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Crisis Management | Dr. Jim Osterhaus

The System is Perfectly Designed

December 8, 2021

Okay, so I’ve said that the situation with multiple fallen church leaders due to sexual indiscretion has a lot to do with the church as a whole, how it sees itself and conducts itself. Principally the fact that the church has become consumer driven, a ‘mall of religion’, if you will. But let’s pore into this more deeply.
I’ve loved the quote, attributed to several different people, that says: The system is perfectly designed . . . to give you the results you’re getting. Let’s break this down a bit to see what it’s actually saying.
Let’s begin by seeing the church as a system of interlocking parts, each being influenced and influencing the other parts within that system as it molds thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that make up the culture of the place – the results we are getting. And most of this goes unremarked and unexamined. It’s just the way we do things around here.
People were created to be together, to coalesce into communities of one sort or another. And we can observe these communities as a collective and get a sense of how they operate. We tend to think of the groups we inhabit – families, businesses, agencies, clubs, and of course churches — as mere collections of individuals. But they are so much more. And unfortunately, most people have little, if any, understanding as to the collective nature of these organizations. One critical aspect of this collective nature is the fact that these groups are actually emotional systems with distinct emotional climates that constantly affect group members. By that, I mean that any group that has a shared history over time has developed an emotional climate that permeates the group collectively and each member individually. That doesn’t mean that each member is equally affected by the climate. It also doesn’t mean that people from different groups experience the same emotional intensity. It does mean that the emotional climate of a church is something that is unseen yet powerfully influencing all those who attend that church.
When you walk into a church, you begin to experience what people often describe as the vibe of the place. Churches have vibes, if you will. And these vibes give a small window into the emotional climate that exists there. Some churches feel open and welcoming. Others are closed and unwelcoming. Some are very innovative and creative. Others very sober and somber. Every member of any particular church is affected by the climate or the vibe more or less.
So, what creates this climate? Community members, over time, relate to each other in certain ways that connect them to each other. As they continue to relate, they become locked in interactional patterns. These patterns then shape the way that people deal with each other within that community. This is what we call a relational network – and this is a shared characteristic of families and churches, or any other organization for that matter.
Congregants and staff learn patterns of interacting in their families of origin, then tend to replicate these patterns in their church and workplace relationships. If I kowtowed to authority when I was growing up, I will kowtow to authority in all areas of life. A learned style of interaction tends to repeat itself in other groups. So, people collect together in groups, enact their stylized ways of interacting that they learned as children, and replicate the organizational patterns that are familiar to them. If a person walks into a church that doesn’t have a familiar vibe, my guess is they’ll leave and go somewhere where the vibe is familiar. And that vibe is not primarily theological but emotional. As a consequence, churches end up looking like families – and they often unintentionally resemble dysfunctional families. People who come from dysfunctional families coalesce with others from similar families, creating dysfunctional churches.
But don’t now begin to think of two groups: healthy churches and dysfunctional churches. First of all, health and dysfunction are on a continuum. All of us display a degree of health and dysfunction. This is why I emphasize the health and self-awareness of the leader. If we can get our leaders healthier, they can then lead their churches toward health and away from dysfunction. What I am saying about churches is that each church will lean toward health or dysfunction. And this leaning will create a vibe that attracts like-wired people to their midst, thus reinforcing the existing patterns within the community.
So, how do we change this? Let’s first look at how change works. The connections between people in communities are such that a change in any one member affects other members and the group as a whole. This, in turn, affects the first individual in a circular chain of influence. Every action is also a reaction – individual members affect the organization which in turn affects individual members. This can make determining cause (“Whose fault is it, anyway?”) very difficult. Solutions develop when we understand that the interplay of people within communities, over time, creates environments that lead to certain unfortunate outcomes.
The emotional environment, over time, sets the stage for what you see within the church at any one time, such as the poor sexual choices that the lead pastor might make.
Consider how to understand and assess a relational network like a church. The best place to begin is to look at communications within that network community. People in relationships are constantly communicating. These communications are the glue that holds the relationships together and creates formal communities. And you don’t just listen to the content of the communication. You have to look at the overall process that takes into account all of the non-verbalized, relational elements that every communication conveys. Who speaks? To whom? In what ways? Under what circumstances? Leading to what outcomes? With these elements in mind, you begin to realize that no communication is a simple affair. In some way, all behavior becomes a possible channel of communication. As a minister leader, it is critical to identify these non-verbal aspects of communication. Have you ever noticed that you respond to congregants or staff in the same manner that you respond to your children?
Churches, as with any organization, seek to maintain a steady, stable state. Familiarity breeds status quo thinking, a cousin to what is called ‘group think.’ It can be tough to change a harmful pattern because what is occurring is familiar, regardless of whether or not it is hurtful. A weekend golfer may have a poor golf swing, formed by years of bad habits. But after performing a bad swing for a long time, wrong feels right. So, the golfer goes to a pro for lessons. But the correct swing feels unfamiliar – the right swing feels wrong. The tendency is to go back to the familiar, bad swing. And by the way, all these stylized redundant communication patterns that are developing over time are the stuff of culture development.


About Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus is the Senior Executive Coach at Leighton Ford Ministries with extensive experience helping ministry leaders and organizations
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