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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: General Systems Theory

August 3, 2015


In continuing to consider how church structure has been shaped by various organizational approaches, this post explores the advent of general systems theory and its impact on the way complex organizations are described and analyzed.

The systems approach, “simple to state but radical if acted on, is that all things, somehow, some way, link up and influence one another in all directions.”1 Thus no human organization—including the church—can be adequately understood without considering all of its parts and their dynamic interrelationship in the context of an organized whole.

The classical management or “bureaucratic” approach to organizational theory and practice, concerned with the work tasks to be performed, tended to describe “organizations without people.” The human relations or “behavioral” approach, concerned with the interpersonal relationships between workers, tended to describe “people without organization.”2 The bureaucratic organization focused on achieving organizational goals, whereas the behavioral school focused on achieving the goals of people. The insights of the two approaches were both utilized and transformed as researchers began to recognize that any successful and productive organization involves both people (a social system) and tools and techniques (a technical system). Neither people nor technology can be understood in isolation, but only through their interaction and interdependence. The appreciation of the so-called “socio-technical” relationship stimulated an interest in looking at the whole–at the total “system”—of an organization.

A Shift in Thinking.

In the 1950s, after World War II, the United States experienced major technological innovations and a general shift in perspective. Developments such as cybernetics (self-controlling machines), information and communication theory, factor analysis, and general systems research directed organizational theorists and practitioners toward exploring how organizations as a whole could be made more efficient and effective. General systems theory represents a radical shift from the mechanistic model which prevailed (and still influences much contemporary thinking) during the early twentieth century.

The Mechanistic Approach.

gearsThe Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries focused upon the creation and utilization of energy by machines. This “new age” assumed a relatively stable and predictable environment. It was grounded in the world view of the physicist-philosopher Isaac Newton, who saw the world and all of its components as mechanistic—a network of causes producing inevitable results.

This approach or mode of thinking is reductionistic, analytical, and deterministic.

Reductionistic. All objects and events, their properties, and our experience and knowledge of them, can be reduced to indivisible parts. According to the physical sciences, which ruled the scientific roost during the machine age, everything is ultimately made up of indivisible particles of physical matter called atoms.

Analytical. Everything is to be explained by breaking it down into its smallest parts. Thus problems to be solved are first “cut down to size;” that is, reduced by analysis into a set of simpler problems. Once the simpler problems are solved, their solutions are then assembled into a solution of the whole.

Deterministic. All interactions between objects, events, and their properties can be reduced by analysis to one fundamental relationship: cause and effect. “One thing was said to be the cause of another, its effect, if the first was both necessary and sufficient for the other.”3 Everything that occurs is completely determined by something that preceded it. And since everything can be reduced to particles of matter—atoms—and their motion, everything (animate as well as inanimate) is explainable in principle by the laws that govern matter and motion.

With the rapid advance of physics, mechanics, and mathematics, not only physical systems, but human beings, organizations, and even societies were interpreted in terms of the same methods, concepts, and assumptions. Within “social physics,” the human person “was regarded as a physical object, a kind of elaborate machine, whose actions and psychic processes could be analyzed in terms of the principles of mechanics.”4 Based upon the interplay of natural causes, individual men and women, their groupings, and all of their interrelations thus constitute an unbroken continuity with the rest of the mechanistically interpreted universe.

General Systems Theory.

bodyWhile the mechanistic approach drew upon the insights of the physical sciences, the systems approach is based on the assumptions and ideas of a biologist named Ludwig von Bertalanffy. He approached the field of science from the perspective that each discipline studied forms of systems that were composed of interrelated subsystems. Basically, a system is an interrelated set of elements, functioning as a whole. Examples are plant cells, a hospital, the human body, or any social or work organization. Von Bertalanffy emphasized that the survival or failure of the system was dependent on the interrelation of subsystems and their contribution to the overall purpose of the larger system.5

In contrast to mechanistic thinking, systems thinking is expansionist, synthetic, and purposive.

Expansionist. Attention is turned from indivisible elements to wholes with interrelated parts—to systems. “Viewed structurally, a system is a divisible whole; but viewed functionally it is an indivisible whole in the sense that some of its essential properties are lost when it is taken apart.”6 For example, the human body is a whole with parts, but when one of its parts is removed, the functioning of that part, of the other parts, and of the whole are all affected. A system is more than the sum of its parts.

