Steve Doughty, a Presbyterian minister and author who leads spiritual retreats, reports that an increasing number of attendees of his spiritual retreats describe themselves as “church alumni,” those who used to attend church faithfully but no longer do so. Doughty suggests that it is apt to describe these people in a phrase from John Milton of four hundred years ago: “The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.”1 Most of us regular churchgoers have an increasingly large group of church friends whose children grew up, moved to new locations, and have not found congregations that address their spiritual needs. There seems to be a paucity of congregations that understand the complexity of our world. As Margaret Wheatley puts it, “We want our organizations [read “churches”] to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent—attributes that are found only in living [open] systems.”2 Instead, these seekers find congregations that are largely closed into a comfortable way of serving those who are still active there. These closed churches are organized, but they are not focused on what they are supposed to be about, and passion for mission is largely absent. As a result, many of these children give up on being part of a congregation and become another group of “church alumni.”

We know that living systems must be open to change and that static living systems die. We know that openness to the environment over time spawns a stronger system, which of course means that open systems must be in a state of nonequilibrium, so they can change and grow. Therefore, congregations that understand themselves to be open systems, capable of self-renewal through change, flourish. These congregations understand that equilibrium is a false goal and that there must be a level of disequilibrium to avoid deterioration. Of course, most congregations, as Wheatley points out, equate a desire for equilibrium with a false definition of simplicity, which is what some people think they want. Equilibrium is a false goal. Some children and indeed people of all ages seek disequilibrium, novelty, lack of control, surprise. They live out a basic insight about the way the world works: one cannot have order without disorder.

How can we learn to trust disequilibrium? We can trust that God is creating the world in such a way that living systems tend to self-organize. “All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, to sustain themselves and move toward greater complexity and order as needed.”3 Because we can trust that self-organization occurs, leaders, including pastors, can ease up on the need to control, which often holds back the creative energies of parishioners. When people understand the purpose and real values of their church, their individual work will move toward system-wide coherence, or identity, the first ingredient required for a system to self-organize. Pastors and leaders work to build meaningful relationships in order to establish connections and spark others’ imagination rather than control. “When leaders strive for equilibrium and stability by imposing control, constricting people’s freedom and inhibiting local change, they only create the conditions that threaten the organization’s survival.”4 Systems can do themselves what leaders sometimes think they have to impose.

A Clear Sense of Identity

A clear sense of identity and purpose is the essential foundation in a congregation open to outside influence, one that is able to self-organize and is willing to change, knowing that any change will be consistent with who (and whose) it already is. Also, we know that commitment and loyalty to the stated purpose of the congregation is essential for the well-being of the congregation. However, we also realize that establishing this strong, articulated sense of identity is not easy, especially in established congregations. We learn from science that organisms and organizations thrive best when some things are stable (identity) and some things are in flux. When a system has too much order, it dies. On the other hand, if it has no firm identity, it disintegrates into chaos and also dies.

The Importance of Information

While a strong sense of identity is the first ingredient for a congregation to be able to self-organize, the second ingredient is information, especially new and disturbing information. Information is the nutrient of self-organization and becomes the medium of the organization. A congregation that understands the essential place of new information amplifies new and disturbing information (for example, beginning changes in the demographics of a neighborhood) and is able to change, in a manner consistent with its core identity, to meet the new situation. In most congregations, new disturbing information is buried. In contrast, self-organizing congregations have a great capacity to adapt as needed.

In congregations usually only the acknowledged leaders’ apprehension of new information is deemed worth listening to. But it is often those congregants at the margins who have a better handle on new information necessary for the church. For example, the people at the margins may not be more active because they are not being nourished spiritually by the congregation and may have valuable suggestions about what ought to change to reach people like themselves. Also, these people at the margins often have closer relationships with totally unchurched people. Or the people at the margins may be those of a different ethnic or economic group who are just beginning to move into the community and are invisible to most of the active members.

