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How Many People Does it Take to Change a System?

Is it worth exploring the Congogram and starting systems work alone? Can one person make a difference? Getting right to the point--Yes, definitely.

Is it even better to learn about these tools and work through these exercises with a group from my congregation? Absolutely.

If I’m engaging this process with a group, does it mean we share responsibility and there is less work for me? No, sorry.

These are the quick answers, now for details.

One person can make a difference

No one person creates a system. Systems develop over time as a result of a complex mix of factors and interactions. Often systems are determined by what has taken place in previous generations. Even though no one individual bears responsibility for how the system as a whole functions, each individual plays a role in that system. Systems can change when only one person does the following three things:

  1. Consciously notices the part he or she plays in the system
  2. Intentionally changes his/her functioning in the system
  3. Sustains his/her new mode of functioning in the system over time. This is often the most difficult step in the process. One person cannot change a system unless he/she is able to sustain new modes of functioning.

Following these three steps is challenging, but it can also be incredibly personally rewarding. This process has the potential to make a substantial positive difference in other people’s lives as well. There are two important things to keep in mind as we engage in this work. First, though the results can be rewarding, the process requires quite a bit of personal effort, often including inner, soul-searching. Second, engaging in this process involves risk.

One person can change a system, but one person can only control how he or she changes. One individual cannot control how the system evolves, nor how the system reacts to the inevitable pushback and resistance to change. Resistance occurs because change is scary and no one knows what will happen.

Often it feels safer to keep doing what we have always done even if we acknowledge that there are problems with the approach. Because the outcomes of our usual patterns are predictable, it might seem less risky to continue the familiar behaviors.

Most commonly a person chooses to engage in systems work when his or her usual patterns are no longer tolerable or possible. However, it is preferable to engage in systems work long before reaching that point. Getting motivated to initiate this work when we don’t absolutely have to do it is challenging because it takes a lot of effort and persistence, and requires dealing with the unexpected.

Generally people find it easier to follow the status quo until life reaches a crisis point. Even then, people often are only willing to expend just enough effort to allow the immediate crisis to subside without changing the system. This always means that the problem will return over and over again, whether it is addiction, domestic violence, a clash of authority between minister and lay leaders, tension between minister and staff, or whether it is precipitated by one member who dominates a congregation’s agenda.

The players may change, for example, a minister or lay leader might leave, a marriage or a relationship might end, but the patterns continue with a new set of people.

One person can change a system by changing his or her functioning within the system. But even if one anticipates making a change only in one setting, for example at home, in one’s congregation, or in one’s place of employment, change usually affects all the systems in which that person functions.

Multiple systems might give pushback at the same time to the person who changed. It’s so easy to go back to dealing with the world using the usual, predictable patterns. But if a person can stick with the work despite the resistance, the world opens up in new and often beautiful ways.

The best way to do systems work effectively alone, is to get support. Find a therapist with training in systems work or join a support group of people who are doing similar work in their own families and congregational systems.


Why working with a group is even better

No one person has the full picture of any system, so working with a group is better than working alone. Working with a group gives a larger, more detailed and complex view of a system. In a group process, we can share a perspective, then notice and reflect on the responses of other people in the group.

In addition we will hear a range of viewpoints that support, contradict and expand our own point of view. Noticing and reflecting on our own responses to this variety of perspectives is very beneficial and can lead to new insights that are not as easy to gain while working alone.

In addition, working in a group makes partners available who can help us to notice our own “blind spots”, those areas that are clear to others, but hidden from us. We can also give these kinds of insights to others through our own reflections.

Some potential cautions to keep in mind are the size of the group and the personal responsibility involved. Working with a group that is too small, for example three or four people from a congregation, is less effective than working with a larger group. A group that is too small has the potential to be misleading.

Members of a small group will have the tendency to believe that working together gives the group a larger perspective, while in fact members may be reinforcing each other’s blind spots. A small group that is aware of this potential pitfall and works with outside support is more likely to succeed.

On the other hand, a group that is too large usually does not allow each person to participate. This can be addressed by breaking a large group into several smaller groups and by using an outside facilitator.

The other potential pitfall that is more common in a large group is believing that working together means that I, personally, don’t need to do as much work or take as much responsibility for the outcome.

In a congregation, group work can lead to large-scale success because it takes only a handful of people to understand this work and commit themselves to change if those people are part of the congregation. Our individual work will spread and benefit the congregation as a whole.

Slowly more people will start acting differently in the congregation and at home, whether each individual understands the forces behind the changes or not. This in turn will spread into the communities outside the congregation and the positive snowball effect begins.


Shared responsibility helps, but it does not equal less work

Systems work is interesting. While a group does share responsibility for the process, change will not occur unless individuals within the system change. The first place to focus is not on the person across the room who really irritates me and often acts in disruptive ways.

In order for a system to change, I personally have to change. Systems give a bigger picture of why and how things happen in families and congregations and work places and even society as a whole, but change happens one person at a time, starting with me.

That’s a lot of responsibility. No one else can do it for me. If the whole system changes without my participation or buy in, I am then forced to either personally change as well or to leave the system, in which case I am likely to find another system similar to the one I just left. I will join that system and keep on doing what I always did.

It might feel like this is change, but it’s not. All these pitfalls make systems work challenging. It requires effort and it depends on me doing things differently and facing different responses and outcomes. It can be scary. It can also be exciting and rewarding.

Shared responsibility helps to motivate and keep me on track. Shared responsibility means someone else shares the larger goals and knows my particular commitment to the process. If I don’t follow through, it affects others, and others will call me on it and hold me accountable.

I will also know other people’s commitments and I will see when they are having a difficult time.  I can then reach out and help others through this work. On the positive side, successes come out of this work that are sometimes beyond our personal expectations. When we work together, we can also celebrate together and sometimes help each other notice the smaller things that are happening that are worth celebrating along the way.

So choose your method, whether it be individual or group, whether you work through these lessons without outside support or whether you go all out and call in a congregational or individual counselor to help you along the way. But please, begin the work today and do your part to make the world a better place.

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