and challenges we don’t anticipate and that doesn’t always follow a prescribed formula. 


Making peace is hard because it involves making a new way of being with one another.


But maybe the most difficult thing for leaders to do when leading in conflict is making sure we don’t use our position as something we leverage for our benefit. The role we have creates an automatic power differential. It would be easy to play our “leader card,” to “pull rank,” or to dissolve the conflict by just asserting our dominance. 


But as leaders who follow Jesus, we have a responsibility to model the same kind of leadership Jesus did. That means we defer our rights, we ask more questions than we offer placating answers, we lean in with curiosity more than make erroneous judgments, and we leave room to learn and ask ourselves, “what might we be missing?,” before sweeping in with foregone conclusions. 


In other words, we practice a self-giving leadership more than a self-serving one. And when it comes to leading in tension, self-giving leadership may ask more of us, may humble us, and may stretch us, but it will honor the person or people engaged in the tension most effectively and fully.


With that in mind, while every conflict is unique and every tension nuanced, we’ve helped develop a resource that will help you, as a leader, navigate the particularities of the tension you’re facing with principles and practices that work anywhere. None of us will or can get it right all the time, every time, but we can learn to lean into the best practices for handling the hardest circumstances. We can be leaders who may not always get it right, but who are better for having the humility and honesty to admit it, and the integrity to say, we are doing our best.


Conflict isn’t going anywhere. Tension isn’t either. But that doesn’t mean real peace that is worked for and fought for and prioritized over simply the appearance of peace, isn’t possible. As challenging as tension and polarization can be, they don’t have to get the best of us. We can be our best and operate at our best and come out better for it. Let’s learn to navigate the tension better together. 


Go to to download our resource to help you navigate tension and lead in a polarized culture.

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