The point is that, because of the multiplicity of sources for new knowledge, information in a congregation is most helpful when every person’s voice is heard. Whenever any congregant or even an outsider brings new (perhaps disturbing) information, such news needs to be shared with everyone, because different people see different things and may propose ways of addressing the issue that others would not have considered. Wheatley observes, “There is a need for many more eyes and ears, for many more members of the organization to ‘in-form’ the available data so that effective self-organization can occur. But it is information—unplanned, uncontrolled, abundant, superfluous—that creates the conditions for the emergence of fast, well-integrated, effective responses.”5


The importance of open information shared by everyone points to a third key ingredient for self-organizing churches—relationships. “Through relationships, information is created and transformed, the organization’s identity expands to include more stakeholders, and the enterprise becomes wiser.”6 Nothing lives alone. Interdependency and connectedness are the pathways for life to flourish. In fact, scientists speak of the interrelatedness of all life. The lesson for us as leaders of congregations is that we ought to be forming dense webs of connections with one another and the communities in which we are embedded.

In a telephone conversation, Wheatley affirmed that relationships are more foundational than a new worldview of leadership. Yet we must understand her comment in context. Relationships form the core from which congregants will consider a new worldview of leadership, a worldview that is based on collaboration and cooperation rather than a hierarchical, top-down approach. A network of relationships comes first.

Wheatley gives the example of leaders who try, for example, to encourage widespread participation in the decision-making process and quickly run into all sorts of problems and conclude, “Well, that didn’t work.” “The next step is a commo
n dynamic, which is to retreat back. The minute this new step doesn’t seem to be working, we retreat back to the old approach, which is already not working.”7 She suggests that people have to remain curious, open, and humble, realizing that this is a profoundly different way of viewing the world—based on collaboration, relationships, love, and generosity. The best way we can prepare for the unknown is to focus on the quality of our relationships and recognize that everyone’s information is important.

Of course, within congregations the role of information and the importance of relationships for developing more open, vital systems means we need to share at a more profound level than what we think about the coffee or who will win the football game this afternoon. It means focusing on God’s will for the congregation. It presumes that, within the congregation, people can communicate well and relate profoundly about the deepest issues of life and the purpose of the church, so convergence of desired action begins to take place. And as convergence occurs, new levels of understanding emerge. For example, a congregation that had been dominated by the pastor and a few long-established members will become over time a network of relationships in which the needs of the community are recognized in a new way, and a new way of responding is designed. Just as important, a new process is being developed that will point to a new direction for interacting with the communities outside the church in the future.

1 Steve Doughty, To Walk in Integrity: Spiritual Leadership in Times of Crisis (Nashville: Upper Room, 2004), 20.
2 Margaret J. Wheatley, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005), 32.
3 Ibid., 33.
4 Ibid., 89.
5 Ibid., 40.
6 Ibid.
7 Margaret Wheatley, telephone interview, May 10, 2006.

Adapted from If This Is the Way the World Works: Science, Congregations, and Leadership, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute.

Copyright © 2007, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.



AL345_SMIf This Is the Way the World Works: Science, Congregations, and Leadership by William O. Avery and Beth Ann Gaede

Avery and Gaede explore five principles from the philosophy of science that suggest an alternative way to view congregational mission and leadership: openness to new information, complexity, diversity, interrelatedness, and process. Their premise is that when faith communities align themselves with the way the world—God’s world—works, they more faithfully carry out their vocations as witnesses to God’s reconciling work and as servants to one another. If this is truly the way the world works, leaders will find strength through relationships, hope in diversity, and above all trust in the love of God.

AL284_SMThe Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts by Luther K. Snow

The Power of Asset Mapping shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission. Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. With Snow’s guidance, readers will find new, positive energy to break out of negative cycles of need, dependency, and inaction.

AL289_SMYour Brain Goes to Church: Neuroscience and Congregational Life by Bob Sitze

Emerging discoveries in brain science are sparking new areas of research as cutting-edge educators and psychologists are asking, “What can we learn from brain science about how we function in the world?” Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: what does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Study groups will enjoy the “Big Questions” Sitze asks throughout the book, as well as the discussion questions and follow-up activities included at the end of each chapter.