In a time when so many congregations are declining, initiating change generally is spoken of in positive tones. Conversations about how to bring about these changes, however, do not yield as much unanimity. There are two prominent tendencies among the ways change develops in a congregation: 1) changes initiated, planned, and sponsored by the leaders of the community, and 2) changes that “bubble up” from the ranks due to the informal interaction of people and the influence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, just as one would expect the influence of the Holy Spirit on decisions made by the leaders.  

Both phenomena potentially exist in the same congregation and insights about both are available through biblical study and modern day research. Researchbased knowledge about what are often called complex adaptive systems, or selforganizing systems, has important insights for those of us interested in fostering change in the context of faith communities, but before going there let’s look at a biblical illustration.    

The sixth chapter of Acts describes the situation where some “widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” and the Twelve initiated a process of selecting seven men to administer this distribution so the Twelve “could devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” These actions are analogous to actions taken in congregations today by individuals and groups in leadership positions—pastors, bishops, boards, councils, sessions, consistories, vestries, etc. This situation is clearly a change initiated by the leadership in what we probably would call today a “top-down” manner. The seven men at the center of this change included Philip.    

Two chapters later in Acts we find Philip in a totally different context. The account of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch begins with these words, “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip…” At the end of this encounter with the Ethiopian, the text says, “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…” and Philip “was passing through the region proclaiming the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” Take note of two aspects of this second account about Philip. First, in contrast to the situation where he was operating under the direction of the leaders of the church, in the later instances it appears that he was operating under the direction of the Spirit, totally independent of the direction or supervision of the church. Second, this situation was seen as completely natural and good as evidenced by its being reported with favor in the book of Acts. Both “top-down” and “spontaneous” change are part of a healthy church context.  

With this perspective in mind, let’s consider some insights from contemporary study of complex adaptive systems or what others call self-organizing systems. To begin with, just what is such a selforganizing phenomenon? There are many examples in nature and my preferred example, because it is so visual, is a flock of hundreds or thousands of birds, such as starlings, swarming through the sky. The flock stays together and moves as a unit even though it moves in seemingly unpredictable directions when, for example, it is attacked by a predator, such as a falcon or for no apparent reason at all. The key point here is that this “system” has no leader of any kind. As the swarm moves around in the sky, birds that at one point are near the front of the flock are soon at the sides or back. And as the flock moves in an apparently random pattern, the leading edge of the flock keeps shifting. In all of this movement, however, the flock continues to move as a single unit in a highly coordinated manner. The complexity of such self-organizing systems as found in nature is far greater than can be conveyed with this one illustration, but they have been studied in detail and described in books, such as  Emergence: The Connected lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, by Steven Johnson.1 

Our interest in the topic results from research that shows the phenomenon to be present in human social contexts as well—and these contexts include congregations. Changes occur that are not instituted by the formal leadership, but result from actions that take place at the “grassroots” level, yet become systemic changes. Changes may emerge that permeate a congregation, for example, yet were not initiated by the church leadership, and such changes may be positive shifts that enhance the health and spiritual vitality of the congregation.  

We need to understand how such self-organizing can occur. Explaining self-organizing social systems in the space we have here probably is impossible, but it may be possible to give some tantalizing hints. In their book,  Facilitating Organization Change2Edwin E. Olson and Glenda H. Eoyang describe three factors that influence the emergence of complex adaptive systems, which they label 1) container, 2) significant differences, and 3) transforming exchanges. 

Container refers to some portion of a system within which new structures and relationships can develop over time. A container can be physical (a church building), organization (a ministry team or church board), behavioral (one’s identity as a minister or a church’s culture), or conceptual (the Great Commission, a church budget or its mission statement). A container establishes boundaries within which self-organizing can occur. It may, for example, provide a purpose or a dynamic leader that attracts people who begin to coalesce around a new orientation that was not planned in advance. On the other hand, it may fence out certain people and define limits which can lead to a different orientation. In yet a different instance, the natural affinities of people such as church history, gender, or culture may shape emerging patterns. All of these instances are examples of a container providing a context for unpredictable emergence of new orientations.  

Significant differences are a second aspect of self-organizing systems; they shape the new patterns that emerge during the process of self-organizing. These differences are seemingly unlimited in number in a given system and influence the emergence of new patterns within the system. Examples of significant differences within a system include differences in gender, levels of expertise or education, power, race, and financial status. The greater such differences, the greater the potential for new patterns to emerge. If a group zeroes in on a specific difference it has more potential for developing a focus, but they also run the risk of limiting the emerging new patterns that could lead to new vitality.   

