A vital congregation — A system centered on Christ – The Presbyterian Outlook


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Pastors typically experience tensions between what they see as their biblical role and the role imposed on them as leader of a church organization. Biblical notions of church often appear to be in conflict with institutional conceptions. This apparent conflict comes to the fore in considering how to foster what has come to be called in our circles the “marks of a vital congregation”: lifelong discipleship formation, intentional authentic evangelism and outward incarnational-focused living. While there may appear to be a tension between seeking these biblically-rooted and spirit-inspired ideals and promoting them in an institutional church, authentic understanding of the nature of the real dynamics within organizations will greatly diminish this tension.
These dynamics within an organization are understood here in the language of systems, but a possible source of confusion in using this language needs to be addressed upfront. The word systems, as used here to describe organizations (including churches), is not the same usage currently common in church circles. Family systems thinking, or an emotional systems perspective, has been promoted for use in church contexts by people such as Edwin H. Friedman and Peter L. Steinke. It is a valuable tool but is only one element encompassed by a far broader understanding of systems thinking overall as applied here to churches; it includes only a tiny slice of what is happening within the totality of any church system.
A congregation viewed as a system is radically different from the typical institutional view. Understanding that a congregation is a complex system enables one to approach situations from a fresh perspective. It is of great value for the person who wishes to shape the future of the congregation and move beyond the illusion that one can control all the major transactions within it. The reality is that one cannot expect to control change in a system such as a congregation, but one can influence change.
In her seminal book (on systems generally, not specifically churches) “Thinking in Systems,” Donella H. Meadows addresses this topic in terms of what she calls leverage points, or means of influencing a system. She identifies 12 leverage points, including managing inflows and outflows in the system (the amount and nature of instructional content in church programs), structures (physical facilities and programs) and information flows (communication about important aspects of the congregation). Such leverage points are not as influential as others in her analysis. The big three are (1) shifting the mindset of people in the system, (2) influencing the vision that moves the system and (3) fostering self-organizing within the system. We will examine these top three.
The most influential leverage point of all is attending to what Meadows calls paradigms or mindset. A major change can be attained by continued focus on the mindset (the deepest beliefs and assumptions) of the system. It means examining the totality of the system and looking for ways to influence this mindset. It may mean transcending the prevailing paradigm — stepping beyond it, recognizing it for what it is and realizing there may be other possibilities. It is not a one-time action but an ongoing process of influencing the extant mindset of people.
Although in a different context than probably crossed Meadows’ mind when proposing her leverage points, this means of influence is one that instinctively should get a preacher passionate about his or her role. This is the opportunity to challenge the people to a close examination of their deepest beliefs about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. This context also may challenge the preacher to consider carefully what he or she deep down holds the core purpose of the church to be. Is it to form disciples, or has the paradigm on which this church is based drifted off course a bit? This leverage point addresses basic changes in individuals. No wonder it is at the top of the list of leverage points. Such changes affect people’s core passions and commitments and result in changes in behavior and how they live their lives.
The preaching part of a pastor’s role is at the very center of what it means to exercise leadership, but it is far from all that a leader can do to influence the mindset of people. To some extent, this influence is part of any form of pastoral care, but it is also inherent in many other actions. It can be part of group spiritual direction or focused conversation groups initiated by the pastor. It can be part of any mentoring of individuals, and it can be encompassed in retreats. Pastoral care is not just caring for people in a human sense but also promoting the reign of God by attending to people’s basic assumptions and beliefs about God and life as an apprentice of Jesus.
While mindset pertains to the values and behaviors of individuals, the second leverage point on Meadows’ list pertains to the collective outlook of a congregation regarding goals, purposes and functions. These goals and purposes often are not recognized or articulated; bringing them to the fore can be the beginning of major changes. Identifying current goals, clarifying them and then redefining them can be the avenue to major change. A congregation, for example, may have a diverse collection of goals, including discipleship, friendships and social status, that are in need of being clarified, redefined and prioritized.
As a means of intervening in a church system and introducing change, this leverage point is powerful. The lead pastor of a congregation can exert great influence by articulating a clear vision for the church. The pastor is not the sole source of this vision; the more thoroughly it has been “massaged” and accepted by the leadership of the congregation – including the staff, session and informal leaders – the more influential the vision will be. The pastor, in the role of congregational leader, exerts great influence by articulating this vision in sermons, committee meetings, ministry team gatherings and informal discussions. Pastors who excel in using this leverage point consciously engage in doing so in some manner essentially every day. A 30-second version (“elevator speech”), 3-minute version (hallway discussion) and 30-minute version (formal presentation) articulation of this vision are on the tip of the tongue of such a leader.
In contemporary church circles, “the vision thing” tends to get associated with planning and implementing plans, but this need not be the case. The fact that this association is so pervasive may be an indication of pushing too hard on developing vision without sufficient attention to influencing the mindset of people and promoting self-organizing. If these two additional leverage points are given their due, there may be less presumed need to translate the vision into institutional plans and more incentive to let plans emerge from subgroups or individuals, a point to which we will return when discussing self-organizing.
These top two leverage points, influencing mindset and articulating goals and purposes, are closely related although focused in different places. The focus on paradigms and mindset is largely at the level of individuals; that is where such changes must take place. The vision leverage point is more of a group focus — the shared focus on direction for the congregation as a whole. Obviously, they go hand in hand, and both need close attention from the pastor who expects to lead change. Influencing the mindset of individuals pertaining to their role as disciples of Jesus and shaping the vision of a congregation as a disciple-forming enterprise are highly related and complementary.

