Living into Mission: An Exploration of a System in Distress
Shannon M. Blood
LIOS 7521 Fall 2013-2014 First Year Systems Theory Paper
LIOS Masters' Programs of Saybrook University
January 8, 2014
Over the last six years, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd (LCGS) has struggled to define and fully live into its mission, vision, purpose, membership and goals. As might be expected, the process and initial system changes were met with responses ranging from curiosity and anticipation to uncertainty, fear and anger. The community lost membership, gathered in new members; lost funds, found resources; tenaciously clung to a few old habits and beliefs; tentatively tried new ways of worshipping and serving; but generally made little progress towards living deeply into the vision adopted in 2007: “With the Lord as our Shepherd, we are a welcoming community of pilgrims walking together on the journey of faith” (LCGS Constitution C4.05.01, p. 5, 2013). Using general systems theory, I will describe system characteristics continuing to keep LCGS from fully living into its stated purpose and goals.
A Personal Stake in the Outcome
When I first entered the LCGS community in 1994, it was by sheer happenstance and with great reluctance. I was a single, unwed mother attending college, working part-time and odd jobs to supplement welfare benefits. I had firmly renounced the fundamentalist religion of my youth. The only reason I set foot inside a church at this point was to participate in communitywide rehearsals of Mozart’s Requiem, a musical fundraiser for a local non-profit working with people suffering from HIV/AIDs.
It seemed odd to me that rehearsals were in churches. My religious and paternal family background carried no tolerance for homosexuality and considered HIV/AIDs a justifiable scourge created by an angry, vengeful God. It never occurred to me that other religious communities might think or feel differently about this or other social justice issues. LCGS choir members gathered my nine-month old baby and me into their fold and in very active, real and present ways lived out the mission statement: “To share the love and grace of Jesus Christ with all people and to invite them to fullness of faith in God” (LCGS Constitution C4.05.03, p. 5, 2013).
Their patient, consistent welcome won in the long run. Three years later, I reaffirmed my baptism, had my son baptized, and became a full LCGS member. At that point, I began to explore other church-sponsored activities outside of choir membership. The experience was vastly different, troubling in many respects and highly rewarding in others. Over the years, I have both wholeheartedly entered into the life of LCGS and at other times retreated into isolation. Currently, I question my involvement in LCGS (or any religious system). A deepening sense of incongruence disturbs me, and I am seeking to learn how much is me, how much is the system, and how much is the interplay between them.
General Systems Theory: One Way of Viewing the System Architecture at Play
LCGS has intentionally pursued a discernment process over the last six years, attempting to redefine how it sees itself, and how it is seen externally. This process was in response to social change and a desire to more fully embrace the Christian principle of “love thy neighbor.” In a faith community populated extensively by members well-versed in government and military bureaucracy, general systems theory appears to allow more latitude for describing linear political workings of a command and control driven system, with strict hierarchy, rank, behavioral mores and expectations.
According to Robert J. Gregory, Ph.D. of Massey University in New Zealand, “politics of decision-making in systems include two divergent strategies at the top or pinnacle of power” where the “group in power seeks to develop and maintain a consensus, which serves to increase its hold on power.” Concurrently, the group without the power “seeks conflict that it can create, magnify, and use to gain or regain power in opposition to the group in power” (Gregory, n.d., p.2). Applying general systems theory can help make sense of the power struggles that have occurred in LCGS as it navigates the challenges of change.
I have observed and felt the impact of trying to negotiate and broker change that would open the LCGS system to more inclusive welcome and engagement of parishioners who do not necessarily meet the socio-economic expectations of the group in power. This lack of full inclusion and engagement has been particularly apparent when considering people living in poverty, single parents, homeless persons, and people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the issue of poverty.
A strengths-based approach acknowledges that all people bring skills, competencies and diverse understandings of life to the table (Stuart, 2012). Prominently displayed in the LCGS Sanctuary is a banner with the message that “you are blessed to be a blessing.” During my early membership, I found that message hopeful and inspiring. Despite many life challenges, I still had gifts to offer others.
However, within LCGS, the poor and marginalized are often seen as a project for more fortunate members to take on and “fix”. They are not looked on as assets to themselves, others, or the congregation — and are generally not fully welcomed into the life of the congregation. The unfortunate result is that all parties miss out on the deep learnings that can come from an equal partnership. Opportunities to make a more lasting impact on the condition of poverty for individuals and communities are missed.
Willie Baptist, Scholar-in-Residence at the Poverty Scholars Program in New York City, makes it clear that the complexity of poverty “requires practical engagement with the struggles of the poor as well as interdisciplinary scholarship to unravel its root causes and manifestations” (Baptist, 2011, p. 160). Baptist has lived in poverty and been deeply involved in organizing and mobilizing to end poverty. He calls on those in power to share power, and to accept and embrace the unique knowledge and skills brought by the poor. He equally calls on the poor to step up as leaders, identifying them as the “leading social force because they have the least or no stake in a polarized society. Either they end this inhumane polarity or it will end them” (p. 161).
