Healthy Tension

Twenty years ago John Barton and I would have discussions about the importance of “tensions” and this has been part of our shared vocabulary since. We even thought together about other words, such as balance. Occasionally we’d say “it’s a balance” between two things we were talking about. Then we’d think again and someone would say “it’s more like a healthy tension.”

Recently Andy Stanley brought this idea of tension back to my mind in a way that has me so enthusiastic about it that I’m ready to write a book–or at least an article about it. Well, maybe Andy wrote an article somewhere, but I know his teaching on it was excellent.

Stanley spoke at the recent Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit on “The Upside of Tension.” The coolest thing he said was this:

Every organization has problems that shouldn’t be solved and tensions that shouldn’t be resolved.

OK, that got my attention. He continued to say that if you “resolve” some tensions, you will create new and sometimes worse tensions. For example, what if we solved the 2,000-year-old tension between the idea of sin’s effects to deprave (Augustine/Calvin) and our choice to enter God’s love (Pelagius/Arminius)? Or, what’s more important, spiritual formation of those who are already Christians or sharing the gospel with those who do not know Jesus? Quick, resolve the tension and just decide.

Well, you may decide, but in a church, that one is not easily decided and some focus here and some there. Sure, we can lean one way or the other, but these are necessary tensions. My wife and I do not resolve all the tensions between us. Healthy tensions need to exist because if we “solve” them, we become less because one of us gets our way all the time or we settle for a faux-peace but take ourselves out of the need to always learn more, keep deciding to do the right thing every day.

For example, we tithe our income but we have not sold all we possess to give to the poor. We live in a tension of being generous but also caring for our family. If we “solved” that by simply saying “we tithe” and no longer think of how we can be even more generous, then we “solve” things with a law like the pharisees did. If we take Jesus words and give everything way and then have to sleep on our mother-in-law’s couch as a result, then I’m not sure our mother-in-laws would think much of Jesus’ words to sell all we possess (and come sleep on the in-law’s couch!).

Another example, what if we decided to only focus on families of the church and neglected to reach out to families outside the church? Sure, families in the church are highly valued, but “solving” the tension by saying we value one over the other can lead to worse tensions or problems. These are healthy tensions.

Stanley says progress in a church or organization depends on leaders not resolving tensions but leveraging those tensions. Helpful is his list of ways to distinguish between “solvable” and “healthy tension” problems:

  1. Does this problem or tension keep resurfacing?
  2. Are there mature advocates on both sides?
  3. Are the two sides really interdependent?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are probably dealing with a healthy tension to manage, not a problem to solve.

Sometimes as leaders we want to just go in and tear through a problem and solve it once and for all, but here is the thing: there are certain arguments that we as leaders just can’t afford to win. Instead, the great leader might say, “I guess that’s just a tension we’ll have to manage.” The leader manages by giving value to both sides and not weighing in too heavily based on personal biases.

A great leader understands the upside of the opposite side and the downside of his or her own side. Stanley concludes like this:

As a leader, one of the most valuable things you can do for your organization is differentiate between tensions your organization will always need to manage vs. problems that need to be solved.