As a young adult I always wondered why some sports teams always seemed to be successful and others always seemed to falter. Then as part of a Seminary class we started talking about systems, and it really opened my eyes to bigger pictures than I was formerly capable.
Systems are everywhere. Every group of people becomes a system. Your family, workplace, church, Lions Club, friend groups, teams, cities, states and nations are all under the workings of a system.
Systems give clarity about the norms accepted, things not accepted, expectations both formal and informal. Systems provide a structure for people to live in that not having structure at all would be frustrating and time consuming. Your kitchen is evidence of a system. Everything has a place. Important more useful things are easy to get to, things used less often are at the back of your cupboards (or just migrate there through lack of use!!). Now if anyone came and changed where everything was put every night and you woke up and wanted a bowl of cereal, you’d have to search every cabinet every day to see where the spoons, bowls, cereal ended up, you would be frustrated. Systems are a blessing to us, giving us some predictability.
Systems are also filled with at least two participants, 1. Those who exert authority in the system and 2. Those who do not have any say in the system. Parents, teachers, bosses, coaches, directors, officials, those with official authority and those with unofficial authority have a say in the direction of a group. Systems are also filled with people who have more or less say in how a system is run, but at the end of the day, compliance with orders from others are their norm.
Leaders in the system are typically oblivious to the outcomes on those around them. Depending on the case it can range anywhere from fine to horrible. Leaders have to set a course that is sometimes unlikeable, kids eating their vegetables and brushing their teeth is positive needed leadership. Parents abusing their children, ruining the system is horrible and in need of intervention by another system.
Those who don’t have power in the system are forced to use their intuition to navigate expressed and unexpressed rules. They survive with good navigation skills or get overrun. Ever been in a place that was unfamiliar to you and wondered what was going on at any given moment, always a half step behind the people in the know? New job, new church, new relationship, trying to navigate the world of acceptable and unacceptable. At best trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable; at worst, trying not to get killed. People navigate through feelings and impressions, those feelings and impressions aren’t always right though. Perception is reality only if your perception is reality. If you perceive martians are trying to kill you, it doesn’t make it so.
Why systems are useful:1. A just system keeps things going in the right direction. The Lion King is a great look at the order of a good King and the order of a bad King. The bad King creates the scorched earth view of the character Scar. 2. Systems make things predictable, and in many instances we enjoy that. 3. Systems that declare good to be good and bad to be bad are a balm to the soul, mind, and body. 4. Systems are dependent on leaders leading righteously. 5. When systems are headed in the right direction, they keep heading in the right direction.
Why systems can be bad. 1. When systems are broken, they keep perpetuating the problem. A downward spiral that seems impossible to recover from. 2. It becomes a battle of leaders and followers trying to figure out ways to wound each other some more. Years ago in the city I live with haves and have-nots, with schools divided on those lines, one of the cheers from the “haves” school was “Your dads work for our dads.” I know, right!! The players in the system are broken and actively perpetuating the brokenness. (eventually leaders in the system broke up what was broken, at least in that moment.) 3. The incredible energy required to go from broken to righteous is daunting. Getting people beyond their broken perpetual pattern is difficult(ever tried a diet?). Not trying to be cute, it’s just that even when we want to change, it’s so easy to fall back into what was. Watch a movie like “Mississippi Burning” or “The Free State of Jones” and understand the depth of horrid and the casual nature of speaking those things.
The temptation is to go with anarchy, no system at all, everyone for themselves. Imagine the last week looks like with no intervention. Systems step in to break up wrong doing. In the case of this last week, some law of our land needs to step in for George as a tip of the iceberg systemic problem.
The Old Testament prophet knew what a system needed, “Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly.”