31 for 41: The System and the Servant

Dear Donovan,

When you were in fourth grade, I think it was, you came home upset one day.  Your strong sense of justice had been offended.  You had labored over a practice end-of-grade test with the promise of an ice cream party for the class who scored the best on the practice exam.  You achieved a very high score, but your class did not win the contest.  On the playground, a boy who told you that he did not try hard on his test and received a very low score flaunted his ice cream in front of you, a treat he received since his class won the contest.

If we examine the contest from a distance, we observe a plan that was organized to give students an incentive to try their best.  The plan was surely born out of a sincere and innocent intention to provide teachers with fresh and accurate data about student strengths and weaknesses, with time to address needs before the real exam.  An unintended result, however, was a frustrated and downtrodden little boy who had worked so hard and received nothing in return, from his point of view, while another was rewarded for doing almost nothing.

The system had a flaw.  This is a part of the human experience.  You could go around and ask individuals, “Has there been a time when a system designed to help you actually failed you or even harmed you?”  You would soon have enough material for several volumes on this study.

A government, business, or organization seeks to produce some desired outcome.  Because the entity needs humans in order to produce the desired outcome, but the entity cannot control all of the everyday activities of the humans, the entity designs systems meant to control behavior and therefore control outcomes.  Because humans are imperfect, we can argue that systems are in fact needed.  But inevitably, systems fail in part or in their entirety, and sometimes produce the exact opposite outcome of what was desired.

Take the example of a company that is trying to produce a more positive culture among its employees who work in a fast-paced, high-stress environment.  The hope is that if the work culture is more positive and employees are happier while working, productivity will be higher, and then so will profit.  It sounds like a win-win situation, right?  A group of company executives devises a system in which verbal positive contributions from employees are intentionally noted and praised.  “If Dan sends a positive email to his supervisor about that day when Maria helped him, then we will highlight Dan at our next department meeting for being positive.”

Conversely, if an employee is perceived to be making negative comments about a procedure or another team member, he could be subject to private meetings with a supervisor or notes in his personnel file.  This system may seem fair enough for a group of professional adults.  The thing to remember, however, is that the system is both designed and carried out by imperfect humans.  A new, insecure supervisor perceives a veteran employee’s observations about the problems with a specific procedure to be negative.  The employee suddenly finds himself being chastised.  Other employees, who agreed with this veteran employee’s assessment of a problem, take note.

In just a short amount of time, an entire group of employees learns to remain quiet when they discover procedural problems, when a co-worker keeps making the same mistake, or when they have an idea for procedural improvement.  The incentive was supposed to be for positive contributions, but the system instead created an incentive to keep quiet for fear of being labeled as a negative employee.  Instead of increased productivity and happiness at work, problems go unaddressed and become worse while employees feel stifled and even trapped.

Let me offer you another example that I saw play out repeatedly when I used to accompany crime victims in district court.  At the end of 2005, the misdemeanor crime of sexual battery became a “reportable conviction” in North Carolina.  This meant that individuals convicted of this crime now had to register as sex offenders just like those convicted of felony sexually violent crimes.  That sounds like a very powerful systematic statement against sexual crime and in the interest of protecting victims and the general public, and I would never argue against the intention of that statement.

In court in 2007, however, so many of my clients who were victims of clear, evidence-backed cases of sexual battery were approached and sometimes even “guilted” into agreeing to have the charge changed to a simple assault charge.  “He will plead guilty to simple assault and you won’t have to testify.  We just don’t want him to be marked as a sexual offender,”  they were told.  Many clients agreed, understandably, to avoid having to recount the details in a room full of strangers.  Perhaps this measure did spare lots of women from having to testify.  Still, two outcomes that I repeatedly saw with my own eyes were: 1) fewer sexual offense convictions, and 2) a message sent to sexual crime victims that they should give up their own desire for truth and justice so that their perpetrators, “otherwise upstanding business men” for example, do not have their records blemished.

I saw yet another problem within a system designed to protect crime victims as I served women facing partner violence.  Because data collection through the years shows that many women who are murdered by a partner are killed by a gun and within a short period of time after separating from the partner, systems have been put in place to try to protect women when they separate from an abusive partner after an escalation of violence.  When a person obtains a domestic violence protective order, federal law prohibits the partner from possessing a firearm.  The intent of the system is to protect the abused and indeed, protect even the abuser from committing further crimes.

