Review: The Systems Bible

Because I’ve enrolled in Harding University’s Master of Ministry program, I’m doing way more reading than I ever have before. My goal is to write up a little bit on each book I read (for school, work, or pleasure) here for your viewing pleasure… So here, I present to you, a Christian nerd’s book review!

The Systems Bible by John Gall is a tongue-in-cheek analysis and critique of the capital-S Systems that we all know and love. It is written with an eye towards those of us with a “technical persuasion” but it accessible to almost everyone.

The book is written around a series of principles and axioms about Systems — always set apart by capital letters. For everyone who has been frustrated by a System (of any type) gone awry, this book is like the Office — it hits a little close to home, but it’s funny anyway!

For example — a small town has a problem: people need to do something with their trash. They have a garbage problem. The town council in their sub-infinite wisdom, implement a garbage collection system. Instead of one problem (garbage) — the problem has multiplied further: the town must deal with problems with garbage trucks, routes, collecting fees, dealing with employees, maintaining contracts with dumps, etc. etc. The System that was designed to solve one problem brings with it dozens more–and it is rare that many (if any) of the new problems are forseen by the System’s designers. (That, by the way, is the Fundamental Theorem of Systems: NEW SYSTEMS CREATE NEW PROBLEMS!)

Gall works through somewhere near one hundred such theorems. A few of my favorites:

  • Le Chatelier’s Principle: THE SYSTEM ALWAYS KICKS BACK, or alternatively, SYSTEMS TEND TO OPPOSE THEIR OWN PROPER FUNCTIONS.
  • The Fundamental Law of Administrative Workings (FLAW): THINGS ARE WHAT THEY ARE REPORTED TO BE or IF IT ISN’T OFFICIAL, IT HASN’T HAPPENED; IF IT DIDN’T HAPPEN ON CAMERA, IT DIDN’T HAPPEN, and IF THE SYSTEM SAYS IT HAPPENED, IT HAPPENED.
  • The Principle of Unexpected Interactions: IN SETTING UP A NEW SYSTEM, TREAD SOFTLY; YOU MAY BE DISTRUBING ANOTHER SYSTEM THAT IS ACTUALLY WORKING!
  • LARGE AMOUNTS OF POOR DATA TEND TO PRE-EMPT ANY AMOUNT OF GOOD DATA

There are many more — but these give you a flavor of the book’s tone.

As a software developer this book was a fun read (despite the sheer horror that came with learning about just how broken almost every system is!) — but as a minister, it was even more striking.

As churches have become more institutional than organic, there has been a strong emphasis on the program (and as I call it, the Kiwanis Church — nothing but a bunch of programs good for the community!) Programs aren’t evil — just like Systems aren’t evil — or at least, they don’t start that way.

How many times have we started church programs, ministries, or events without thinking through the entire system — its inputs and outputs? Certainly we are bound by and to Scripture, but we can’t assume that we have it down perfectly. Have we thought about what problems we create and encounter. Before long, we spend more time maintaining broken congregations, dysfunctional elderships, and sick programs than actually doing what it is that those bodies are [divinely?]designed to do!

Gall suggests one particular irony: students who want to become leaders in business are forced to follow instructions for the first thirty years of their lives being told what leadership looks like–rather than ever actually leading. Ironic, huh?

There are plenty of applications for you, your job, and your ministry. Definitely worth a read!