Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Harvest the Power, 2nd Edition: A Lay Leadership Development Program for Adults

Alternate Activity 1: Alternate Systems Thinking Scenarios

(45 minutes)



  • Copy Handout 3 for all participants.
  • Read Activity 2, Applying Systems Thinking, to become familiar with how to diagram a congregational issue or challenge from a systems perspective.
  • Post a blank sheet of newsprint.
  • Prepare, but do not post, a sheet of newsprint with these reflection prompts:
    • Who in the congregation is affected by the issue?
    • What emotions might come to the fore as the congregation works through this challenge?
    • What long-standing patterns of behavior in this congregation might be revealed by this challenge?
    • What relationships in this congregational system need tending?
    • How might this scenario play out if the leaders commit to being guided by covenant, their Unitarian Universalist faith, and the congregation’s mission?


The two scenarios in Handout 3 are less complex than the Heavenly Unitarian Universalist Congregation scenario presented in Activity 2, Handout 1, and the events that cause the system to react come from outside rather than inside the organization. Use these alternate scenarios if the group you are working with is, in fact, engaged in a challenge resembling the Heavenly Unitarian Universalist scenario, or if unpacking two simpler scenarios would work better for your group than exploring the single, complex one. These scenarios will take less time to process, so you will likely have time for both of them. You might change the configuration of small groups for the second scenario.

Read aloud the first scenario to the group.

Tell the group that you are going to create a drawing of “the system” at the congregation. Draw and label stick figures of the capital campaign committee. Ask participants to name individuals or groups affected in any way by the capital campaign to repair and upgrade the congregation’s building. As each individual or group is named, draw them as stick figures on the newsprint, and label each one. If they have not done so already, prompt the group to add groups or individuals in the congregation who don’t have a direct connection to the project but still might have feelings about it. Add these folks to the picture as well.

Draw solid lines to connect the capital campaign committee to groups or individuals who have a direct relationship with that group (such as the building and grounds committee, the governing board, and the parish minister). Use dotted lines to indicate indirect relationships (such as those who have pledged to the campaign). Draw wavy lines between the capital campaign committee and those who might have feelings about the project. If you need to combine the type of line for some groups or individuals (such as dotted and wavy), do so.

Invite the group to examine the drawing and consider other connections in the congregation that have nothing to do with the capital campaign project; for example, teachers might be connected directly to the religious educator, whose work will be impacted by the project. Draw and label those stick figures, and represent their connections with solid, dotted, or wavy lines, as appropriate.

Pause for a moment to let participants take in the drawing. Tell them that you are going to add complexity by identifying the emotions and long-standing patterns of behavior involved in these relationships. Post the first sheet of newsprint where all participants can see it. Ask participants to form four small groups, and assign groups as follows:

  • Group 1: The straight lines, representing direct connections with the capital campaign committee
  • Group 2: The dotted lines, representing indirect connections with the committee
  • Group 3: The wavy lines, representing those who don’t have a direct connection but still have feelings about the project
  • Group 4: The solid, dotted, and wavy lines representing connections among groups or individuals in the congregation who, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with the project

Tell groups that they will have 10 minutes to discuss the posted questions. Provide each small group with newsprint and a marker to list key points from their conversation.

After 10 minutes, invite each group, one at a time, to post their lists near the diagram and share the highlights of their discussion.

Explain that systems theory tells us that 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 letter from the local government officials upset the congregation’s balance and brought into play a variety of factors and issues that had been latent or dormant when the congregation was stable.

Post the second set of questions you prepared. Invite participants to move back into their small groups to consider the new set of questions. Tell them they have 10 minutes for this discussion.

After 10 minutes, reconvene the group. Invite small groups to share key insights from their conversations.

Ask: “If you were a leader at this congregation, what would you need to do to help the congregation clearly face the conflicts uncovered by the music director’s resignation and discover the opportunities that have opened?” Allow a few participants to respond.

If time allows, repeat this process for the second scenario.