I do not disagree with this measure, but I did often watch what was meant to be a protection instead become a barrier.  So often, when the abused wife or girlfriend of a person who must possess a weapon for his/her profession found out that the person would lose the ability to possess a weapon if a protective order was granted, they suddenly felt that the court had no help to offer them.  Many women calculated the possible cost of that person losing his/her weapons and job, and decided that they could not ask for help or gain protection under a system that truly was designed to protect them but could not serve them.  

So what are we to do?  A society needs systems in order to function as a collective group.  Indeed, the very institution of government was ordained by God (Romans 13:1).  You know I like my own systems as good as the next recovering perfectionist.  I already have my digital calendar for the next school year ready to go, and having my clothes organized by the colors and order of the visible light spectrum just makes perfect sense!  Still, as you go through life, I always want you to be keenly aware that man-made systems have their limits. 

When you are working under a system, honor its intentions but know that there will be flaws.  When you are the one responsible for creating a system that will affect others, be willing to look past your own ideas and desired outcomes and consider who could be harmed instead of helped.  When anyone tries to sell you a system, so to speak, when it comes to government or economics or self-improvement or organized religion, remember that each system both has natural limits and should be limited by humans in the degree to which it exerts power over individuals.  The idea of a one-party system in which the government controls all resources but everyone’s needs are met might sound like a great idea to some, but I think you know how those experiments have worked out so far.

Here’s the other important thing I want you to see about systems.  Running congruent to this inevitability of systematic flaws is the necessity of a servant to remedy the flaw.  If a situation is to be remedied after a system fails, it must be because individuals intervene to help.  Imagine how you might have felt encouraged to carry on if someone had acknowledged your hard work on that practice EOG and rewarded you with ice cream, or at least had acknowledged that the situation was not fair to a little boy who took the test as seriously as he was asked to take it.  Imagine how many women might still be alive if we could address barriers to gaining court protection.

Think of those times when a system failed you.  If it was made better or made right, it was because some individual took on the role of servant.  Because of this, do not support the system at the expense of the individual.  A system can be beautiful on paper, but completely ineffective in practice.  Would you rather the twins have a kindergarten teacher whose room looks like a Pinterest pin but who does not love five-year-olds, or would you rather them have a teacher who has no posters or classroom library but who is excited about the growth potential of every single student on her roster?  Given the choice, I would choose the loving teacher with an empty classroom every single time.

Do you remember another time when you came home upset about the injustices in the world even though you had been able to pet a baby alligator?  You were in kindergarten yourself, and since you had sold enough items for the school fundraiser (aka your mama bought enough items), you were allowed to go see zoo animals in the school gym.  Every five-year-old in your class who got to go to the gym had also sold enough to pet a baby alligator (you’re welcome)… except for one single student.  Your heart was broken because his heart had been broken when he could not pet the baby alligator.  Your only consolation was in knowing that Ms. Elliott had taken your friend and made him a special alligator picture that no one else had the honor of receiving.  You see, when the system designed to raise school funds ended up hurting a little boy, it was an individual teacher who stepped in to soothe the ache.

This is why I always want you to be aware of the limitiations of systems, and the need for servant leaders.  When systems falter or fail, we need people to step in with a willingness to serve others and not themselves.  This is why I want you to be a leader who is as interested in training and supporting humans as you are in tweaking systems.

Finally, I want to direct your attention to a system of rules instituted thousands of years ago.  God gave Moses ten commandments, and hundreds of subsequent laws were added to the Mosaic Law to guide behavior.  The Law-giver was and is Perfect, but there was still a problem with this system for humans.  Being imperfect, no human could fulfill this law in all of its points.  That’s why the Servant who was Perfect came to Earth and purchased our redemption.  A Servant had to step in when the law could not give us what we needed, which was a way to be made perfect.  What the system could not do for us, the Savior did.  May you and I both live in the shadow of such grace, and may we be willing to show grace to others as servants to people who are hurting.

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.  John 1:17

I love you forever,

Your mom










system and the savior



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