When They're Connected

Two nights ago I needed ice cream. I had to have some. And it had to come from Cold Stone Creamery. Driving a couple of nights before that, I'd spotted one, and remembered the envelope of gift certificates I've been slowly working through since I arrived here in St. Louis. So with my stomach rumbling and plenty of time to get back before Fox's Sunday night lineup began, I got in the car and drove to where I thought it was. There's a Starbucks there, and a whole pack of fast food places, and two strip malls, but no Cold Stone. Okay, I thought, maybe it's farther on. Three miles later I had passed seven tire places and a comic book shop, but still no ice cream store. I took the ramp onto the freeway that would loop me back to my neighborhood and tried again. A second time, I couldn't find it. Maybe it was on another street after all. I started branching out, checking other streets I'd driven over the night before.

Still nothing. No Cold Stone. No ice cream. I made one last trip down the original street and spotted the sign just off the street. Cold Stone was attached to Starbucks, and I'd seen it, but once I'd classed the building as a Starbucks, I hadn't looked at it again. I missed a connection that made all the difference.

The concept of "systems thinking" and the psychological theory that grew out of it, "Bowen Family Systems Theory" is a useful idea for youth ministers to know. In one sentence, looking at a youth group from a systems point of view means understanding that any condition within the group is not caused purely by any one person, but by the behavior every member contributes to the system. Rather than individual faults, it's the condition of the connections between people that matter.

Two of your students want to date a third one, and are fighting. The third person is going to be dragged into it and played against both of the others, trying to give one or the other an advantage. You know from the setup that no one is going to win if the three of them operate that way. It's a systems theory situation called "triangling." In a triangle, one person refuses to take a conflict directly to the person he/she has the conflict with, but brings in a third person to vent to or build a relationship with to hurt the first person.

People are connected to each other through their relationships. The connections vary in strength and usefulness depending on how people use them and their emotions toward the other people in the connection. Often, people manipulate those relationships. The completely healthy person, in a systems model, is one who has learned to be in relationships but not controlled by them, and not using them to control. This healthy person has also learned to see how his/her behavior affects the whole system and contributes to its health or dysfunction.

Probably the most useful insight of a systems perspective to youth ministers is the idea that if one member of the system changes, in healthy or unhealthy ways, the rest of the system will slowly change to respond to that first person. This has implications for changing group behavior, for motivation, and for reaching uncommitted families through the lives of their children.

Systems theory, because it focuses on the whole picture, is a long-view concept. I have to put that disclaimer in here now because even I sometimes expect things to happen overnight. Any idea that tries to see the overlapping behavior, relationships and thinking of every member in a system as wide as a congregation will take a long time to understand, much less influence. Creating a healthy community is often about cultural change within that community, and thus is measured in generations rather than days.

In my own ministry, I find systems theory to be a very natural way to think about my congregation. I think it's worth checking out, and can recommend two books to help explain it. One is written as a general overview and the second more specific to youth workers.

"Extraordinary Relationships" by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. (C) 1992 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 047134690X

"Connecting with our Children" by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. (C) John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0471347868


Esther said...

You should be a writer! Oh wait, you are . . . ;oP

Anonymous said...

not bad, Rook. not bad at all. If you want to really have some fun with systems theory, you can apply it to society and talk about how society is split into autonomous functionally-differentiated social systems...

...and how that's maybe a problem if we're going to be religious.


enjoy, if you get the chance