Transforming exchanges constitute the third condition that influences the emerging patterns. These exchanges are between agents (including people, organizational units such as department, and ideas) and send various messages throughout the system. These messages in turn generate response and new messages. These exchanges generate new patterns of interaction and the emergence of new patterns of organizing within the system. These new patterns have the potential both of freeing an ossified system and introducing new creativity and, on the other hand, perhaps introducing a lack of coherence and stability.  

It should be apparent from this abbreviated description of complex adaptive systems, following Olson and Eoyang, that congregations are among those systems that can be self-organizing. But let us be clear that congregations have both a formal decision-making structure with top-down actions established by a leader’s decision, a board’s decision or a congregational vote and the potential for being self-organizing. Both are present at the same time.  

Relevant questions, however, include the following. To what extent do congregations allow (or even encourage) themselves to be self-organizing? To what extent should congregations encourage and foster their natural self-organizing tendencies?  

The first question could be restated in several ways: Do congregations suppress and stifle their natural self-organizing tendencies? Do they even recognize that these tendencies exist? Do they attempt to capitalize on their existence? I am not aware of any significant studies that would provide definitive answers to these questions, but I doubt that many careful observers of our churches would argue with my judgment that the great majority of churches (with a few notable exceptions) have a strong tendency toward stifling new self-organizing patterns and instead press toward maintaining the status quo. Often without recognizing it, they suppress even small conflicts without recognizing that in the process they are stifling transforming exchanges growing out of significant differences. A fear of conflict restricts creativity and new orientations. A culture that attends to the needs of the current members (may we call this a culture of consumerism) crowds out ideas about reaching out to the unchurched. Commitment to an established set of ongoing programs limits attention to new programmatic endeavors growing out of ideas about new forms of outreach, new senses of purpose, or new linkages to their community. The press toward the status quo and the press toward restricting self-organizing go hand in hand. While thoughts to the contrary may be espoused, resistance to change is the reality.  

With respect to the second question, my judgment is that congregations should encourage and foster their natural selforganizing tendencies. The reasons are many but let’s start with the biblical rationale. Earlier, reference was made to the experience of Philip in the book of Acts. Philip clearly lived a portion of his life within the structures and direction of the church, i.e., the established body of believers in Jerusalem. A portion of his life also was lived out under the direction of the Spirit in a context that for a time was absent of direct connection with the physical community of faith. Local churches need to foster both, that is, ministry  within the programs of the congregation as well as living out life under the Spirit in contexts not directly established by the congregation. 

It might be argued that the example of Philip is not that relevant in that his experience in the eighth chapter of Acts is not part of a corporate activity but simply an individual portion of his life lived out while outside the congregation. Looking on further in Acts, however, we see numerous instances of Paul and others living and working together in a rather spontaneous manner. Their lives often ebbed and flowed together under the direction of the Holy Spirit on an ongoing basis largely independent of a plan or direct supervision exercised by the “church hierarchy.” Obviously, there were other instances of direct connection as when Paul and Barnabas and some other believers made a trip from Antioch to Jerusalem for the explicit purpose of having the apostles and elders address the question of the extent to which Gentile believers should be expected to follow the law of Moses (Acts 15). The overall picture portrayed in Acts is of groups of believers operating under the principles and general guidance of the church, but within that context operating in smaller collections of people in a rather free flowing manner under the direction of the Spirit. 

In addition to biblical grounds, there are many cultural, social, and organizational reasons to foster the self-organizing tendencies of a congregation. In this manner one finds the activities which generate much of the passion, dedication, and creativity that produce the more fruitful ministries of the church. While the ongoing, established programs may be the backbone of a church, the new initiatives emerging from the self-organizing tendencies within a congregation may well be the source of new growth, new vision, and new engagement. While new initiatives may develop from top-down planning endeavors, the more promising source of fresh, engaging initiatives probably is through the encouragement of a congregation’s self-organizing tendencies. 

How does a pastor go about fostering the self-organizing tendencies of a congregation? Here are some practical guidelines. First, recognize that within a self-organizing system, the impetus for change occurs at many different points; it does not occur in a predictable pattern. A corollary of this reality is that one does not need a clear coherent picture of what is needed before encouraging change to begin. Another counterintuitive principle is that differences in approach and style within a congregation are a help, not a barrier. Foster them, rather than stifle them. New approaches and structures can be built by individuals working both independently and in groups. A new form of congregation can emerge from this work of individuals and small groups that was not designed in advance.   

