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How Systems Affect Decisions
By: Bill Easum

Ever wonder why churches say they believe one thing and do another? Will, it's simple; their system story, of which they are unaware, determines their actions more than their belief system. Let me explain.

Every organization is built upon a deeper underlying system called a "Systems Story." This story is not so much a belief system as it is that which determines the way organizations act. Every system lives out and continually repeats its own story in the actions played by the characters in the story. This story describes the real way the organization functions, no matter what the organizational charts are like or the mission statement might suggest.

The systems story differs greatly from healthy to unhealthy churches. Discovering this story is one of the keys to transition. 

For the past 400 years, organizations have shaped a system story that at best can be called "efficient" and at worst can be called "demonic and tyrannical." I call it "The Command and Control Story." At the heart of this system is the desire to control everything that happens in a church. Here's how the Command and Control Stifle Story works.

A person with enthusiasm brings a new ministry idea to the pastor. The pastor takes the new idea to the official body or to a few key leaders. They reject the new idea 95% of the time because they "have never done that before." The pastor tells the person it cannot be done. The person figures out that this is a place that does not respond to new ideas. The person is disappointed and drops out and looks for another church. The leaders are glad they did not respond favorably to an idea from someone so uncommitted to their church. The story is repeated over again and again.  In time, the leaders are never presented with any new ideas.

In this system, procedure and playing by the rules is more important than the game (ministry) itself.

However, a new understanding of organizations is emerging in almost every discipline, from science to religion. This understanding can best be described as a "Permission-Giving Story" in which trust and shared purpose abound.  Here's how the Permission-Giving Trust Story works.

The church has a clear sense of its mission or purpose in life and has an atmosphere about it that encourages everyone to find their purpose. People are often encouraged to discover their purpose in life and to live out that purpose on behalf of the Body of Christ. Someone has a new idea and the new idea is examined in light of the mission by any one of the key leaders without the idea going to a centralized authority for approval. The person is given permission on the spot to put the new idea into action if they can find two or three other people who want to do it with them.

Others see this system as "permission-giving" and are encouraged to seek their own purpose. New ministries continually emerge and innovation fills the congregational life. In time, people begin to expect innovation and a permission-giving environment emerges.

In every church I've consulted with, I've seen variations of both of these systems stories. The key is which one dominates the other.

In order to understand how the systems story works, let's mentally divide an organization into four quadrants.

Systems Stories fall into four quadrants. Determining which quadrant guides a church and how many individuals are in each quadrant has a lot to do with how to move it forward. It is very normal for a church to be guided by one quadrant while most of its people are in a different quadrant.

Quadrant One

Churches or individuals in Quadrant One are ruled by top-down, centralized, controlling policies and individuals. Contentment, complacency, and/or fear override any leap of faith decision from the leaders. Churches in this quadrant are usually stagnant, dying and/or dysfunctional in general. This is never the place for God's Church. "Who is in control?" is the dominate passion.

Quadrant Two

Churches or individuals in Quadrant Two intuitively know that something is not right. However, confusion, discontent, and/or conflict reign in one or more areas of the church as some people begin to dream of a better day and the controllers become unhappy and more vocal as the church moves closer to the edge of stage.

Established churches usually move through this stage to get to Quadrant Three and seldom, if ever, jump from Quadrant Two to Quadrant Four. This is usually where most change efforts cease due to the conflict and power struggles.

The key to leadership at this stage is to fan the discontentment, offer new visions of hope, or return to the vision that once drove the church, and to never blink. Developing or recovering the passion for outreach and discipleship are keys in this quadrant. "There must be a better way" is the dominating passion.

Quadrant Three

Churches or individuals in Quadrant Three function around freedom, trust, permission giving. The leaders' passion for mission is balanced by their use of common sense. Growth always occurs and often the growth is very significant at first. 

It is unusual for an organization to sustain rapid growth and remain in Quadrant Three all the time. When it does, even more common sense is required, more time away for the key leaders, and a much more intentional and systematic approach to the growth (i.e., discipleship process).

This is the place for leaders to go when things become normal and dull and the status quo begins to be savored. Such a condition can begin to happen in Quadrant Four. "Why are we here?" is the dominating passion.

Quadrant Four

Churches or individuals in Quadrant Four lead with common sense, order, and balance, but when the church is healthy, it is constantly being ignited and challenged by the passion for mission found in Quadrant Three.

This is the place for balanced, long-term growth and stability. It is usually the place where spiritual giants are grown and traditions become established. This is the place to go when rapid growth outstrips resources and the church needs a breather. The key here is to rekindle the passion and avoid a long, slow, slump into Quadrants One or Two. Complacency or contentment is the key enemy to guard against in this quadrant.  "How can we do it better?" is the dominating passion.

Keep in mind that moving out of Quadrant One to Quadrant Three always involves going through Quadrant Two. This means that there is always a time of confusion on the part of all the leadership, even some paid staff. It is normal, so do not be surprised or dismayed by it.

If you would like to know more about systems and how they affect the actions of a church, read my book Unfreezing Moves from Abingdon.

Bill Easum is president of 21st Century Strategies, Inc. a full service church consulting group since 1987 whose mission is to equip Christian for global impact, www.churchconsultations.com.

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