The Emotional System of Your Congregation

Anyone remember this little classic? The Alban Institute provided excellent resources for congregational leaders back in the day, publishing a workbook companion to this book. I’ve long since given away my last workbook, but recent engagements with congregations drove me to pull this book off the shelf. While doing so, I took note of so many authors who have used Systems Theory to help us make sense of church dynamics…Peter Steinke, Ronald Richardson, Edwin Friedman, and so many more.

With Systems Theory on the mind, I opened our old power point used for training clergy and lay leaders. There were the key concepts of Systems Theory again: wholeness, homeostasis, differentiation, norms, patterns, unwritten rules, anxiety, boundaries, and so on. Such rich insights into group dynamics which explain so much about how congregations function are right there in Systems Theory. For example, one slide held a favorite description of patterns and family rules by E. O. Wilson in Sociobiology:

“One very cold night a group of porcupines huddled together for warmth. However, their spines made proximity uncomfortable, so they moved apart again and got cold. After shuffling repeatedly in and out, they eventually found a distance at which they could still be comfortably warm without getting pricked. This distance they henceforth called decency and good manners.”

So much about how we do church is explained by that one short fable. Another slide addressed how to manage oneself during the pushback when leading change:

“Jesus was not passive; he was confrontative and direct. In the Sermon on the Mount he said that when you have been struck on one cheek you should turn the other cheek. What that means to me is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack. I stay there. I stay in range of getting hit again. I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.” -Speed Leas, The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations

Compared to so many other approaches to congregational leadership which have aged-out, Systems Theory is not time-limited; remaining pertinent even in our current Postmodern context. We don’t apply these concepts in the same way, yet they continue to guide and inform those who want to intervene, working for health and wholeness in how we relate as disciples in congregations. Here are a few more Systems Theory insights.

  • Don’t even think you can eliminate or otherwise discount the congregational emotional system. Do so to your peril.

  • The emotional system is more powerful than every other system in your congregation, though it is the most difficult to recognize and address.

  • Everyone involved helped create the system; subsequently contributing to the system maintaining as it is (homeostasis). No one involved in your church is outside the emotional system. All are co-creators of what is.

  • Blame is counter-productive, not to mention erroneous and toxic.

  • Any one behavior is a symptom of the larger system, not an isolated activity.

The early practitioners of Systems Theory made it clear that this approach to congregational leadership is not likely sustained while doing ministry in isolation. Remaining differentiated (connected yet self-directed) is so challenging, we need peer groups to help us stay honest. Cultivating depth and leading with authenticity is challenging work; requiring much to sustain. So, it turns out, we need one another to remain true to this calling.

May these dated, yet relevant insights into congregational functioning contribute to our skill as we lead congregations toward being faithful to our callings.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA

Mark Tidsworth