Leveraging Change for Congregational Transformation Finding Tipping Points

Cover of book Thinking in Systems, with a rainbow slinky

Learning to understand human communities (and in our case, congregations) as systems has been an ongoing learning process for the past several decades for family therapists, organizational development consultants and social scientists. There is also much to learn from the way nature interacts as a system (which is the study of Permaculture).

One of the great minds of how systems operate in both environmental and social contexts is Donella Meadows, the author of Thinking in Systems and many other books. What follows is an application of her model.


What I've learned from observation and study of both natural and human systems, is that there are patterns that repeat over and over again. Learning to understand these patterns helps us to foster patterns of resilience and to interrupt patterns of stuckness, degradation and/or destruction. Using these new eyes, leaders can be more strategic about where to focus their energy for the most impact. Donella Meadows offers 12 Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, which we can also apply to congregational life.

The list below shows areas/places in reverse order of the impact of intervention from least to most impact for effort invested. A term for this used in systems theory is “leverage points” – we are using our leverage to best advantage if we are getting a higher impact for a lower effort invested. It may be tempting to jump right to the end, but looking at the whole continuum can help us understand how all of these interventions can play a part. However, the things we’ve been told to do in the past or that are easiest to do may not be where we want to put our energy to make real change.


Areas Where Interventions Have the Least Impact

The first 8 of the 12 leverage points below are good, healthy practices in your congregation. But--strategically--they will have little impact in creating major transformation for the effort invested.

12. Measures, Parameters, Numbers

Return Visitors, Membership, Turnover, RE Enrollment, Pledge Levels, Budget, etc

For years, "congregational best practices" included collecting and analyzing data. Congregational leaders were encouraged to invest their time in schemes such as Congregations Count, Monitoring Reports under Policy Governance, and other numbers-heavy approaches. In congregational terms, this includes attendance at services, numbers of return visitors, overall membership, turnover rates, RE enrollment, pledge numbers, etc.

But, it turns our that measuring behaviors rarely change the behaviors that are being measured.

This isn't to say that numbers aren't valuable--they are! We need measurements and other feedback loops to see how well the congregation is serving its mission. But measures themselves do not provide leverage points to create real and lasting change. Don't let your leadership get mired in spreadsheets and charts.

11. The Size of Buffers and Other Stabilizers

Cash-on-Hand, Endowments, etc

The ability to weather financial ups and downs is important to congregational health and vitality. Having an adequate buffer of money (i.e. "money in the bank") enables the leadership to worry less during summer months (when pledges often drop off), or in times when the wider economy contracts. Buffers and stabilizers lessen or moderate the impact of large fluctuations.

But account balances can grow to the point being too much of a good thing, and can actually become a burden that impairs agility. Congregations that don’t have an endowment or much cash on hand may raise an eyebrow at this idea. We all need some amount of buffer. But, if your endowment is keeping you stuck in the past (such as narrow ideas about how that money can be spent), that may impede you from embracing fresh ideas for your congregation going forward.

Don't look to large endowments as being the answer to transforming your congregation.

Man using a long lever to lift a large stone block

When using a physical lever, there are two considerations, the length of the lever (which enables you to multiply your strength and effort) and the placement of the lever to have the most effect on the object to be moved, i.e. the "leverage point."

10. Physical Structures

The Size and Layout of Your Building and Grounds

Another key aspect of your congregation is your physical space, whether you own, lease, or borrow space. Is your sanctuary large enough to accommodate those attending? Do you have enough parking, adequate classroom space, up-to-date kitchen facilities, etc.? These areas can feel like the most important thing to update because they are part of the lived experience of weekly congregational life. These are all important considerations for long range planning.

But making alterations to your building and/or grounds is expensive and time-consuming and not the best place to start if you are looking for transformation.

9. Feedback Loop Regulation

Collecting and Responding to Information

It is important to create timely feedback loops in congregations, loops that use the measures, parameters and numbers mentioned in #12 above. How much should we be worried about attendance fluctuation from week to week? About how quickly pledge contributions coming in?

Feedback loops help leaders spot trends, but they can also become distractions when they lead you to treat normal fluctuations as emergencies. Or if you only look at the finances once a year, you might find your congregation in dire straits, but looking at them on a regular basis compared to previous years will keep things in perspective.

Feedback loops are essential tools for leaders, and can sometimes lead to systemic change, but the time investment experimenting to find the best feedback loops might be better spent on the leverage points shared below.

8. Negative Feedback Loops

"Brakes" That Protect Your Congregation

Being good stewards of our congregations means making sure we have good bylaws that help protect the integrity of the institution, and clear policies and procedures to keep the congregation safe and functioning. We need these documents to help us make corrections if we go off course from our purpose, to provide institutional memory (so we don't need to "reinvent the wheel"), and to offer general fiduciary guidance.

Often congregations look to governance change hoping it will create a transformation in culture, but it is not an effective leverage point. Think of these guiding documents as thermostat controls that help keep the congregation functioning in an acceptable range.

