Servant Leadership: Practices
“Context: Focusing on Congregational Systems”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
1:3 – Charting Your Course

The context for servant leadership is indeed more than just the immediate task or event, but the many parts of the whole.  Because of this, the servant leader today takes into consideration the external and internal systems of the congregation.

  • Jesus talked about certain elements of “systems thinking”:
    • The wise man who builds a house starts with the foundation. (Mt. 7:24-27)
    • The witness of His followers is as salt and light in the life-system. (Mt. 5:13-16)
  • Paul taught that the church is like the human body system–Christ as head with many interdependent parts. (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-31)
  • Congregational systems is presented in three topics and with concluding study abstracts:

1. Focusing on Congregational Systems Thinking

Servant leadership takes the discipline of “systems thinking” into the context of choosing leadership styles to match situations.

  • What is “systems thinking”? The concept is defined by Peter Senge, a contemporary authority in the discipline, as:
. . . a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools, to make the full patterns  clearer, and help us see the invisible fabrics of the whole. We go beyond focusing on snapshots of the parts, and see how to change the whole.
The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, p. 7
  • “Systems thinking” provides a discipline–concepts and tools for servant leaders to see the “big picture,” the
    larger context. Within the congregation’s servant leadership team, some must focus on “systems thinking.” This is true for the organization as a whole, and for its programs, ministries, and departments.
  • Systems thinking means that servant leaders have the capacity to see patterns in the congregational whole instead of just identifying its parts. We can learn how to change the system, if needed, and to reinforce its present desired behavior (See SL#69 for systems application.)
  • Traditionally, we expect to look at the subsystems and ministries independently and make them work more effectively; thereby, we expect that the whole will be successful. This has worked well for us, but new insights are needed and available.
  • Systems thinking focuses on the relationship among the parts that form the whole. What counts is looking for patterns, for rhythms, for directions, shape, and networks doing the work of the congregation. Watch out for “the domino effect,” or “the bumper car impact.”
  • Reflection/Application: How would you describe specific systems in the “big picture” of your congregation?
  • Externally, what happens in the community influences its families or the congregation directly. The direction and environment of a denomination impacts member congregations. Local and national economy may affect the congregation’s level of financial resources.
  • The following graphic depicts systems of influence that change over time and experience. This calls for systems thinking on the part of servant leaders.


2. Family Systems, Subsystems, and Leadership

Servant leaders should include the “family systems approach” in their examination of ministry leadership context. This section adds to the tools provided in “systems thinking.” Ronald Richardson (see Study Abstract in SL#66) and others have developed a family systems theory we now adapt to the congregation:

  • As a human organization, the Christian congregation is a spiritual/social/economic system with a network of interactive subsystems. The church is the interworking pattern of the whole, not just the sum total of its parts.
  • A major change in one of its subsystems has an effect on the behavior of other subsystems and has an impact on the congregational system as a whole.
  • The graphic below illustrates representative subsystems at work within a congregation’s systems. Think in terms of interaction, impact, and leadership challenges this presents.
  • Family systems leadership requires critical relationship skills, such as: to become more fully your best self; manage yourself, not others; to be less judgmental.
  • to maintain both connected and aloneness.
  • to care for the congregational systems as a whole.
  • to nurture members throughout the congregational family.
  • to observe what is happening within the congregational systems and its parts; to assess the impact.
  • to watch for patterns and direction within the systems.
  • to become a calm, less anxious presence within the systems.
  • to separate what is “fact” and “feeling,” and so to reduce negative emotional responses.
  • to act consistently on your beliefs and principles.
  • to stay with dyadic relationship patterns.


List at least three family systems leadership roles within which you could improve your “situational leadership.” Talk this over with coworkers or family members.

3. Contextual Systems Leadership Applications

There are strong influences for you to apply the same leadership pattern to every situation and to see the congregation only one part at a time. However, could you apply the insights of this concept to the following leadership situations within your congregation? These are just examples; select, or state, your church’s
situation. Make leadership notations:

  • Your congregation has just approved its first mission/vision statement with 5-year strategies and goals.
  • In a three-month period you have pressed to move your church from traditional to celebration worship style.
  • Your church’s opportunities for service far outstrip the commitment and preparedness of its members.
  • Your “proclamation evangelism” is being challenged by the need for “cup of cold water” ministry/witness initiatives.
  • The music, youth, and missions education have a running gun battle over scheduling events.
  • You have just arrived following the long tenure of a beloved pastor who has been given the pastorium.
  • A military base closes–involving 30% of your members and 50% of your leadership and budget.
  • An assisted-living facility has opened next to your church property; you have “0” Senior adult ministry.
  • The high school next to the church moved to a new facility eight miles across town.
  • An interstate loop cuts through the boundaries of your natural church field.
  • Homes around your church location are turning from homeowners to renters.
  • The general economy and employment have been declining for the past eighteen to twenty-four months; it’s time to plan next year’s budget.
  • There is a long-term controversy centering within your denomination and is filtering down into your church.
  • Your church has decided to relocate to the middle of a new subdivision.

Servant leaders pay attention to changing congregational systems/situations.
How well do you do?

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© 2006; hosted and
copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc. For full citation of referenced
works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church