Shifting from Goal-Setting to Systems Work

Oct 28, 2021 9:00:00 AM / by Nicholas Tangen

When I first started working as a community engagement coordinator in a congregation, I brought along all the big and impressive goals about welcome, community, justice, and equity that I hoped we would accomplish together in my time there. I remember that first week I bought myself a gigantic white board for my office and I carefully crafted my goals as a community engagement coordinator and prepared for the goal setting we would do as a community.

Suddenly, it was a year later. Now when I looked at the board I felt a twinge of regret, shame, and failure. We hadn’t moved the needle as much as I had hoped, and some of the goals didn’t seem to even be a priority anymore. It was clear that though we had named and envisioned some beautiful and meaningful goals, we hadn’t done as much work to identify our plan for getting there. Instead, we had painted an image of who we wanted to be in hopes that the mere knowledge of that would inspire one another to act differently. It turns out that isn’t a very good strategy.

Luckily, around this time I began to dig into some writing about habit formation that helped to clarify something that I think James Clear in his book Atomic Habits captures beautifully. Clear says that “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (Atomic Habits, p. 27).

These two sentences helped me to get clear about where and how to focus my energy. Rather than projecting a vision for the congregation as it should be out into the future and challenging us to reach it, I would focus on building systems and practices that reinforce that vision here and now.

For me, this meant implementing a practice of regular one-to-ones with congregation members and neighbors and coaching members to do the same. It meant learning about and developing an equity tool for decisions about our capital campaigns. It meant checking in every week with our unsheltered neighbors, often the most vulnerable folks in the community, and inviting them to take part in neighborhood decision making.

Systems work is slow and can sometimes feel too small to make change. But, after some time, the goals we had named as a community began to become a reality and I felt myself a part of a community that took real and meaningful action and embodied our sense of God’s Beloved Community. Those feelings of regret, shame, and failure began to diminish as I saw this community become centered around a practice of being community here and now, rather than focusing so much of their energy on a vision of the community they could be in the future.

The truth is, sometimes our goals and our desire to name our vision for who we want to be can get in the way of our ability to experience the kind of transformation that God is calling us to in the present moment. When our goals become mile markers on the way to phony ideas about ideal communities, we can be tempted to ignore the ways in which God shows up in the messiness of real communities. We can forget that our vocation is not something we accomplish, but something we live.

So, as you think about who your congregation is or who your congregation wants to be, consider spending a little more time focusing on the systems and practices that reinforce that vision, rather than on the dreamy image of who you could be in the future. Fall to the level of your systems and the goals will follow. Thanks be to God.

Topics: Adults Ministry, change, systems, social justice

Nicholas Tangen

Written by Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is the Director of Faith Practices & Neighboring Practices at the Minneapolis Area Synod. He graduated from United Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Leadership, focusing on Social Transformation. He writes about the church, community, and social change at


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