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Churches are systems made up of diverse and interdependent parts: formal leaders, lay leaders, members, seniors, families, youth. In an ecosystem, each plant and creature relies on the functioning of the other to thrive. So it is with church systems. Understanding the church as system is not new.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compared the church to the biological system of the body: “The body is a unit … though the parts are many, they form one body.”

With much focus in recent years on pastoral excellence, many churches have concentrated their efforts on ensuring that their leaders are healthy and well equipped to do their work. Yet the work of even the healthiest of leaders can be sabotaged by a dysfunctional church. Systems thinking forces churches to look – not just at the health of their leaders – but at the congregation as a whole.

The Church as Family System
Identifying the characteristics of healthy families and applying them to church systems provides a helpful framework for congregational health. Known as the family systems theory, this approach is based on the work of Dr. Murray Bowen.*Bowen suggested that individuals cannot be understood independently, but rather as a part of the emotional unit, the family. “I am encouraged that seminarians these days are being trained in family systems thinking,” says Rev. Martin Contant, Regional Leader for Christian Reformed Home Missions in Western Canada. “In many ways, the church is like a family, and pressures in one part of the system have repercussions in others parts of the system.”

In a family system, members play different roles, responding to each other in certain ways according to their roles. Within the system, certain patterns of behaviour develop and persist. The actions of one family member influence the actions of all the others. This interdependence leads either to balance or dysfunction.

Attributes of healthy families include trust, communication, shared values and conflict resolution – characteristics that can also serve as markers of a healthy church.

Dealing with Conflict
How families deal with conflict is indicative of their health, and this is true of churches, too. “Churches need to understand that healthy conflict is to be expected and worked through honestly and openly,” says Rev. Adrian Van Giessen, Regional Leader for Christian Reformed Home Missions in Eastern and Central Canada. Churches avoid conflict to their own detriment. “Churches for a variety of reasons are ‘conflict adverse’,” Van Giessen says. “Church members rightfully love and care for each other deeply. Therefore, they often see conflict as unhealthy and unwelcome.” However, as in families, unresolved conflict can fester and do lasting damage.

“Many churches allow conflict to go ‘underground’ because they think conflict is a bad thing or they simply don’t know how to manage it,” Contant adds. Contant recommends that churches seek out resources to help them learn to mediate peaceful solutions. Providing key leaders or volunteers with training in conflict resolution can be an excellent place to start.

Communication and Trust
Another similarity churches share with families is the need to nurture openness and trust so that everyone can feel safe to contribute. “A healthy sense of trust in a church will allow those with gifts to use those gifts well,” Van Giessen adds.

Trust is built on the foundation of good communication. “Most problems in the church can be traced back to inadequate communication between council and congregation,” says Contant. Leaders can set the stage for good communication by regularly reporting to the congregation on decisions made and sharing the rationale that led them to the decision.

Church members can help keep the lines of communication open by asking questions, attending Annual General Meetings and encouraging council and committees to report regularly. When there are concerns, everyone should know where to bring them, and leaders should follow up on how concerns are resolved. When communication between councils and congregants flow both ways, people can begin to trust each other and develop healthy relationships.

Nurture Gifts
In a healthy family, all members should be supported in identifying and using their gifts. Churches, too, need to consider how members’ gifts are identified, nurtured and recognized.

“Without the work of committed volunteers, the church cannot really accomplish its calling,” says Contant. “Healthy churches and leaders know how to encourage their volunteers,” Contant says. “They say ‘Thank you’ often. They take an interest in some of the ministries and programs by asking volunteers about them, by actually visiting the ministry, and they keep in contact.”

Bless People to Flourish
Finally, Van Giessen urges churches to think big when it comes to nurturing leaders. Churches need focus on “developing new leaders at every stage and ministry level in the church,” he says, and then churches must free those emerging leaders to serve. “Don’t micro-manage stuff. Give people clear mandates, some accountability structures and then let them go. Bless them to flourish.”

To learn more: 

  • Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach by Peter L Steinke, The Alban Institute (1996)
  • How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems by Peter Steinke, The Alban Institute (1996)

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