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Systems Theory: The Basics
Systems Theory: The Basics

A mobile is an artistic lesson in balance. We often hang a mobile over a baby crib. Perhaps you have seen huge glass mobiles by Calder. Or maybe you made a mobile in art class as a kid, using string and popsicle sticks. If one part of the mobile is moved in any way, the entire structure moves to compensate. The parts are all connected to each other, even if the lines are not direct. What happens in one part of the mobile effects all the other parts and it will always seek to rest in a state of balance.

This is the way it is with human systems. Systems theory has been studied for decades by therapists, business consultants, and church management experts. It is extremely helpful in understanding how people work in groups and why change is sometimes so difficult. Human beings in any group, be it a family, a work group, or a congregation, are connected like parts of a mobile. If one part is changed in any way, the other parts will move around and try to regain a sense of balance in the system. This is often referred to as a system trying to maintain a sense of homeostasis - a sense of internal balance. It is as if the members of the group feel a kind of discomfort if the balance between members they are accustomed to is disrupted and they will find a way to re-create the familiar patterns they know, useful or not. This is often an unconscious process that we don’t even notice when we are in the middle of it. The thing to remember is that systems, and people in them, will resist change that disrupts the expected homeostasis. Normally calm individuals can become quite anxious when the system they are used to begins to change and the expected homeostasis begins to shift. It is not that your role in a system forces you to be someone other than who you are, but the natural urge to maintain the homeostasis is a human system can bring out traits and behaviors in a person that they might not expect.

Let me give you some examples. Let’s say that a young adult comes home from college after their first year away. They may have changed and will approach their family relationships in a new way. But the family will react to this change and the young adult feels pressure to fit into the familiar old pattern they always had in the family. In a congregation, the same thing can happen. The board treasurer goes to a new UUA training on how to manage the church finances. They come back with all kinds of ideas about how to restructure the financial accountability in the church. But this may feel like the treasurer playing a different role in the congregation and approaching their relationships with other leadership from a new angle. This can jostle the mobile of “how things are done around here” and the treasurer meets resistance to so much change in the system, disrupting the homeostasis. If only one part of the mobile changes positions too much, the rest of the mobile will wiggle and agitate around until it can settle in the old pattern again. People tend to seek relationship structure that are well established, and they instinctively resist change, even if they think it is a good idea.

This goes the other way as well. Let’s say a congregation has one grumpy member who is always a complainer. Seems most every church has at least one. Well, let’s say that this grumpy member moves away. “Wonderful,” you may say. “Now we will be freed from all that complaining.” But that is not how it works. We find, over and over, that a new grump will arise out of the congregation to fill the empty role of complainer. It is as if people are used to making room for these complaints and will feel somehow out of harmony until someone fills that role. It helps maintain the homeostasis, the balance, of how the congregational system has been functioning over the years.

In addition to homeostasis, there is the principle of complementarity. This is usually found in how two parties maintain a balance with each other over time. This is more like a seesaw than a mobile. But again, the idea is that things will always find a way to balance out, for good or ill. Say you have a quiet RE director and a very outspoken music director and they plan the holiday pageant every year. What you will find is that if the music director decides to be quieter this year, the RE director will likely become more outspoken. It is how that dyad maintains a balance in their relationship. This works with individuals and also with groups. If a very strong minister is out sick for a little while, the board will step up and be more active to balance the system and manage anxiety. In fact, we find that anxiety is often the stuff of complementarity. If one part in a system stops worrying about something, another party in the system will often pick up the worry and carry it for a while. Somehow, people need to see that the important job of worry gets done by someone.

When a system is faced with change, there are some predictable reactions that we often see as members seek to regain the homeostasis they are used to. The system often becomes rigid and creativity and innovation are shut down. Sometimes folks will try to build unhealthy triangles in order to increase their influence while staying within old patterns. If the music committee chair us unhappy with the minister’s new hymns, they may seek underground alliance by gossiping or spreading rumors among the choir, rather than speaking directly to the minister or giving the new hymns a try.  This is called triangulation. They may also scapegoat the minister, saying that recent discord is all their fault. “If only we had Rev. Smith again, we could go back to good hymns. You know, I bet the minister’s crazy musical ideas are why attendance is down.” All this behavior is in service of trying to maintain the balance and homeostasis of the system that folks were used to. These are all ways of trying to get things to go back to what folks are used to, even if is not on a conscious level. The desire for homeostasis is a deep instinct in human beings.

