Prayer and the Fifth Disciplne

Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management , says there are four classic disciplines in a learning organization:

  • “Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.” (p. 7)
  • “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” (p. 8)
  • “Building shared vision is the practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.” (p. 9)
  • “Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.” (p. 10)
In his book, “The Fifth Discipline,” Mr. Senge adds one more discipline that is vital for an organization that wants to learn and grow:
  • Systems thinking – The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other 4.
Systems thinking can be described as not only recognizing all the parts of any given system, but recognizing and accounting for the way the components in the system interact. One game they use to help students begin to engage in systems thinking at MIT is called “The Beer Game.” In this game, teams students work either as a beer retailer, a beer wholesaler or a beer manufacturer. What happens most often in the game is that as very mild fluctuations in beer demand are introduced, there is a stronger reaction at the wholesale level, which causes an even stronger reaction at the manufacturing level. In the game, each team makes what appears to be reasonable decisions in isolation. But because of a reinforcing feedback, those common sense decisions result in wild fluctuations through the supply chain with empty shelves at one point and a full year’s worth of beer inventory in a retail cooler at another point. These fluctuations happen because each team is thinking about their own situation rather than considering the entire system of retailer, wholesaler and manufacturer.
Systems happen all around us. (Yes, I will be getting to my point about prayer!) 
When you fill a glass of water, a system is taking place. Your eyes see the empty glass under the faucet. You adjust the water faucet valve which starts the water flow. As the glass fills up, you see the water line approaching the amount of water you want so you turn off the valve, which shuts off the flow of water. Simple? Yes. But not always.
Filling a water glass is essentially an immediate feedback system. At the beginning of the system, you want things to be different, so you start opening the water valve. As the water flows, you probably open it even more because you don’t want to wait for a slow trickle of water to fill the glass. This is reinforcing feedback. Then as you approach the desired amount of water, you begin to turn the valve off because you don’t want further change in the amount of water in the glass. This is stabilizing feedback. A system can essentially be diagrammed as a circle with every element either reinforcing the previous one or stabilizing it.
Reinforcing feedback tends to increase whatever is going on. If one person raises their voice, then the other person raises their voice, then the first person raises their voice even more, and so on into a shouting match. Each person’s decision to be heard by increasing their volume provided reinforcing feedback into the system. Stabilizing feedback tends to counter whatever is going on. Change in organizations often encounters significant stabilizing feedback.
There is one more component to every system as you go around the circle. (Hang with me. I’m almost to the prayer point!)
The water system works easily and simply because the feedback from each component (water level, your eyes, valve position, water flow) is nearly instantaneous. This is not always the case. Have you ever tried to adjust the water for a shower that has a long bit of pipe between the water valve and the shower head (for instance, those hand-held show heads)? Have you ever ended up with the water too hot and had to turn it back down, and then back up, and then back down, as you slowly got the water to the desired temperature? The reason this happens is because of the third variable in every system: delay.
Systems with no delay respond immediately and tend to be easier to handle. Systems with more delay require more discipline in thought and reaction.
There is a delay or “lag time” in every system. Sometimes it’s measured in tiny increments, like the search time on a computer’s hard drive. Sometimes there is a great deal of lag time in a system, such as the long-term effects of government policies. This is what makes things like environmental policy so difficult. There is a great deal of lag time in our effect on the environment but, since the things we do often create reinforcing feedback, we could be causing major damage and not know it until it is well beyond our ability to adjust for with reasonable measures.
Now, to the prayer point!
If you think of prayer as a system of communication and action between God and you, you will get frustrated if you don’t acknowledge delay in the system. God has clearly told us that there can be significant and intentional delay in the system. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9 ESV) This delay does not mean that God does not care. It is a function of all that God cares about and that God’s idea of what is important in what time is not necessarily the same as ours. (I encounter this with my own children — they “need” something right now! I don’t perceive the situation the same way they do, which frustrates them.) God doesn’t see time as we do. God could say what Aslan says to Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she asked if she would see him again soon, “My child, all times are soon to me.”
So, be a “Fifth Discipline” prayer. Understand systems thinking. Pray, trusting God to keep his promises but expecting variable lag time because that’s what God told us to expect! You are talking to a God whose foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom, whose weakness is more powerful than man’s strength. Don’t let your trust in God waive because of the lag time. Put your prayer in the system and trust God’s response in his time and way..
There is more valuable reflection to be had with regard to systems thinking and prayer, but that’s enough for now. Pray on, my friend!

I discovered that I have something in common with Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful companion through the entire adventure of “The Lord of the Rings.” In the final paragraph of the tumultuous trilogy, Sam’s wife, Rose, welcomes him home and sets his little baby, Eleanor, in his lap. From this position, Sam utters the final words of the entire three-book series: “Well, I’m back.”
I feel a kinship with Sam as I write to you. I have been on a four-month journey away from my church family and this blog. Now, at the close of my sabbatical adventure, I am once again settling down to my duties as pastor of Journey of Life Lutheran Church. With a deep breath, placing my hands on the keyboard, I think exactly what Sam thought: “Well, I’m back.”
The sabbatical was quite an adventure in ways both big and small, in both my observable life and my inner life. It was less than I thought it would be and more than I thought it would be. I look forward to sharing sabbatical reflections as this blog comes alive again.
It was a great journey and it’s great to be back! My whole family missed Journey of Life terribly. It’s good to be home.