A “system” is a process with its distinct yet interrelated parts. An organism or institution may consist of multiple systems. For example, various interlocking systems (nervous, skeletal, respiratory) make up the one human body. The human body is its own unified system with all these smaller systems working together. The church is a system full of complex humans—a system full of systems, you might say.
The Bible uses systems imagery in Romans 12: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
In a healthy human body, all the systems do their part and work together as one. In a healthy church, all the “systems” (interrelationships) work together toward unity in Christ. Peter Steinke says, “Health is a continuous process, the ongoing interplay a of multiple forces and conditions.”
This is why, for example, the New York Yankees can’t just buy their way to a World Series. They could have all the best players, on all the most expensive contracts, but if they don’t work well together as a team (“one body”), they won’t win. The Red Sox (or the Tampa Bay Rays!) will beat them every time. It’s not just about all the parts, but how the parts connect and work together as one.
Because you and your leadership do not exist in isolation, what you model as a Christian leader can ripple through the whole congregation (system). This is true of attendees who are not leaders, too. Think, for example, about how “contagious” giving can be, and how matching gifts can enact a process where people are inspired to give.
The downside to a system like the church, where patterns can be contagious, is anxiety. Anxiety is about as catchy as the omicron variant of COVID. Because the church is one body—interconnected with various systems and processes that affect each other—anxiety in one part of the church spreads and affects what is happening in another part of the church. For example, if there’s anxiety about a budget-setting process, that can spread into other parts of the church, like how we relate to each other in small groups. Or a parishioner might lose a loved one and direct the anger outward at a church leader or other member. Or this classic example: Bob has had a stressful day at work, because his boss yelled at him (because his boss fought with a spouse before work), so Bob comes home and kicks the dog. The dog isn’t legally employable, and yet the anxiety from Bob’s workplace (and Bob’s boss’s marriage) has spread to the poor pooch. Steinke refers to this as “shifting the burden” or “blame displacement,” also known as scapegoating. Systems crave stability, and sometimes the drive to release anxiety causes members to act in reactive and unhealthy ways. Anxiety is normal. It just needs to be regulated.
In his book Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke calls leaders to be a non-anxious presence: “To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” “Non-anxious” is the ideal, but a bit of a misnomer. Everybody has some anxiety. But good leaders strive—with God’s help!—to be at least a less-anxious presence.
In an “emotional system,” the emotional temperature comes from the people, and from the relationships people have, and from the culture and processes that are embedded there. An emotional system can be a congregation, a non-profit, a medical practice, a denomination, a family, or a small group.
Steinke lists some key ways that “leaders impact a system.” Then he says, “The overall health and functioning of any organization depends primarily on one or several people at the top who can exercise the above characteristics well.” He says, “Any social system—a family, workplace, or even a whole society—improves when people function less and less in reactive ways and more and more on the basis of values and beliefs sustained by clear goals.”
Uproar, chapter 1: “Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres”
Living nowhere between two somewheres has been called “the liminal experience,” the “neutral zone,” and the “transition space.” My own term is “Uproar.” Uproar is a time of dislocation; everything is “up in the air” or “at loose ends.”
We live in anxious times. And anxiety wishes to resolve itself, to be relieved. We don’t always pursue this in healthy ways. Sometimes we look for (or try to be) “rescuers,” placing unreasonable expectations on our leaders. But:
If the leader becomes anxious and forfeits calm reflection, the system is essentially leaderless. Anxiety tumbles down like loose rock dislodged from a high position. In a time of Uproar, the leader cannot be as anxious as everyone else.
The non-anxious leader should be differentiated, having a clear sense of self. They are neither overly close to others (emotionally “fused”) nor too emotionally distant (“cutoff”). Many people have stories about family members who were co-dependent or overly distant. The church is not immune to this dynamic.
Well-differentiated leaders know who they are. They find their identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to let other people be who they are, even when they disagree. Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people, nor do they automatically withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.
What does this mean for leadership functioning? Either the leader becomes unengaged with others (acts rigidly, dominates, withdraws, becomes overly dogmatic) or too close (panders, seeks consensus, shifts with the wind for the sake of harmony). …In highly anxious times, people tend to tilt toward one or the other extreme in order to survive.
I’d sum it up like this:
- Well-differentiated leaders know who they are
- We find our identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to disagree
- Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people
- Differentiated leaders do not withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.
We can pray that God’s peace would empower us to be a loving, non-anxious presence in our congregations.