So, if a system will always seek to maintain balance and homeostasis, how do we ever make changes in a church, a family, or a work group? It can be done, as long as we keep the basic tenants of systems theory in our minds. When we make a change in the system, we try to not be surprised by a “change back” reaction, but anticipate it instead. We tolerate the emotional discomfort we feel when things are different, and help others do the same. We can help the system to regain balance in a slightly new position that may work even better than the old one. Instead of sending our poor treasurer to a training all alone, we can send the treasurer along with a few other key leaders, so there is not such a reaction to one part of the system trying to push on all the rest. Instead, many parts of the system can work together to establish new norms and new points of balance. When this happens, the system and its members may be more flexible. We can be aware of how “fixing” or eliminating one person in the church will seldom solve our problems, as that position will always be filled as long as the system has a role for that behavior and people have grown to not only get used to it, but expect it. We can choose, as leaders, to hold the course at the time of needed changes, with a non-anxious and non-reactive leadership style. This is often referred to as being a self-differentiated leader, maintaining a sense of what is yours to worry about and what you can just let go. It is listening to everyone while not being reactive to anyone. This will reduce anxiety in the group while the system finds new equilibrium. It has been said that being a non-anxious presence and being self-differentiated are the most important things you can do to help healthy change in your system.

It is as if our mobile was altered so that a string on the left corner is a tiny bit longer, or a new hanging piece was added somewhere just off the center. If this change is made with care and patience, the mobile will wobble at first, but then will find a new and possibly even more lovely way to be in balance. With care and patience, human systems can change as well. Often the result is a wonderful new balance that serves even better. Below are some easy tips on just how this can be done.

Easy Interventions to Shift a System for the Better

A system may be made of many people, but it can shift a little or a lot when any one member makes a change in how they behave.  

  1. Let the leaders lead: In fact, support them in their role. Systems are healthier and more stable when it is clear who is responsible, and leaders are supported in their work. Systems where the leaders are undermined will tend to use a lot of energy negotiating power dynamics rather than accomplishing their mission.
  2. Change who you talk to: If you generally only communicate with one group within the church, try communicating with a different group for a change. You will hear new perspectives and so will they. And the dynamics of past communication patterns will be shifted just by new folks being in communication with each other.
  3. Communicate Directly: If you have a complaint, concern, or compliment - take it directly to the person. This will help avoid unhealthy triangulations and misunderstandings as other parties try to be “helpful” working on your behalf.
  4. Sit in a different seat: Literally! Sit in a different place in worship on Sunday. Sit on a different side of the table in a board meeting. It can change your view of a situation and help you and folks around you get used to things being different from how they always are. Getting used to small changes is a good habit to develop for individuals and groups! This is often considered strategic change, to help increase system flexibility and allow other changes to happen more easily.
  5. Notice anxiety without fixing it: Anxiety is often a sign that something in the system is shifting. This may be a very good thing in the long run, but it will only succeed if you can let the change happen. That means facing anxiety with curiosity rather than dread. Take a deep breath!
  6. Step up and step back: If you are usually the one who speaks up, try being quieter for a change. If you are usually the one who keeps their ideas to themselves, try voicing your ideas. This will mean other people will seek balance in the system by either stepping up or stepping back themselves, in response to your change. The outcome is we all get to hear from some folks who we may not usually hear from.
  7. Give change a chance: If your church is trying something new, like a different format for announcements, folks often get anxious about the change and may even demand that it change back right away - declaring that folks don’t like it, so it doesn’t work. This is called a “change back” reaction and it is very common. Stay the course. Give it a while and see if the change has the desired outcome folks were looking for when the decision was made.
  8. Get out and see the world: Visit other churches. Notice how your church’s way is not the only way to be a great community. Notice how every church has places they are falling short. Tell others back home about your experience. It can help get things get unstuck in your system, to be reminded that there are other ways to do the work.
  9. Be willing to let folks go: If you live in fear that someone might leave the congregation if they are unhappy, then nothing can ever change. Even if you really like someone, you can’t be held hostage by the fear that they might leave. You are not responsible for their feelings or their membership.
  10. Tell the success stories: Tell stories of times when change went really well. “Remember when we built the new play structure?” “Remember when we got our first computer in the office?” This can help remind folks that change cannot only be endured; it is often be the beginning of some good stuff. This can infect the system with a more positive feeling about change and reduce anxiety and resistance.
  11. Maintain your own self-differentiation: Know where your issues stop and another person’s begin. Someone else being upset is usually not your problem to fix. You can be calm and compassionate without being reactive.
  12. Be self-reflective: If you find yourself falling into a pattern that is unhealthy for you, like being the new congregational complainer, decide if that is a path you want to follow. Maintaining homeostasis is a strong pull. But it can’t force you to do something you really don’t want to do, as long as you stay aware of the natural tendency to maintain the old balance.

About the Author

  • The Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr began as Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region in July of 2016. Prior to working for the UUA, Sarah was a parish minister specializing in congregations who were new to ministry, most recently West Hills UU Fellowship in Portland,...

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.

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