Synthetic. In mechanistic analysis an explanation of the whole is derived from explanations of its parts. In systems thinking each part is viewed as part of a larger system and is explained in terms of its role in that larger system. For example, an all-star football team is seldom as good as the best team in the league from which the players are drawn. Performance depends on how well the players fit and work together, not merely on how well each performs separately. Synthetic thinking is more interested in putting things together than in taking them apart. Furthermore, each system is viewed as influenced by and related to its environment—the larger system of which it is a part—and to the other systems in that environment.

Purposive. In contrast to the deterministic cause and effect orientation of the mechanical model, systems thinking focuses upon the purposive or goal-oriented behavior of systems. Open to feedback from their environment and from their internal relationships, systems are self-regulating, self-directing, and self-organizing—they learn, change, grow. For example, the purpose of an organization may change with economic and cultural changes or with complaints from dissatisfied customers. Rather than an effect having a single pre-determined cause, the behavior or movement of a system is caused by multiple forces working in complex relation to each other.

General systems theory is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge, language, and tools that alters the way we see, understand, and interpret our world. It is a way of thinking that moves beyond focusing upon individual parts to discovering the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character. “General system theory seeks to classify systems by the way their components are organized (interrelated) and to derive the ‘laws,’ or typical patterns of behavior, for the different classes of systems singled out by the classification.”7 Basically concerned with problems of relationships, of structure, and of interdependence, this approach seeks to establish a holistic approach to knowledge without abandoning scientific rigor.

Human Organizations as Living Systems.

churches_not_machinesIn a world that tends to fragment knowledge and experience, systems thinking provides a discipline for seeing and making sense of the whole. The mechanistic model advocates “organized simplicity”: a collection of relatively unchanging components working in a strict sequential order. The overwhelming possibilities for information, interdependency, and change in our contemporary world too often result in “chaotic complexity”: a vast number of components that are not specifically identified and whose interrelations are not clearly understood. Systems thinking provides “organized complexity”: a dynamic collection of entities interconnected by a complex web of mutual interrelations.8

Systems thinking enriches our ability to understand, structure, and interact with complex human systems–including the church. Churches are not machines, but “living systems, interrelated and interdependent, which interpret and define mission, task, purposes, priorities, people, relationships, authority structures, relation to environment, use of resources, commitments, and motivation.”9 Lindgren and Shawchuck identify six contributions of systems theory to the church:10

  1. The systems approach offers diagnostic tools for identifying problems, and helps to get a handle on the dynamics that cause the church to behave as it does.
  2. A systems view will greatly increase the effectiveness of any planning process by identifying all the components of the church and its environment that will act as resources or constraints upon the plan.
  3. Systems thinking offers a perspective of wholeness, a gestalt view of the entire church that is often easily overlooked because of one’s involvement in a particular organization within the church.
  4. The systems approach enables a leader or group to predict more accurately the effects and implications of alternative courses of action.
  5. A systems view keeps the church from being totally focused in upon itself by requiring it to see itself in relationship with other systems in its environment.
  6. Systems theory elicits flexible leadership behavior contingent upon conditions in the environment, the goals, and the characteristics of the church.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Where do you see the mechanistic approach at work in the church?
  2. How does systems thinking differ from mechanistic thinking?
  3. What is the difference between “organized simplicity” and “organized complexity”?
  4. What would be gained if leaders and members thought of your congregation as a living system?

Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Organizing and managing for Dignity, Meaning, and Community (Jossey-Bass Publishes, 1987), p. 158.

Edgar F. Huse and James L. Bowditch, Behavior in Organizations: A Systems Approach to Managing (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1973), p. 245.

Russell L. Ackoff, Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems (John Wiley & Sons, 1974), p. 10.

Walter Buckley, Sociology and Modern Systems Theory (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), p. 8.

Ramon J. Aldag and Timothy M. Stearns, Management (South-Western Publishing Co., 1987), p. 52

Ackoff, Redesigning the Future, p. 14.

Walter Buckley, ed., Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook (Adline Publishing Company, 1968), p. xvii.

Buckley, Sociology and Modern Systems Theory, p. 38.

Robert Worley, Change in the Church: A Source of Hope (The Westminster Press, 1971), p. 76.

10 Alvin J. Lindgren and Norman Shawchuck, Management for Your Church: A Systems Approach (Abingdon, 1977), p. 25.



Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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