communal justice: changing the goal posts, changing the game

I love the whole area of systems thinking and organisational / cultural change [it was a large part of the study for my masters, which ended up focussing on intuition as a valid form of knowledge, and it’s place within organisational learning]. The ‘pop’ version of this can be found in Margaret Wheatley’s writings and Peter Senge… the more theoretical research begins with Argyris and Schon, and Beckett and Hager, and others like that.

Complex change theory holds that you can’t ‘fix’ one part of an organisation by focussing only on it – the reason being that a single part of a system or organisation is always influenced and affected by its part in the whole. Until this school of thought came along, organisations were treated largely like machines [if the car’s overheating, it’s probably the radiator; fix that and the car runs fine]. Complex change theory treats organisations like organisms – and if the organism is overheating, the results and solutions are often far more complicated.

And in semi-functional and functional systems [like churches], that’s a really helpful approach. But in fundamentally flawed and broken systems – like the justice and prison systems here in victoria – it’s becoming obvious that it’s overwhelming and impossible.* We pick an issue to focus on [post release employment, for example], and then realise it’s impossible to work on that without working on the issues that complicate that [mental health; low levels of literacy; housing – you can’t apply for a job without an address…]. Each of those areas is massive and overwhelming in its complexity, and are themselves directly implicated by a stack of major issues… And the thing with the prisons is that there’s no part of the system that’s stable or healthy enough to be able to work from… In a church, business or organisation, there’s something core that we can agree on, and build out from, something that can be a reference point; something inherently good or valuable. It’s hard to find that in the prison. We can’t even decide what the fundamental purpose of the prison system is: are we separating people from the community, or are we rehabilitating them so they can be part of the community? You can’t do both simultaneously. And it’s funny – everyone in the system, from government ministers, department heads to prison officers and inmates, says that the system is flawed – but the task is beyond impossible.

I don’t know that we ever thought we could fix things. I think we’ve realised though that the systemic approach we have been taking just overwhelms and paralyses everyone involved. Sick systems do that.

This week we’ve been having some ‘state of the nation’ conversations about the communal justice project. We know more now, and the picture’s not pretty. I think we’ve done good stuff this last year, but we’re at a turning point. Our sphere of concern is massive, our sphere of influence is, in all honesty, negligible. We’re not the only ones working on this area – but everyone seems to be throwing up their hands in despair at the immensity of the task. So today we’ve decided that we’re starting to work on finding a third way to approach this [and if that doesn’t work we’ll look for a fourth].

The justice unit here will continue to do research on the broader issues. We’re not going to keep meeting with department heads to hear the issues or get the bigger picture. We know enough. And for the rest of this year we’re simply going to host roundtables with uniting church agencies, ministers, involved lay people, prison chaplains, presbytery ministers who are directly involved in post-release support, with no other purpose but to get them together and hear what’s happening, and unearth the inherent wisdom around the table. We’re not going to solve the issues [i so wish we could], or commit to doing more. We’re not going to talk about how we need to reform the area of mental health, sentencing, indigenous justice etc. at the same time, although we need to and i wish we could… we’re not even going to talk about what the broader issues are. We’re just going to create an environment where people can learn from each other, and find ways of working differently together. We’re working within our circle of influence…

And secondly, we’re going to gather a group of ministers from congregations that find emergency relief a core part of their life and work, and hold a peer-led workshop about how that happens, what it means for congregations, and the wisdom they’ve learnt in the process. I think this particular idea has great possibilities on a range of areas.

It feels counter-intuitive, not to mention silly, to be doing such tiny things in the light of the massive problems that need to be addressed. I read back over what i’ve written here and i want to delete it, writing in its place world-changing policies and actions… mostly so i can convince you that we’re doing something good. But we are learning that the system will beat us if we play the game on the system’s terms, and we know we have to play the game differently, trusting what communities do when they’re at their best: unearthing their own wisdom, finding links among themselves, knowing what they are capable of, and trusting the rest to someone else. We’re changing the goalposts, we’re hoping to change the game…

It’s a little fragile, as plans go. I guess the alternative would be that all of you who are the praying types could pray that pentecost this sunday would do its chaotic, subversive best; dismantling the systems that oppress etc,. And I’ll keep working on the roundtables just as a backup.

* An afterthought: the really good thing about doing this project is that i no longer think that the church is fundamentally screwed. You think the church is irredeemable? Wait until you see the justice system… It’s kind of like when you’ve had the real flu, you realise that everything you called the flu before was actually just a pathetic cold…


  1. Blair

    Thanks for this honest update Cheryl. I find great encouragement in the ‘afterthought’ – and at the same time hope you find the way for the waters of change to flow around or through this rocky mess you’ve now identified to bring life. =) B

  2. Colin

    Thanks for your genuine reflection and for not pretending that you’ve got the “world-changing policies and actions” things happening. I’m going to forward this blog to a friend of mine who has been excluded from working in the NSW justice system, basically for trying too hard I guess. I hope she will find it encouraging in a perverse sort of way. i wonder if this is how Jesus felt confronted with the systems of his time and place? and if his response is so very different from what you have decided to do – working within his sphere of influence, and ultimately influencing so very much more. Am i being too naive and simplistic?

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