Similar ideas are expressed in the 1999 ELCA social statement Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All. The statement calls “for efforts to increase the participation of low-income people in political and civic life, and citizen vigilance and action that challenges governments and other sectors . . . captive to narrow economic interests that do not represent the good of all” (p. 6).
What the ELCA and its member congregations need are change agents like Willie Baptist, and the willingness to welcome change agents in a true partnership. Individuals and groups cannot know what they do not know. People who have learned to survive poverty bring specific experiences and skills to the table. People who have learned to navigate the middle and upper class also bring specific experiences and skills to the table. Shared knowledge, which requires permeable boundaries between systems, is necessary to creating meaningful and lasting change.
Systems within systems:
When dealing with community systems, it is important to remember each element or individual is part of one or more sub-systems within the whole system. However, systems cannot be defined or understood based only on knowledge of individual parts. In general systems theory, the challenge is to understand the system as a whole. LCGS has several sub-systems made up of diverse individuals: Music Ministries, the Social Justice Ministry Team, Pastoral Care, and Faith Formation groups. LCGS is also nested within multiple systems: Olympia and Washington State; and the Northwest Washington synod and the ELCA, for example. The ELCA is the national system framing policy and guiding individual congregations.
As Kurt Lewin explained, “groups have properties of their own . . . different from the properties of their subgroups or their individual members” (1947, p. 8). He explains that predicting group behavior requires “taking into account group goals, standards, values, and the way a group sees its own situation and that of others” (p. 12). In assessing LCGS’ ability to fully live into its mission and vision, it is important to develop an understanding of the whole system.
Whole vs. parts:
The Lutheran Church of The Good Shepherd Welcomes All People
The poor and the rich, the young and the old,
People who are single, married, blessed, divorced, separated, partnered, or widowed,
People of all abilities,
People of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
People of all nations and ethnic backgrounds.
No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
(LCGS Constitution, C4.05.04, p. 5, 2013)
The LCGS Affirmation of Welcome specifically calls out certain parts (elements) of the system as a whole. At the time the statement was developed, the congregation was stressed from pastoral leadership changes. The statement reflects congregational hopes and fears, and invites the congregation to embrace the idea that “tolerance of diversity is useful in times of change” (Gregory, n.d., chart #11). Openly acknowledging diversity in the congregation is a beginning step in making lasting change. However, a side effect of the specificity in the statement was in focusing the congregation’s attention outward, rather than inward. The problem was still with the “other” and not with the congregation as a whole system. The outcome was surface change.
General systems theory states that all systems have boundaries. The type of boundaries can be a significant factor on the extent to which a system adapts to change. According to Friedman, “the boundary is what makes each system unique and gives it definition . . . some are clearly defined; others may be permeable (2011, p.8).” Open systems imply exchanges of energy or information — change and growth are possible. Occasionally “closed systems are isolated from their environment . . . . as a perceived means of protecting itself” (Friedman, 2011, p.8).
In LCGS, certain sub-groups (nested systems) hold the power and means closed in a self-protective effort. While the ELCA has clearly stated a social intent of inclusivity and partnership, LCGS has yet to fully accept the idea that they are both a part of the problem as well as the solution, and that the solution requires working in partnership with those experiencing the problem. In a nutshell, the words and actions of certain elements within the LCGS system do not mesh.
Poverty is still viewed through a historical lens based on Biblical traditions that say the poor are always with us (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8, New International Version) and that the poor can be helped when convenient. Early economic theories made no bones about the need to “keep the poor poor [otherwise] they could not be counted upon to do an honest day’s toil” (Heilbroner, 1953, p. 40).
The poor were (and still are) caught in a double-bind, seen as necessary components of society’s economic growth but also viewed as an “omnipresent problem” and as the “unprofitable poor” (p. 60). 18th century society pondered with some trepidation what would happen if the “wants of the poor . . . were allowed to disappear?” (p. 61). Bernard Mandeville, a social commentator of the times, opined that attending to the wants of the poor would be “prudent to relieve, but folly to cure” (p. 61).
This perspective on poverty has not changed greatly over the centuries. According to Baptist, “the poor are limited to simply managing their poverty while the academics are limited to simply rationalizing poverty” (2011, p. 3). It appears for some socio-economic groups, the inconvenience factor still plays a significant role in their willingness to address poverty.
Clearly, centuries of history and tradition have helped create impermeable boundaries between socio-economic classes. In LCGS, assumed privilege helps drive and justify a self-protective effort. Something is needed to shake up the system. In Gregory’s discussion of social change, change agents are one important way of perturbing the system and may be met with a reaction that is “sudden, massive, and extensive” or is “simply swallowed up” (n.d., p.4). Both responses have occurred in LCGS.
