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Handout 1: System Thinking — Guidelines for Leaders

In the book, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 1996), Peter Steinke gives this summary statement about system thinking:

System thinking is a way of seeing

— the whole,

— how the parts mutually influence one another,

— how the circle of influence becomes patterned, and

— how the pattern is maintained by the arrangement of the functioning parts.

In an emotional system there is always

— information (a reaction or a response) and

— the struggle to be self-defined and yet in touch with others.

Here are three guidelines for congregational leaders to consider to help them remain healthy and effective in a congregational system under stress or in distress:

Take Responsibility Only for What Belongs to You

  • Pay attention to the congregation's mission.
  • Ask good questions to help you discern which are leadership and which are management questions.
  • Pare your list of "issues" to leadership issues and to management issues which rightfully belong to you.
  • Delegate management issues that should be handled by others.

Maintain Personal Integrity

  • Stay spiritually grounded by engaging in regular spiritual practice.
  • Take care of yourself in body, mind, and spirit.
  • Identify and manage your own anxiety.
  • Resist attempts by others to transfer their anxiety about a situation to you or their "issues" to you.

Stay Connected to the Organization

  • Communicate regularly with those who have authorized you to lead, paying attention to transparency about your leadership decisions and process.
  • Find formal and informal ways to gather information from those who have authorized you to lead.
  • Notice who is on the margins and invite their ideas and input.
  • Practice deep listening and discerning what lies beneath the surface for individuals and the congregation.
  • Regularly attend Sunday worship and other large congregational gatherings.

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Last updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

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