7. Positive Feedback Loops

"Accelerator Pedals" That Can Get You Where You Want To Go (Or Send You Off a Cliff)

Positive Feedback loops operate like rolling snowballs down a hill -- they gain mass and energy whether you want them to or not.

They can provide synergy and vitality; such as a with a popular social justice initiative, or an innovative family ministry. Or they can be destructive; such as a faction within the church repelling visitors who don't "look like us," or a polarizing conflict over music choices for Sunday Worship. Rumors and conspiracy theories get their energy from positive feedback loops.

The danger of looking to create transformation by "getting the ball rolling," is that the ball can take on a life of its own and lead to chaos.

6. Structure of Information Flow

Improving Internal Communications

A well-thought-out structure of internal communications can be crucial to the workings of a congregation. In this case, feedback loops are most helpful when the information gets to the people who need it in a timely manner where it will make a difference. Knowing how the congregation is functioning helps leaders and individuals in the congregations to make minor, but important, adjustments.

For example, an announcement in July that "pledges are coming in slower than needed" can result in individual members making a small modification to their habits to catch up on their payments. But information alone is not enough to get people to make major changes in behavior. Anyone who has run a pledge drive can tell you that just sharing a detailed congregational budget is not the way to increase generous giving.

5. Rules of the System (Incentives, Constraints)

Group Norms and Covenants

Group norms and formal covenants establish rules of how the congregation functions, and remind people how to treat one another. Along with providing “brakes” that can protect the congregation, guiding documents also articulate the mission and vision of the congregation. When done well, guiding documents set clear expectations for members and leaders about how to participate fully in the life of the congregation.

They also provide a good foundation of health and vitality for transformational change, though norms and expectations by themselves are seldom enough to create transformation.


Leverage Points Where Interventions Can Create Transformation

Image of butterfly transformation.

Transformation literally means changing form. There are times when old forms are no longer serving us (such as patriarchy, white supremacy, or a fossil-fuel-based economy) and we need to create opportunities for new, life-giving forms to emerge.

The list below continues the continuum of areas/places of where interventions can have tremendous impact for the effort invested.

4. The Power to Add, Change, Evolve, or Self-Organize

Making Way for the Emergent

Natural systems evolve in response to a changing environment, but not by "getting together and forming a plan," like humans tend to do. Instead, they rely on ancient patterns that have provided resilience and creative responses for millennia. Adaptations in the form of new life emerge most often at "the edges" between ecosystems (e.g. reefs or estuaries). Monocultures are fragile and susceptible to disease. (Think of the Irish potato famine of the mid 19th century.)

Adapting emergent strategies will help your congregation learn how to transform itself. Most UU congregations have inherited a white monoculture. The more diverse our communities, the more resilient we can become.

Areas 12 through 5 (above) are still important as they will help ground you in your mission and vision and will provide measures and tools that will help you discern the impact of the emergent.

3. The Goals of the System

Emergent Strategy Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

By Adrienne Maree Brown

Buy Now

Knowing Our Greater Purpose

Every system, whether it's aware or not, structures itself around a whole-system purpose or goal, which in turns shapes the system. If an intervention can shift this core whole-system purpose, it can transform the system, for good or for ill. For example, the scientific revolution changed how westerners perceived the world. Social and environmental movements have helped create transformative (if incremental) change. (Littering, dumping chemicals and raw sewage into waterways, and many forms of violence used to be winked at rather then reviled.)

Sadly, many examples of leveraging whole-system goals have been by individuals who do so in service of hoarding power and resources. Ronald Reagan was able reverse economic prosperity for the white middle class by convincing them that government regulation and unions were bad for the economy. Mark Zuckerberg was able to convince billions of people worldwide to surrender their privacy in exchange for a feeling of connection. Donald Trump was able to convince millions of Amerians that the worst pandemic in a century was a hoax.

But there are plenty of examples of leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Greta Thunberg who have been able to frame whole-system life-giving goals in a way that also resonate with millions.

2. The Mindset or Paradigm Out of Which the System Arises

Being the Change We Wish To See In the World

Changing a paradigm is as simple and as complicated as the famous phrase by Gandhi, "Be the Change You Wish to Be in the World." The most effective way to create the new paradigm is to live into it.

An example is the lunch counter protests that were a part of the civil rights movements of the 1960s – a paradigm of racial inequity had been the norm and the protesters lived out their new paradigm of racial equity, helping others to see this new paradigm more clearly.

Other examples that come to mind are the second wave of white feminism in the early 1970s (where white women refused to continue acting subordinate to white men) and the eco-villages and intentional communities of the 1980s.

1. The Power to Transcend Paradigms

Letting Go into the Not-Knowing

As people of faith, it will be no surprise that the most likely place for transformation is the ultimate of letting go of paradigms altogether, what is called Buddha-consciousness, or transcendence, and might be practiced using metaphors such as the Kingdom of God, or Beloved Community.

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

For more information contact .