A change agent in a social institution is an individual or group with “upward or downward mobility” who can “access and influence the elite decision-makers” or create “conflict [by] setting new goals, directions and values” (Gregory, p. 4). Both individual and group change agents can be found in LCGS. However, when the larger LCGS system identifies change beyond a certain level as a threat, the system “takes steps to mobilize energy to recoil against the threat” (p. 4). The recoil serves to shut down the information flow and limit the change, returning the system to a more comfortable state of equilibrium. Friedman describes this phenomenon as “latency or pattern maintenance in which the system is invested in maintaining and transmitting its norms and values” (2011, p. 6).
The unpleasant side effect of this recoil in LCGS is a quiet aggression leading to the loss of potential change agent individuals and groups. According to Gregory, “those who seek change can become the target of the threat-recoil cycle” (n.d., p. 5). Lewin identifies the level of aggression received as depending at least “partly on the degree to which the individual provokes or invites aggression and . . . fights or does not fight back” (1947, p. 23). The threat-recoil cycle can shield system power brokers from new information which may result in uncomfortable change. In effect, the system experiences a negative feedback loop, returning it to a more usual and accustomed state.
The importance of relational patterns in systems is made clear by Friedman when he characterizes them as “transactional [or] reciprocal exchanges between entities, or between their elements, in which each changes or otherwise influences the other over time” (2011, p.10). The LCGS system includes highly educated and well-off professionals steeped in government and military command and control ideology and structure. Consequently, change is based on a top-down, carefully controlled approach. Change is planned for, defined, and measured in a linear process. The reality is that this is too simplistic a framework. Cause and effect does not involve a single, linear line measuring what happens in the system. As Friedman points out, “one can only measure change by observing the outputs in relationship to the outcomes or goals of the system” (2011, p. 4). The messiness of change itself causes discomfort in the system, and thus a subsequent reduction in goal attainment.
Constraining forces limit change and enabling forces support change. LCGS experiences both constraining and enabling forces. For example, when the Affirmation of Welcome was introduced, congregational strife increased over worship patterns until an entire sub-group of worship musicians left the church. The immediate and long-term necessity of dealing with this crisis allowed the system as a whole to stop focusing on living into a vision and mission that required deep and meaningful shifts in behavior and relational patterns. A self-balancing negative feedback loop, or restraining force, allowed the system to revert to a more familiar and comfortable pattern – focusing on worship styles and activities.
An enabling force, or positive feedback loop, included LCGS deciding to host the emergency overflow homeless shelter within the church rather than in an aging building on church grounds. This decision allowed shelter guests access to a full bathroom, kitchen, and (more to the point) encouraged and welcomed their involvement in the life of the church community. The change was supported, reinforced, and encouraged — and therefore became a new pattern in the system. LCGS demonstrated the capacity for stepping into the new mission and vision.
System Health Assessment
In Fritjof Capra’s book The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, organizations are defined as “communities of people who interact with one another to build relationships, help each other, and make their daily activities meaningful on a personal level (2002, p. 99) LCGS offers meaning to many members, particularly those fitting the socio-economic description and characteristics of the community. In this regard, LCGS has reasonable systemic health. It clearly serves the needs of a majority of its membership. However, there is some incongruence in what LCGS proposes to live into and what actually occurs in the system. Unless LCGS finds a way to open its system further, it will continue to experience what Wheatley describes as a “tendency of closed systems to wear down, to give off energy that can never be retrieved” (2006, p. 145).
LCGS has experienced several years of a self-defeating feedback cycle by focusing on parts of a troubled system, rather than analyzing the whole system. Until the whole system is tended to, LCGS may continue to lose membership, resources, and energy. In order to maintain or improve systemic health, LCGS needs to embrace its articulated vision and mission, or adjust it. Either way, the system needs to develop better strategies for coping with change.
Personal Impact and Authentic Presence
We are challenged in the LIOS graduate program to develop an authentic presence in our work by looking deeply into who we are and how we interact with others. While researching and writing this paper, I explored a topic of great interest to me. I also critically evaluated my approach to advocacy and my role in the LCGS system. Based on what I learned from Willie Baptist, as well as deepening my understanding of system functioning and social change, I firmly believe that a strong, articulate voice is not a hindrance in advocacy work. Within LIOS, I have an opportunity to develop my authentic presence and fully use my voice in ways that honor mine and other’s strength, experience and background.
Using general systems theory, possible solutions to LCGS’s on-going predicament can be explored. LCGS continues to struggle to meet its stated purpose and goals, codified in its constitution. The proposed deep and meaningful systemic change drives sub-group resistance based on anticipated disruption to what is comfortable and familiar. System feedback loops reinforce patterns that maintain expected and desired levels of comfort, which then clash with other elements desiring change. The result is a system in distress. However, it is not a system without possibility. LCGS has an opportunity to address the system’s stuck points, and to further explore how the system as a whole can embrace and live fully into LCGS’s vision and mission. It remains to be seen if LCGS can muster the fortitude to address the system as a whole, and avoid the pitfalls of focusing on separate elements within the system.
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