Systems Theory and Ministry Teams

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One of the books I’ve wanted to read for a while is How Your Church Family Works by Peter Steinke. I was very much intrigued by “systems theory” as a result of my exposure to some of Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s work in an intro to spiritual formations class I took last summer. Steinke is a “disciple” of Friedman, but maybe more helpful is that he is also a disciple of Jesus Christ. Steinke applies systems theory to Christian communities and congregations to help discern the underlying dynamics that are at work in any group system.

As I read some of Friedman’s work I remember believing that I had first been exposed to systems theory through my parents and their work with ministry teams over the past twenty years, especially in an international context. As I moved from ministry on campus to ministry in WSN (int’l short term missions), I began to instinctively approach team building and mediation in much the same way I had observed. After four years of doing team work, team building, and even team mediation and reconciliation, I am quite convinced that a greater application of systems theory into ministry teams with wisdom and discretion, would bring greater integrity to so many of our ministry teams at work and would bring greater integrity between the corporate identities of our churches and ministries with the visible witness of our activities and functions in this fallen world.

I will probably post several thoughts from this book over the coming week, but I want to start off by acknowledging that what is at stake here is a major presupposition that plagues most ministry leaders and team members alike. This presupposition that prevails today is that when there is an outburst of conflict, chaos, or anxiety in a team or group setting, that the person who is deemed to be “most responsible” is the root cause of the problem and needs to be removed in order to move ahead. How many times as this happened only to have the problems resurface weeks, months, or a few years later?

Steinke explains system theory, but I will not offer a technical explanation. It essentially entails the view that groups form systems that seek to keep a balance (i.e. homeostasis) in much the same way the human body functions. Group members tend to work to keep the status quo and maintain stability. When a member, or a relationship, or even external circumstances produce anxiety, the system will be tested and people’s responses to the presence of anxiety will in large part determine the future health of the system.

That this is the basic context for the ways group systems function really has implications for how we view our role and responsibility in a ministry team context (or congregational context on a larger level). It has implications for how we see ourselves and others and definitely has implications for what wise team stewardship looks like for a leader. Leaders can no longer afford to lead as if everyone under their charge is a completely separate and unaffected individual. What a challenge for leadership today! But what hope for Christian ministry teams to actually live out the Kingdom of God together while they are working so diligently to stay on the mission! So often these two things have been presented as competing ends, but how powerful could corporate witness be to the world if they were part of a larger view of the people of God.

In the next few posts I will seek to address the concept of self-differentiation in Christian community, the presence and role of anxiety in group systems, and common mistakes in attempting to solve problems in the context of community. Hopefully I can spark some interest in learning more about how systems theory can be a helpful tool for leaders to create missional environments of grace and truth.

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