No. 7 – Buttoned Up

Posted on: Friday 21st August 2015

A priest from the diocese came to talk about her work the other day.  She works in a team with other clergy and with lay people too, in a context rather different from the average parish and in the midst of a time of change. She was caught up in some rather complex dynamics – and it felt like she was struggling to get a hold on any of it.

Barry Oshry, one of my favourite organisational theorists, has a passage in his classic book Seeing Systems, in which he compares daily life in an organisation to a game of pinball. “Sometimes life in the organisation feels like a game of pinball, and we’re the little metal ball. We start each day launched into a mysterious world of bumpers, lights, bells and whistles. Lights flash on and off. Buzzers sound. Gates open and close, sometimes propelling us at high speed to some other centre of the action, and sometimes letting us drop quietly into a hole. All of this is a mystery to us. Is this just a set of random events?” 

Sound familiar?

Oshry’s contention is that our problem is that we are not seeing the big picture.

In my study, where clergy come to talk, there is a tub of assorted buttons. Often – as the other morning – I reach for the tub and grab a handful of them.  “Ok,” I say, “let’s say this  [nice big blue button] is ‘John’, and this [smaller green button] is you. Where is Sam? And Sally? And how would you arrange yourselves relative to each other?”  Often there’s an initial look of bewilderment. This is surely childish, not what they’ve come to hear from someone who is supposed to be more sophisticated in his grasp of organisational life! Buttons?! But then they start to position things. “Well, I think she should go here, but in fact she is usually here,” and they move the buttons around…  Whole worlds of meaning and subtlety can be created on a tabletop, and in the process we suddenly notice, together, what we hadn’t seen – a pattern, or an alliance, or someone ‘in the wrong place’ or ‘left out of the conversation’.

You don’t need buttons. You can use pens, or post-its, or condiments! The trick is to externalise what is internal and to give ourselves space to notice what proximity prevents us from seeing. And you don’t need to be in a complex organisational dynamic: sometimes life in families, or in communities is just as confusing and leaves us struggling to see what is, in fact, right in front of us.

Often what we need is not another theory, or model, or theology: just a chance to see anew what we thought we already knew!                                                       Fr Alan Gyle