Peter Senge’s “Limits To Growth” Systems Archetype

This entry is part 77 of 118 in the series Diagnosis, Dialogue, Decision: A DMin Project

            Peter Senge’s work on systems identifies components of natural systemic patterns of human interaction. One of these system archetypes is Limits To Growth.[1] It consists of two components, a reinforcing process and a balancing process, which interact to preserve homeostasis in systems. A reinforcing process is a cycle of events which create an intensifying trend that can be positive or negative. Senge’s example of a reinforcing process is a snowball rolling downhill. The reinforcing process is an antithesis that brings challenging pressure upon an established order functioning as thesis; the result of that interaction is synthesis, which becomes the new thesis for another cycle.[2]

            A balancing process functions like a home heating and air conditioning system. It remains dormant until a heating or cooling trend triggers a thermostat correction. The balancing process then acts in strength sufficient to reverse the trend and keep the temperature at a familiar equilibrium, known as homeostasis or the “comfort zone.” The thermostat correction helps the system to manage trends while a trend is still amenable to control, thus ensuring that the balancing process is always operating well within its capacity to control the system and maintain the balance of homeostasis. Discomfort and anxiety trigger a thermostat correction in the system which prevents change.

            The same interaction that can reverse a negative change that leads to decline can also prevent positive change which would benefit the system. If discomfort and anxiety create a perception of danger or loss of control, then the balancing process will take control and restore the previous homeostasis.[3] All methods of leadership, evangelism and church growth occur in the reinforcing process; all resistance to change occurs in the balancing process. The key to overcoming Limits to Growth, according to Senge, is to improve the competence of the balancing process to cope with challenge so that it can adapt to a trend without disrupting homeostasis.[4] Balancing process competency is about management rather than leadership.





[1] The quote is a selection from David O. Kueker’s Fuller Seminary Doctor of Ministry project submitted in September, 2007, entitled Diagnosis, Dialogue, and Decision: A Threefold Process of Revitalization For the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
It is shared here in recognition of its 12th Anniversary along with comments to update and provide perspective on the material. The original project was a Training Manual/Study Guide of three Seminars supported by three chapters of research and an Introduction. The material is available for download at In 2009 it was provided for purchase as a softcover book entitled Designing Discipleship Systems: Christian Disciple Making For Any Size Church, Any Theology through

[2][3] [4][5] [6][7] [8]

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

[1]Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art And Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 79-88, 95-104, 124-126, 227-232, 379-380, 389-390.

[2]Church historian Ernst Troeltsch used the Hegelian dialectic to describe a two-hundred-year cycle of innovative sects (antithesis) becoming change resistant, decaying, traditional churches (thesis/synthesis) pressured to change by a new antithesis of innovation. Elmer Towns, Is The Day of the Denomination Dead? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1973), under

.cfm?action=bksonline (accessed June 13, 2007), 60-78. Cf. Guder, Missional Church, 54-60, 125-126.

[3]In this ministry context, homeostasis includes and maintains the four systemic problems described in Chapter 1.

[4]Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 101-102.

Series Navigation<< Towards a true ecclesiology, based on reality, that understands change.Craig Miller defines a faith community as made up of two cooperative, interacting components: worship and a discipleship system. >>
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