Thinking Systemically

May 13, 2024

Planning for Parish Catechesis in 2024-2025
Part Two

Thinking systemically involves looking at things as interconnected systems rather than isolated parts. It's about understanding how various components within a system interact with each other and how changes in one part can affect the whole. It involves analyzing the system as a whole rather than focusing on individual parts in isolation.

Systems thinking is a way of helping us view the challenges we face in catechesis with all ages from a broader perspective that includes seeing the whole life span and the context of people’s lives today, rather than seeing only a specific issue or concern in isolation. For example: “We’ve got to solve the youth problem” or “We’ve got to get families back to church.” Our immediate response to the problem or challenge is to create a targeted program or strategy to solve the problem that has surfaced: How can we keep our teens involved in church? How do involve young adults who have left our churches? How do we make sure our families are practicing their faith at home and bringing their children to church and classes?

While the initiatives that are created may be excellent, they are not systemic. They make us think the problem lies with the people – teens or young adults or parents – and all we need to do is design something to “fix” the problem. All too often these new programs fail to solve the problem because the problem lies in the system of faith formation. Consider the parish that mandates children and parents go to Mass (and sign-in) and come to required parent meetings and classes during First Eucharist preparation only to find that their participation in Mass and catechetical programs returns to the way it was before First Eucharist. Consider the parish that implements the latest confirmation program that promises to engage youth more deeply in their faith and participation in parish life but still finds that most young people “leave” after Confirmation (just like in the old program). Consider the parish that adopts a program to re-engage adults who are not practicing their faith and not involved in the parish only to find that almost all of the participants are already active members of the parish community.

Think for a moment about particular issues or problems in catechesis that your parish has been trying to solve, but nothing seems to work. The solution might reside in thinking systemically about the issue. Reframe what looks like a people-problem or a program-program into a systems problem.

Systems thinking sees individual problems or challenges as connected to a larger system of faith forming that might not be working well. By focusing on the entire system of faith formation, we can attempt to identify solutions that address as many problems as possible in the system. The positive effect of those solutions leverages improvement throughout the system. Thus, they are called “leverage points” in the system. This priority on the entire system and its leverage points is called whole systems thinking.


Here are a few examples of whole systems thinking in catechesis.

  • To address the faith and engagement of parents and children preparing for First Eucharist examine the parish’s faith forming efforts from Baptism to First Eucharist. How is the parish accompanying parents in the young childhood years? How are parents forming the faith of their young children? How is the parish engaging young families in Sunday Mass and parish life?
  • To design or improve catechesis with adolescents (and Confirmation preparation) examine young people’s faith formation experiences in childhood and envision what they are going to need in young adulthood. What was their experience of formation at home and at church during childhood? Does the parish need to improve faith forming – at home and church – in the first decade of life? How can the parish prepare young people for living their faith in the challenging young adult years? What knowledge, skills, and practices will they need to learn so they can live their faith in young adulthood? And finally, what are life tasks and issues, and religious and spiritual needs of young people today that need to be addressed through adolescent catechesis?
  • To design adult catechesis that moves beyond the “adopt a program for all adults” mindset and reach a wider audience of adults it’s important to see adulthood in all its complexity. Consider the distinct life tasks and spiritual-religious needs of four seasons of adulthood: young adults (20s-30s), midlife adults (40s-50s), mature adults (60s-70s), and older adults (80+). Consider the diversity of adult religiosity and practice: believing and practicing, believing but not practicing, not believing or practicing, returning to the Catholic faith, unbaptized, and more. Begin to envision multiple pathways and programming to respond to the seasons of life and to the diverse religious needs of adults.

What are the challenges that your parish faces today in catechesis with families and all ages? Explore each challenge from a systems lens to understand more deeply how the particular problem or challenge is connected to the wider system of faith forming. What needs to change in the system? What needs to change in the design of catechesis with your target audience of families, children, adolescents, or adults? 


Part Three in the “Planning for Parish Catechesis” series will present two ways to plan new initiatives in 2024-25: 1) How can you enhance and/or expand current catechetical approaches and programming to address new challenges? and 2) How can you create new projects to address the new challenges you are facing?

Stay Tuned!


John Roberto
NCCL Executive Director
[email protected]


Read PART ONE: It's Time to Evaluate | View Leader Resources


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