In terms of the three aspects of complex adaptive systems described earlier–containers, significant differences, and transforming exchanges–it is the job of the pastor first of all to shape the containers. That is, rather than maintaining the existing power arrangements and culture of the church in the traditional budget categories, project teams and schedules, space allotments, etc., promote new configurations; create “white water.” For example, in a church where a conviction surfaces that more should be done to foster discipleship, a special task force of very diverse membership (including volunteers) is asked to tackle the matter rather than assigning it to an existing committee. In another instance, a member of the congregation expresses an interest in starting a ministry to homeless families and she is encouraged to announce her interest to the congregation and seek others who wish to join her in developing such an outreach. She is not asked to work through an existing committee.    

Second, focus on the larger differences because these are the ones with the potential for shaping the most valuable new patterns. Encourage the expression of differing viewpoints, accept that there will be conflict, and promote new configurations of people working together. Encourage people to seek innovations that will create new patterns within the congregation. For example, a church having a long-standing outreach program of a social justice nature and also another program (engaging different people) with a strong evangelistic focus, asks the leaders of the two endeavors to meet to share insights and learn from each other. The intent is not to merge them or promote any particular change in them, but simply for them to tell their stories to each other, share their successes and failures and learn from others having a very different focus.    

Third, the pastor can foster the transforming exchanges needed for the significant differences to emerge in new patterns. Encourage the process of feedback to leaders and others about what is occurring. Bring people together in settings where differing ideas can be exchanged and encourage new configurations of people. Encourage individuals and groups to learn from a variety of new sources such as conferences, online sources, and informal sources. For example, church members may conduct surveys of unchurched people in coffee shops or through door-to-door contacts. In another instance, a church considering adding an additional worship service with a new format sends a team of ten people on a “field trip” to nearby cities to visit worship services reputed to be “cutting edge.”    

For most pastors, this scene probably is a bit unsettling. It is a scene where change is not expected to come through top-down control but through fostering new connections having unpredictable outcomes. It includes an expectation that goals, plans, and structures will not be preplanned but will emerge. On occasion conflict is encouraged rather than always being avoided and dampened. In this context a pastor is grappling with uncertainty and actually embracing it and not expecting predictable steps. Rather than trying to attain a certain ideal, a pastor in this context sees success as a congregation that is transforming to fit changing circumstances. The pastor is fostering small changes in different places with an expectation of linking them to achieve a whole. It includes giving up control, expecting the Holy Spirit to work in individuals’ lives, and maintaining an unanxious presence in the congregation while change emerges.    

For a pastor to be comfortable and effective in this context, it is necessary to educate the congregation as to what is underway. It may not be necessary to use the language of complex adaptive systems, but the congregation needs to understand that they (as individuals and/or informal groups) can be the source of new initiatives. They should expect that the church leaders will be encouraging independent thought and dependence upon the Holy Spirit at the grassroots level as the church ministries are shaped over time.    

An understanding of a congregation as a complex adaptive system has major implications for consultants, middle judicatory leaders, and others assisting pastors and their congregations. How does one go about assisting a congregation to be selforganizing? As with all church consulting, the key linkage is with the pastor, but the nature of the process the consultant is fostering within the congregation is very different. The consultant should also have contact with people at all levels of the congregation to understand the present leadership style, motives, and the degree of readiness for change. There then is a basis for helping the pastor understand the existing system, gain confidence as a leader in this context, and be prepared to support change. By observing interactions, communication patterns, and potential points of transforming exchanges, the consultant is in a position to encourage new connections within the congregation and a new distribution of leadership. Adaptation to new patterns will be encouraged by helping the pastor(s) and other leaders give up their expectations of control and to modify connections as appropriate. By working with them over time, the consultant can foster more productive interactions and new leadership patterns. In all of this work, of course, the pastor is the key client because this person is the principal determiner of the extent to which a selforganizing system can blossom.   


1. Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).    

2. Edwin E. Olson and Glenda H. Eoyang, Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science. (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2001).   


Questions for Reflection

1. What boundaries hinder change in your congregation?  

2. What conflict in your congregation can you use to help facilitate change?  

3. What transforming exchanges can you facilitate in your congregation?