living systems.

“We need to replace the questions “What’s wrong?” and “How can we fix it?” with 2 better questions–“What’s possible?” and “Who cares?”

– Margaret Wheatley

a few months ago, the refuge, along with some friends from several other faith communities, hosted a theology camp in denver facilitated by our amazing friend pam wilhelms, an organizational development consultant and executive coach.  the topic was “the soul of the next economy” and centered on the important intersection of money, people, and justice when it comes to systems. she works with business leaders all over the world who are very dedicated to creating new organizational models that focus on these three important elements–people, planet, and profit.  the reality is that the business world is sometimes far ahead of the church when it comes to innovation, and cultivating some of these ideas in christian circles is a lot trickier.

the purpose of our theology camp was to challenge us to consider the shift from traditional systems toward more living systems and what that could look like for us.

what if we saw everything around us through a kingdom lens instead of a worldly one? 

what if we were co-creators in a new future where economics wasn’t about profit but about “caring for our home”, which is part of its etymology?

what if we put “life more abundantly” for people at the center of all we do? 

what if we didn’t only think of short-term profit but also of planet and caring for God’s creation?

as we processed the material together, i kept thinking to myself how bizarre it is  that some of these ideas are perceived as so radical or “liberal” that they are quickly dismissed by many faith leaders.  however, i am also deeply encouraged that while some wider traditional systems might be resistant to change, there are little pockets of innovators, prophets, leaders, risk-takers, lovers-of-God, and wild & crazy people everywhere who are doing all kinds of lovely and brave things to create healthier systems here, now. 

as the year wraps up, i wanted to share about a slice of our conversation that i think was core and i keep coming back to:

systems matter.

systems are how we organize.

systems are how things get done.

systems are where we live–whether it be our family, our work, our play, or our faith.

systems are our responsibility.

and no matter how we slice it up–or how much we are repelled by certain systems–this is how the world works.

when we are talking about deep foundational shifts in our theology and practice, we have to consider systems.

traditional systems have carried us for many years now.  the industrial revolution (which came about in the age of empires), mechanization of labor, and hierarchical systems have brought order to our society in many ways.  pam shared how this mechanistic worldview permeates many of our organizations and systems today and operates under three important methods:  dominate, pressure, force.

those are strong words, i know, but they are real.

hierarchical models are about one above another. 

about what’s right, what’s wrong.

who’s on top and who’s underneath.

who’s us and who’s them.

who’s got the power and who doesn’t.

who wins and who loses.

as the church of Jesus Christ traveled on under this imperial, mechanistic world view, we dominated, we pressured, we forced.

for many years, companies have thrived under this mechanistic world view. they have dominated, pressured, and forced.

but the world is changing, and there’s a collective wisdom that is growing that somehow this domination model is leading us toward destruction not life, toward fragmentation not wholeness, toward violence not peace.

there’s a groaning, a desire, a longing for shalom, for peace, in a way that our generation hasn’t experienced.

biblical shalom is about integrity, wholeness, togetherness.  it is not a model of domination, pressure, or force.

rather, it is a living system that speaks a living language that is centered on these three actions–nurture, cycle, grow. 

to me, nurture means to tend to, to cultivate, to create the best environment for the right things to grow.  cycle is about recognizing that everything is always changing, moving, and evolving; that’s a good thing.  grow is about developing and transforming.

living systems are about collaboration, partnership, and synergy.

about diversity and the power of everyone’s unique contributions

about the process instead of only the outcome

about people & relationships instead of only programs

about mutual submission and equality and valuing each other’s differences

about healing the divides so that all can flourish

about integrity and wholeness and our true need for each other.

nurture, cycle, grow.

dominate, pressure, force might get better immediate “results” but in the end, it is not sustainable. it is not adaptive to where we are now. that’s what’s crumbling right before our very eyes and a reason why so many are dissatisfied with christianity’s offering.

many of our systems really suck and are so not a reflection of biblical shalom and the kingdom of God.  they are stacked with greedy men & power & unhealthy dynamics & worldly measures. we know how to build churches but not cultivate communities.  we know how to put on a show and get people to come to services, buy & read & listen to stuff, and keep the machine moving, but we don’t know how to help people become better human beings, learn to be friends, find true freedom, or use our true gifts.

the reason i am a nut case for new systems in the church isn’t because it’s fun.  seriously, i can think of so many other fun things in this world!

it’s because i truly believe in the power of systems–no matter how big or small–to harm or to heal.

the power to dominate, pressure and force–or to to nurture, cycle, and grow.

to bring death or to bring life.

as we move into a new year,  i think our best hope is to plant new trees with better seeds and to play our part–in our families or with a small group of people or as leaders of organizations or as friends in our neighborhoods or in larger groups or whatever it might look like for each of us–to cultivate living systems that reflect the kingdom of God.

places & spaces & pockets of love, freedom , hope, justice, mercy, connection, collaboration, equality, of looking-weird-but-that’s-because-there’s-something-much-deeper-going-on-that-meets-the-eye.

i recently read something margaret wheatley shared about change in systems. she says we are trained to ask the questions “what’s wrong?” and “how can we fix it?” and these will not lead us to a new place. she suggests two much better questions–“what’s possible here?” and “who cares?” 

i hope 2014 is filled with all kinds of possibilities for creative living systems; they have incredible power to heal.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

One Comment

  • It’s interesting you should be mentioning this for me as I at the same time am reading Paul Glibert’s book “The Compassionate Mind”.

    In the book he identifies a western tendency to compete. And this reflected in business. whereas how we thrive is with compassion, belonging, sense of purpose etc. I remember my last job that started out as a small company in which I worked as a software consultant. The good thing about it was that it surviving depended on people getting along, having synergy, the sum being greater than the total number of individuals. Then the company was sold out to a larger corporation and in came company politics, people watching their backs, power games etc. A change in dynamic. And it killed creativity.

    The way I see it is that we do have things we can learn from other cultures in this regard. Having a contemplative life, compassion centred etc. More interdependancey and mutual benefit then individualism and status. This sense that those in power serve and those in humble positions are given honour. Hmmm perhap child like wonder is the place to stat with this. I’m a great believer in I think Ghandi that said it – sow a thought reap an action, sow an action reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character reap a destiny. Like the song “High Hopes” or maybe “The Little Train That Could” ;).


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