On Transitioning Church

My Love-Hate Relationship with Systems

17 February 2010

“If we remain tightly enclosed within our system, it becomes an idol; but if we reject any system, we drown in the ocean of undefined chaos.” – Your Truly, adapted from a quote by Father Dumitru Staniloae

“Every creator (including ours, the Creator of everything) painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.  That’s what keeps art alive.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer

“If you are not producing the results you want, you need to realize that you are producing exactly what your system is designed to produce.” – Andy Stanley

“I have a dream.” – Martin Luther King

I have a dream, too.

I have a dream of a world where every single person in it is being lovingly and powerfully invited into life-giving, life-saving relationships. No one should be alone. No one should be without love. No one should be without God.

I’m striving to work out that dream in my little corner of the world by transitioning a very loving church who has the same dream out of a semi-decent system into a more productive and effective one.

What I’m doing here with my elders and this great group of people reminds me of what Jethro was doing with Moses and another great group of people. Let me add a couple of quotes here:

“What you are doing is not good.” – Jethro, to Moses, in Exodus 18, on the system he was using to lead the people of God

“Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you.” – Jethro, to Moses, before he suggested an entirely new system for leading the people of God

First let me say that what the group of Christians that I run with in Amarillo does is good. They love God and love each other with all of their hearts. They serve each other at the drop of a hat. They are thinkers, they are “feelers”, and they are doers. When issues are brought to their attention, someone mobilizes a few to do something productive and good about it. They love Jesus as the single most important obsession of their lives. They pray to connect with God, and they pray to move God on behalf of others. They count prayer as one of the best tools they have to serve people, but don’t hide behind it in order to justify non-involvement with those people. The number of meals being cooked by people here for others outside their own family would astound you. The number of kids and orphans and widows that will eat a meal today or have a place to sleep tonight in places like Zimbabwe and the Ukraine and the Philippines because of this group would humble you. The number of people all over Europe, Africa, South America and in prisons throughout the U.S. that will be guided towards Christ through the mail next week because of a rag-tag band of disciples who are right now in the office next to mine is mind boggling. The number of people in this city who have been and are currently surrounded by loving, caring, “I’ll-take-the-shirt-off-my-back” relational support is amazing.

What the group of Christians that I run with in Amarillo does is so good.

And contrary to what Jethro said, what Moses was doing in Exodus 18 was good, too. When Jethro questioned him about his activity, Moses explained that  “the people come to me to seek God’s will.” He showed Jethro the deep needs and conflicts and dilemma’s of the people, and how he spent his days pointing them to God, problem-solving, and peace-making.

That’s good, right? Of course it is.

Then why, pray tell, did Jethro say it wasn’t?

It was not what Moses was doing, but how he was doing it that Jethro was critiquing. See, Jethro was a “systems-thinker”. A seer, if you will. He could see beyond the good work being done, to the system being utilized to do it, and he saw that while the mission was good and right, the system was not. It left too many people frustrated and it left the leadership (Moses) burned out and tired. Keep it up, and either Moses would have quit on the people or the people would have quit on Moses.

So…wise Jethro offered a new system for Moses to try.

He said, “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

This describes the conversation that the leadership at Southwest is having right now. We are attempting to become “systems-thinkers”. Seers, if you will. Like Moses, we have a mission that is good (to “make disciples of Christ through relationships”), but we are delivering that mission through an old system.

Mind you, we are doing it with some success, and it is exciting to see the fruit. It is, indeed, good.

But the “spirit of Jethro” has come upon us saying to us as a leadership what it said of Moses’ leadership, “What you are doing is not good.” And it’s not being critical of our mission, or trying to call all the good that is happening, bad. It’s trying to get us to look deeper…at our delivery system…and see if we can’t potentially deliver our mission better.

This has powerful applications in all areas of my life. My marriage, my work, my disciplines, my parenting…so many of the problems aren’t really the problems. It is the system that is underneath it.

I love systems because they will produce exactly what they are designed to produce. I hate systems because they can become a trap, and lure people into a stubborn commitment to them, making systems-work the hardest work in the world.

But it is the work of anyone who wants to change the world. And I do.

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