4 min read

To benefit from the power of indirect influence, we must think systemically. The alternative is to assume a straight line between cause and effect. Doing A, B, and C leads to X, Y, and Z. This view sees life as a machine; press the right buttons and you get the outcome you want.

This mechanistic attitude presents itself in churches when Christians offer spiritual solutions for all problems. It’s the same category of mistake the materialists make when they interpret all problems as chemical-based. It’s what happens when the R&D department designs a product that fails because they did not listen to the marketing team.

Life cannot be reduced to a single cause-effect pattern. Multiple causes combine to produce an undesired effect. Also, a single attempted solution can cause an array of unforseen effects throughout the organization. Outcomes are caused by many factors, some of them quite distant from the outcome both in time and space.

It’s like a spider-web. Multiple strands of influence intersect one another. Any change in one point on any single strand causes reverberations throughout the web.

My wife and I decided to return from the mission field after twenty plus years of service and our friends wanted us to tell them the reason. The problem was no single reason existed. A combination of many factors coalesced into our decision; it was time to make a change.

That people look for a single cause is understandable; life seems less complicated that way. Systems thinkers, however, acknowledge the complexity of human experience. They don’t jump to solutions without sufficient information. They don’t play the blame game. Systems thinkers recognize multiple causes may lie behind any given situation. They understand that one neat self-contained decision can rarely produce an effective solution.

Instead, they begin a series of incremental improvements, of trial-and-error steps, all guided by their core principles and values. Only weeds grow over night; the oaks of the forest all acquire their beauty over time.

We have to look at the church, not just as a spiritual body, but also as an organization. And perhaps organizations should envision the company as having both an organizational and a spiritual dimension.
Organizations encompass multiple dimensions. Jay Galbraith developed the Star Model of organizational design, which identifies five organizational dimensions.

  • Strategy is about knowing our core values and where we want to go.
  • Structure relates to who has the authority to make decisions.
  • Processes have to do with how we accomplish our strategy.
  • Rewards have to do with how we recognize individual effort.
  • And the People dimension is about who leads the various functions of the organization.

For example, suppose there has been a drop in attendance in the youth program of a local church—not because teenagers today are no longer interested in Jesus—but because they never have a say in the program (a problem of structure) or they don’t understand where it is going (an issue of strategy), or they perceive that those in charge have no business leading the group (a problem of people), or they feel the church does not appreciate their efforts (a question of rewards).

Chaos permeates the fabric of life. Time and distance often separate the causes from their effects so we are unable to trace them with any degree of certainty. With complex problems, actions taken today may set into motion a series of adverse reactions tomorrow.

So, what do we make of this? Do we quit and give in to the chaos? No. Systems thinking does not abandon the search for solutions. It just becomes more humble and cautious in its search. As systems thinkers, we try to understand the multiplicity of driving forces intersecting to produce an outcome.
This is why systems thinkers are tweakers rather than revolutionaries. They make adjustments at various levels. They don’t attack the problem head-on because this would activate the organizational immune system and the antibodies would destroy their idea before it gets a chance to heal the organism.

Systems thinkers combine research, counsel, and intuition to make choices—knowing the solution itself will always bring some surprises. When we fail to consider the entire system, we tend to judge others rather than understand them. But when we appreciate how people do things for a combination of reasons (some of which even they are not aware), we are able to avoid passing judgment and this allows us to discern what is really happening.


Photo by bella67. Photo available at Pixabay under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.