Gilbert Rendle tells this story from an anthropology course in college:
A South Seas Islands people built their huts out of materials they found on their islands. They used “stonewood” to build the hearth to hold the fire they used for cooking and warmth. Stonewood was by far the hardest wood to be found in their forests. Yet because it was wood, it would eventually catch fire and frequently – usually every two or three years – the family’s hut burned down. The response of the community was swift and sure. People would interrupt their usual activities and lend their hand in rebuilding the lost hut. And when it came to rebuilding the hearth in the new hut they would use – yes, stonewood. Inevitably the rebuilt hut would burn down again. A good portion of community life was spent rebuilding each other’s huts.
Although these people were of a simpler, less developed culture, we need to be clear that they were not unintelligent. Yet despite their experiences that huts burned down regularly from fires originating in the hearth, and despite the fact that they knew stonewood came from living trees, they continued to use flammable material to house their fires. Why? Despite their experience, the name “stonewood” suggested to these people that they were building their hearths using a material so hard it would behave as stone. Did they not learn from experience as hut after hut burned down? Surprisingly the answer seems to be no.
Language and the assumptions carried by the images we use are surprisingly powerful and surprisingly limiting, because they define the way in which we will think about our world.
We need new ways and language to look at and understand our congregations. It is not that our old ways are wrong. It is more that our old and familiar ways of looking, understanding, and describing can be limited and limiting.
Systems Thinking is an approach that allows you to look through “new eyes” – gaining a different perspective on your congregation and the relationships within it. Peter Steinke, creator of the Healthy Congregations Workshops, says, “In a systems approach we look beyond the trees and see the forest.”
The Healthy Congregations Initiative of the Presbytery of Carlisle is designed to help church leaders cultivate strong leadership capacities to move the congregation toward healthier functioning. It may also help you with your “Stonewood” problem! If you are interested in learning more, please contact me directly.