A feature of a complex system, such as a congregation, that is essential to understand is that it is self-organizing (Meadows’ leverage point 3). In other words, in a congregation as in any dynamic system, there are constant changes that are not initiated by any leader, are largely unrecognized, and are not driven by an easily identifiable purpose. In fact, over time, a host of small changes may result in the overall purpose of a system becoming quite different — for good or ill.
The concept of self-organizing is illustrated by many phenomena in nature, such as the behaviors of a colony of ants or a hive of bees. When the season changes, and the flowers with the nectar needed by the bees are in a different location, no leader among the bees tells them to go to the new location. They go to the new location as the result of self-organizing. A more visual example, which most people have seen directly or on the Discovery Channel, is a large flock of birds (such as hundreds of starlings) swirling around in the sky. The birds on the leading edge of the flock are constantly changing; the flock is leaderless, but they are operating in unison as a system.
Self-organizing is constantly in play in human systems. Congregations are not just institutions governed by bylaws, books of discipline and/or persons in positions of authority. They are organisms with a life of their own. How else did congregants who once were energetically reaching out to people beyond their circle become so focused on themselves? It is unlikely this change occurred as a result of their guiding documents or the intentions of their leaders. Given this example, it may seem that self-organizing is something for a pastor to fear, but on the contrary, it is a powerful tool to be used. Self-organizing can lead to powerful positive changes.
The self-organizing character of complex adaptive systems can be capitalized upon to foster change in the system. Among the ways to encourage self-organizing are fostering diversity in the system, promoting experimentation and encouraging new interconnections or relationships. Encouraging diversity and experimentation means giving up any sense of tight control and depending instead on influencing what emerges from diverse inputs from people and what comes out of experimental endeavors. From this perspective, the more diverse the congregation the better, in terms of producing new initiatives that break out of the status quo. For example, a congregation that has a number of people who are committed to social activism and others with a passion for personal evangelism has a diversity that could be fruitful. The wise leader would encourage interaction between these two groups and see what emerges from them, not plan something for them to cooperate on. Their diversity offers the potential for self-organizing that can yield an unexpected synergy and a passion that is unlikely from entering into a top-down plan. The thoughtful leader can create contexts in which fruitful interaction and cross-fertilization of ideas can occur.
Similarly, experimentation has potential often not foreseen ahead of time. For example, a person in the congregation sees a ministry opportunity with youth who congregate near the church for skateboarding. While a majority of members and leaders may not see this same potential, encouraging this individual to pursue a self-identified venture along with any other persons so inclined may not only yield successes but new ways of doing ministry. New faith communities have developed out of such experimentation.
Experimentation also pertains to big initiatives supported by the church leaders. Even what seems to most congregants to be a radical idea usually can be initiated on an experimental basis without undue resistance. If a trial-and-error process can be embraced, there is potential for greater engagement and reduced risk of a major failure. A pastor who also wants to be a leader can foster a climate of experimentation that may yield an ethos of excitement, passion and commitment.
The most influential leverage point, a focus on paradigms or mindset, also has a lot of connection to the self-organizing leverage point. In a congregation that values diversity and experimentation – keys to self-organizing – changes in people’s mindset are bound to lead to new and unpredictable ventures. If the changes in mindset are what would be desired for a disciple of Jesus, the self-organizing changes are bound to be valuable. It is well to note that self-organizing will be happening in any system. The pastor who is helping shape the mindset – the deepest beliefs and assumptions –
of the congregation is going a long way toward causing this self-organizing to enhance ministry as a vital congregation. Encouraging diversity and experimentation go hand-in-hand with fostering personal transformation.
The picture we see emerging through this systems analysis is one in which a pastor can be an authentic shepherd of a disciple-forming congregation within an institutional church context. Within this orientation, the church leader gives up on controlling what happens and instead influences events through shaping the mindset of people by such means as preaching, pastoral care, spiritual direction and group discussions, with the expectation that the Holy Spirit’s influence will lead to personal transformation. This personal change opens up the possibility of forming both individual and corporate visions of what this faith community can become. The given mindsets and visions can be the foundation for actions that take shape largely through self-organizing.
Many people associate leadership with words such as “authority” and “control,” yet those are not words that jump out from the description of systems change above, nor do they emerge from the biblical portrayal of leadership. Leadership in the manner of Jesus can occur in institutional settings, rightly understood.
This systems perspective frees us from many prevalent – but outdated – organizational views found in our culture. The systems perspective is powerful on its own — but more importantly, it frees us from artificial constraints that have been imposed on our biblical perspective by adherence to a false narrative about needing to plan, manage and control in order to lead. A pastor can foster a vital congregation by preaching and promoting personal transformation. A pastor can lead by encouraging a vision to emerge from collective discernment. A pastor can lead by honoring the self-organizing that results from the work of the Spirit in the lives of people who are being transformed. Spiritual formation and congregational leadership go hand in hand.
RONALD D. ANDERSON is professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Pueblo. Much of this article is drawn from his latest book, “Loosing Control: Becoming a Pastor/Leader with Influence.”

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