NACOS 3.1: Senge’s Limits to Growth systems archetype

NACOS 3.1: Senge’s Limits to Growth systems archetype

Topic #3. Recognizing patterns of conflict and anxiety in congregations.
(Utilizing systems concepts, Reinforcing vs. Balancing Loops, congregational anxiety)

QUOTE: Two processes are at work when there is conflict or resistance to change. Peter Senge’s Limits to Growth systems archetype describes these two systemic processes.

The Reinforcing Loop represents a trend which is intensifying in repeated cycles in order to provoke a change in the status quo. The image for a Reinforcing Loop is a snowball rolling downhill increasing in momentum and intensity. Happiness is an emerging trend.

The image for a Balancing Loop is a teeter-totter; happiness is keeping everything in balance and under control. The balancing process keeps the system cycling in a safe, stable homeostasis, where everything functions smoothly and efficiently.

The balancing process is very powerful and usually prevents the reinforcing process from disturbing homeostasis and successfully changing the system. Small changes in biological systems usually mean the death of the organism. When the trend toward change offers positive benefits and does not threaten or overwhelm the balancing process, the system often adapts by incorporating the trend.

Sometimes the reinforcing process overwhelms the balancing process and disaster results. There is no longer a functional balancing process to bring stability to the system. (Example: Iraq after Saddam Hussein. A tsunami, hurricane or tornado destroying infrastructure. A death or a divorce. OR A CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC.)


  1. Systems exist in nature to provide stability and prevent change.
  2. Leadership pushes for change and stimulates anxiety. The balancing loop responds with systemic resistance to change to maintain stability and soothe anxiety.
  3. Management keeps everything running smoothly, calming anxiety. Management facilitates systemic change during times of crisis and anxiety. (Peter Senge, Fifth Discipline, 101-102.)
  4. It is best for the laity to lead in change while the pastor provides comfort in the balancing loop to soothe and maintain effective homeostasis.
  5. If the system is overwhelmed and the balancing process cannot cope, disaster ensues. Like after a tsunami. Like during a Coronavirus pandemic.
  6. Most accepted leadership prescriptions for change in churches guarantee failure by increasing anxiety in the name of urgency, pushing an agenda, and attempting to overwhelm the balancing process with an atmosphere of fear and crisis. Pushed people push back.
  7. The Wisdom of Small Cuts: When positive changes are small, routine and predictable, the system finds it a simple matter to cope with change. When positive changes are large, infrequent and unexpected, the system reacts to the change as a threat and mobilizes resistance for protection. Change ideally needs to come in the form of thousands of small cuts from the sharp teeth of a saw rather than heavy blows from an axe which shake the whole tree.

Do the “insights” make sense? Why or why not?
Which one is most helpful?

ASSIGNMENT QUESTION: (in the comments on Facebook)
Who is the leader of the reinforcing loop in your congregation?
The spokesperson for change and adaptation?

Who is the leader of the balancing loop in your congregation?
The spokesperson for “the way we’ve always done it before” and resistance?

Image: Limits to Growth systems archetype from Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline.

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