COMMENTARY: Conflicting Paradigms

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. Visit his Web site at

(UNDATED) It is 6 p.m., a bad time for grocery shopping. Long lines, full baskets, and in my lane a slow clerk. The store manager hurries over, senses tempers flaring, can’t speed up the slow clerk, so he opens another lane and handles checkout.

That is one paradigm (archetype, pattern) for a faith community: the store. Not biblical, but it works. Store provides desired and trustworthy merchandise. Customers shop when they have need. Staff serve in niches. Manager is accountable but has little leverage. An equally good store sits across the street.

Here’s another paradigm for congregation: private club. “Our jobs are identical, you know,” the manager of an elite country club once told me when I was serving a congregation. As long as members are satisfied, they will be enthusiastic, friendly and generous. If they stop being satisfied, they will be vindictive, hostile and punitive. They won’t leave. It’s their club.

Here’s another paradigm: college. Complex institution, many fiefdoms, service-providers distributing sought-after benefits, service-receivers absorbing those benefits in hope of prospering elsewhere, and a president required to raise funds and solve problems while staying within tradition, even when tradition stymies solutions.

Here’s another: acculturation society. Like the street corner in St. Louis that had four Roman Catholic churches: Irish, Italian, French and German. Or villages with separate churches for immigrants and native-born. Or parallel churches formed to keep mill workers separate from mill owners. Or parallel denominations founded to keep races separate.

One more paradigm: family. The ultimate expression of Us and Not-Us. We’re in here _ parents and children, boys and girls, original and in-law, natural and step _ and everyone else is out there. When family works and you belong, it is a joy. When it goes sour or turns you away, watch out.

Sometimes congregations divide because of bad people. Faith communities are as susceptible to scoundrels as any institution. Usually, however, faith communities divide because of conflicting paradigms _ family, club, college, store _ all trying to function simultaneously.

Catechetical piety offers biblical paradigms like “body,” which work on newsprint but lack relevance. We go with what we know. Problem is, we know different things, we perceive ourselves differently, we bring different needs and expectations, we see institutional roles differently, and yet we’re all together under one roof.

Why are we surprised when conflicting paradigms keep us off balance? Consider the paradigms at work in the congregation whose pastor recently retired.

No successor was in place _ violating normal business practice, but OK in a family. Search committee forms _ small group doing secret things _ like parents making family decisions, but disaster in an organization expecting transparency. Interim pastor arrives with unclear assignment: Ship-steadying captain? Fix-it specialist? Change agent? Committee hires a consultant _ a businesslike valuing of expertise, but resented in family. Consultant leads a visioning process _ defining identity and purpose _ but does so without the new pastor, guaranteeing future misunderstanding. Lay leaders start running things _ filling a vacuum and probably enjoying it. Search committee goes a-courting. In time, the lay council takes on complex roles: friendship circle for newcomer, hopeful wife/husband for stepparent, and club board to keep new manager in line.

Meanwhile, this store/family/college/club operates in a competitive environment, where other enterprises offer more stability at its moment of vulnerability; where doctrinal warriors are trolling for allies, hoping to turn another’s vulnerability to their advantage; where power relationships within the membership are in flux; and where unresolved issues _ family squabbles, business problems, staff behavior _ have room to sprout.

Is there a perfect paradigm? I don’t think so. What, then, do we do? See reality for what it is. See the differences among us with mercy, not judgment. Accept the differences, rather than take sides. Be wise, rather than defensive.

Personally, I would do away with search committees, long searches, parish profiles, vision exercises and mission statements, and would expect the executive and board to do their job, namely, provide for orderly succession of leadership. But that’s a judgment grounded in paradigm, isn’t it? You might see it differently, because you start within a different archetype.

Let’s assume division, rather than be surprised, and let’s talk, rather than bristle.


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