I first read “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge when I was taking a college class on problem solving in the Spring of 2006. I recently finished listening to the audio book version of this work a few weeks back. This time, I was able to listen more intently to the ideas in the book rather than survey it for a college paper.
The book’s focus is to encourage a new kind of thinking in organizations. One that involves systems as a means to being more productive and to minimize future problems. If you are new to systems thinking, it is merely a way to see the “long range” effects of decisions that may take weeks, months, or even years to materialize.
A simple example of this would be to make a decision to invest in leadership training for a group of people with the real goal being to address a multi-level management problem within your organization that needs to be addressed at least a year in advance. While other pressing needs may seem to be more important, if the training does not occur, disaster could result from having a poorly educated leadership base trying to address future problems that are not apparent now but will be a real issue in the future. That will make the current need, though still important, a moot point if action isn’t taken now to address the potential system flaw that needs to be corrected.
Of course, there’s much more to cover here than just systems thinking. Systems are simply the “Fifth” discipline of the learning organization but there are others. Using examples drawn from many sources, including scripture, Senge proceeds to lay out his master plan of growth and harmony within organizations by addressing the other four disciplines as well. These include: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, and Team Learning. He then goes on to discuss some simple prototypes in the end portion of the book. These are all vital areas to consider as you move your organization forward. All are covered well here but it would be wise to consider other works that address each of these areas in more depth and detail depending on your position and your organization.
From a ministerial perspective, the book has several solid applications for churches. I believe God organized the church to operate in systems as well:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
(Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV)
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
(Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV)
These verses speak to the variety of systems needed for healthy growth. Our God given bodies are made up of various systems that sustain us. If one of those is not functioning properly, it can affect the entire body. In much the same way, our church body can be affected when systems aren’t functioning at their best.
On Monday evening, I’ll share more about the systems in a church and point you to a few free resources that can give you a jump start in this way of thinking. For now, I would recommend that you pick up a copy of “The Fifth Discipline” either at the bookstore or library and read it for yourself. There is plenty of good information there for you to glean whether you are a pastor, volunteer leader, or business executive. After listening to it again, I’ve marked it as one of those “must reads” for leaders in our church and those who I get the chance to visit and share ideas with.