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

Activity 2: Congregations as Systems

(40 minutes)



  • Review this activity and Handout 1. Also, review Alternate Activity 1, Alternate Systems Thinking Scenarios; its accompanying handout presents two scenarios less complex than the Heavenly Unitarian Universalist Congregation scenario, both involving stresses that come from outside rather than 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 your group than exploring a single, more complex one.
  • Make copies of Handout 1 (or, Handout 3, if you are using Alternate Activity 1 and not this activity).
  • Post a sheet of newsprint.
  • Prepare, but do not post, a sheet of newsprint with these reflection prompts (Note: The Alternate Activity offers different prompts.):
    • How is this congregation affected by the music director’s resignation?
    • What emotions might come to the fore for the congregation as they work through this change?
    • What long-standing patterns of behavior in this group may have been revealed by the music director’s resignation?
  • Prepare, but do not post, a second sheet of newsprint with these reflection prompts:
    • 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?


Share with participants the scenario in Handout 1.

Share this definition of systems thinking, adapted from multiple sources including the book, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems by Peter Steinke and the website, Learning for Sustainability:

Systems thinking posits that a complex system—for example, a congregation—cannot be fully understood from only one perspective. Systems thinking focuses on how the parts of a system interrelate and mutually influence one another. Systems thinking can help us understand the patterns of thought and action that hold the system together.

Tell the group that 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, labeled “Music Director.” 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 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 music director but still might have feelings about her departure (e.g., new members who were planning to join the choir once they felt a bit more acclimated). Add these folks to the picture as well.

Draw solid lines to connect the music director to groups or individuals who have a direct relationship with the director. Use dotted lines to indicate indirect relationships. Draw wavy lines between the director and those who might have feelings about her departure. 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 music director or the music program; for example, teachers might be connected directly to the religious educator. 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 music director
  • Group 2: The dotted lines, representing indirect connections with the music director
  • Group 3: The wavy lines, representing those who don’t have a direct connection but still have feelings about the music director’s departure
  • Group 4: The solid, dotted, and wavy lines representing connections among groups or individuals in the congregation who have nothing to do with the music director

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 music director’s resignation 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 Heavenly Unitarian Universalist 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.

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.