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Systems Thinking

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 15-17

I was talking with a friend the other day about my blog entry from last Thursday. My friend was curious why I spent time talking about addictions (i.e. alcoholism) and family dynamics so much – especially in the context of a blog about spirituality.

"Do you do it because you had a family member who was alcoholic?" the person finally asked.

The answer to that question was no. His question did provide me with a wonderful opportunity to explain why I did that.

Toward the very end of my time in seminary I accidentally stumbled upon a way of thinking called family systems theory. It was a way of thinking that tries to move groups beyond the traditional ways of thinking into exciting new ways of thinking. Let me unpack that statement for you.

In traditional ways of thinking, leaders in a community thinking mechanistically. If you were to think of an organization such as a church like a car, for instance, when one part of the car starts acting up – all you need to do is replace the individual part and the problem goes away. Now that thinking might be fine for a car, but it can be dangerous to carry that principle over into the life of a community.

Let's say, for instance, that a person in a community begins to act up. Traditional thinking is that you only address the individual involved in order to get him or her to change his behavior. You pretend no one else is involved in/affected by the situation.

In family systems theory, you don't think mechanistically – you think organically. Instead of seeing each individual as an isolated part of the machine, you see each individual as a connected piece of the whole. As such, you assume that each individual's behavior has the ability to affect the overall functioning of the group. This means when one part of the system starts acting up, you don't just look at the individual involved – you look at others in the community as well to see how they are contributing. That's why in last Thursday's entry, for example, I didn't just talk about the behavior of the alcoholic father; I also addressed the behavior of the spouse and siblings since their behaviors were contributing to the situation since they were enabling the father's decision to continue to drink.

At this point you might see why I would be interested in family systems theory, but still be a little confused about how the issue of addiction ties into all of this.

Well, a few years ago I stumbled upon a book called "Kicking Habits". It was a book about systems thinking within a church context. In making its point, the book suggested that one reason change is so hard in local churches is because individuals get just as addicted to the status quo as other individuals get addicted to substances like alcohol or food. That's why it is so incredibly difficult to make changes in churches. You aren't just fighting something as superficial as personal preferences – you are actually facing an addiction.

So that explains my interest in addictions and systems thinking. But why talk about all this stuff right now?

Well, yesterday in our church we had difficult news to share. Last year it was discovered that a former employee of the church had inappropriately diverted rent that was paid to the church by a user group from the church's bank account into the individual's own bank account. A legal process was initiated in order to recover a portion of those funds from our insurance policy. That process is now culminating with an arraignment that is scheduled for early November – meaning it was finally at a point in the process where we could make the information known.

When I was first informed about the tragic situation, I was curious to see how the faith community would approach the issue. Would they resort to traditional thinking and focus all their energy on blaming either the employee or a few lay leaders; or would they think more expansively and look at the system as a whole so they could determine what changes the community needed to make in order to prevent such occurrences in the future?

Through this year-long process, I learned the community chose to respond in the more expansive way. In addition to appropriately holding the individual accountable for the individual's choices, the faith community saw the problem as a systemic breakdown. It has already begun the hard work of fixing a system that was broken. This made me VERY happy!!!

So what's all of this have to do with today's reading?

As I read the culminating words of today's chapters, I smiled when I got to the part about the battle the Israelites got into with Amalek at Rephidim. In the culminating words of that chapter, we learn that the determining factor for their success (or at least so they thought) was whether or not Moses was able to raise his arms. When he raised his arms, the Israelites had success; when he tired and lowered them, the Israelites started to struggle.

Some would read that and assume this supported the traditional, mechanistic way of thinking about community – that the community's success or failure was entirely dependent on just one person (Moses). The story didn't end there, however. For when the community figured out what was happening, others got involved to help out the community. Aaron and Hur, for instance, decided to hold up Moses arms so that his arms could remain in the air and benefit the people. In other words, they thought organically/systemically and used their individual roles to benefit the whole.

Today, I would ask you to think about one area in your life where there might be a problem. When you find that area, look at how you are approaching its resolution. Are you treating it as an isolated issue that you can handle on your own, or are you willing to explore the communal dimension of the issue and invite others into the process?

Til next time …

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