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Activity 2: Applying System Thinking (45 minutes), Workshop 10: Understanding Systems In Your Congregation

In "Harvest the Power," a Tapestry of Faith program

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Review Leader Resource 1. Be clear how the congregation in the scenario works as a system.
  • Optional: Review Alternate Activity 1, Alternate System Thinking Scenarios, and the accompanying handout, which presents two scenarios less complex than the Heavenly Unitarian Universalist Congregation scenario, both involving stresses that come from outside, not inside, the congregation. You may wish to use the alternate activity if the group is, in fact, engaged in a challenge resembling the Heavenly Unitarian Universalist scenario or if unpacking two simple scenarios would work better for the group than exploring a single, complex one.
  • Post a sheet of newsprint.
  • Prepare, but do not post, a sheet of newsprint with these reflection prompts:
    • Who in the congregation is affected by the music director's retirement?
    • What emotions might come to the fore as the congregation works through this change?
    • What long-standing patterns of behavior in this congregation may have been revealed by the music director's resignation?

Description of Activity

Share with participants the scenario in Leader Resource 1. Tell them you are going to create a drawing of "the system" at Heavenly.

Draw a stick figure of the music director in the center of the newsprint. Ask participants to name individuals or groups affected in any way by the music director's work. As each individual or group is named, draw or represent them on the newsprint using the same color marker you used for the music director. If they have not done so already, prompt the group to add groups or individuals in the congregation which may have little relationship with the music director, but might have feelings about her departure. Draw these in the picture as well.

Now use a second color marker to draw arrows to connect the music director to groups or individuals with a direct relationship with the director. Use a third color marker to draw wavy lines between the director and those with whom she has an indirect relationship or who might have feelings about her departure.

Invite the group to examine the drawing and consider other connections in the congregation which have nothing to do with the music director or the music program; for example, teachers might be connected directly to the religious educator. Draw in those connections with arrows or wavy lines, as appropriate, using a marker in a fourth color.

Pause for a moment and let the participants take in the drawing. Tell them you are going to add complexity by identifying the emotions involved in the relationships. Form three small groups. Assign each group to consider the emotions involved in one of the three types of relationships:

  • Group 1: The straight lines in color "two," representing direct connections with the music director
  • Group 2: The wavy lines in color "three," representing indirect connections with the music director
  • Group 3: The straight and wavy lines in color "four," representing connections among groups or individuals in the congregation that have nothing to do with the music director.

Provide each small group with newsprint and invite them to list all the emotions that might be involved in each relationship in the category they are assigned. After five minutes, invite each group, one at a time, to post their lists near the diagram and share. Ask the entire group for additions to each list.

Explain that system theory tells us an organization, family or congregation desires stability or balance and will find ways to keep things stable, whether or not those ways are entirely healthy. When something upsets the balance, it is human nature to want to return to what was perceived as stable and safe. The music director's resignation upset the congregation's balance and brought into play a variety of factors and issues which had been latent or dormant when the congregation was stable.

Post the newsprint you have prepared with reflection questions. Invite participants to move back into their small groups to reconsider the question of who in the congregation is affected by the music director's resignation and what emotions might come to the fore as the congregation works through this challenge. Invite them also to identify any long-standing patterns of behavior in this congregation that were revealed by the music director's resignation.

After 10 minutes, re-gather the large group. Invite small groups to share their responses to the reflection questions. Then ask:

  • Does system thinking point us to any larger questions that Heavenly's leadership and congregation might want to address?
  • What are management questions for Heavenly's board? What are the leadership questions? (Remind that management questions ask, "Are we doing things right?" and leadership questions ask, "Are we doing right things?")
  • How might Heavenly restore its balance — or find a new equilibrium?

Allow 10 minutes for this conversation.

To conclude, ask: Was the music director's retirement a good thing or a bad thing for Heavenly Unitarian Universalist Congregation?

Including All Participants

If any participants cannot see your drawing of Heavenly's system on newsprint, explain the drawing in detail as the large group works together to create it.

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This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

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