“Distress and pain are friends to growth”
‘How Your Church Family Works’ by Peter L. Steinke is a Trojan horse. It presents as a work on ecclesiology (hence the tagline ‘Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems’) but beware ancient Greeks bearing gifts. If you find a mentor, trainer or ministry colleague suggesting you read this book, prepare to have your fortified assumptions on leadership infiltrated. Be not deceived – Steinke’s work is apparently about your unhealthy congregation, but in the cold light of dawn you discover it is about unhealthy leadership: yours.
I read this book mid-battle for the very soul of a congregation. And perhaps that is the healthiest context to do so: an uncomfortable and compelling read best survived and re-enjoyed during pastoral discombobulation. In the struggle to lead God’s people, I found daily opportunities for immediate application of Steinke’s observations, as a minister working with fellow elders in a local Presbyterian church. They did too. As Steinke puts it, “Only through threats to its well-being does the body learn to respond and become efficient at the business of being healthy” (p.128, emphasis mine).
In our denomination we repeatedly approach the problem of unhealthy congregations by sending in a new pastor ‘to sort them out’. But as my father often observed: ‘when you don’t know what to do, you do what you know’. So we maintain our one-man habit despite its demonstrable failure to change anything: toxic churches remain toxic, another pastoral family are packed up off to counselling, presbyteries are further demoralised, and the clerk adds one more name to the column of untethered ‘Ministers under Jurisdiction’. We want to and, according to Steinke, can do better. His thesis? We do that by fostering ‘differentiation’ amidst the system of relationships we find ourselves in.
In many ways the book functions as an introduction to Family Systems Theory, applied to churches. It is a radically refreshing take on our traditional one-man-band approach to leadership. Peter Steinke’s goal was to summarise an earlier, lengthier work by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who in turn was highly influenced by Dr Murray Bowen. Steinke wrote the original in 1993, updating it in 2006, adding a tenth chapter on further theological reflection. He has a Lutheran background. The book is culturally bound in North America. Most worked examples assume large, urban churches. Yet my elders and I in a small, rural Australian church found these elements of dislocation helpful for our reflection rather than a hindrance. “Systems theory creates a shift in our awareness” (p.xv). It refocusses the awareness of leaders from individuals and the problems they cause, to relationships and the opportunities for transformation they otherwise hide. The primary metaphor he uses is ‘the body’, drawing on modern biological insights but grounding them in theology we immediately apprehend from Paul’s letters. Steinke’s gift is to fire the reflective imagination of his readers: how could we have handled that differently, and what would that have looked like relationally?
Here is a small sample to whet your appetite:
“Although we know that secrets are a tell-tale characteristic of dysfunctional families, we often protect and refuse to expose irresponsible whisperers.” (p.100)
“Pursuit behaviour is any behaviour that overfocuses on another person. The most obvious form of such behaviour is rescue.” (p.98)
“Strange as it sounds, the critic wants to be close… what we think is not as important as that we are thinking of them” (p.99)
“Before anyone can be a ‘steward of the vision’, one must be a ‘steward of the self’.” (p.118)
The book has its frustrations. Some illustrations are dated. A few diagrams add confusion rather than clarity. Structure becomes opaque in some chapters and a few significant concepts wallow for lack of concreteness. Occasionally we begged for a short story, a worked example, something to apply. Steinke’s psychotherapy bent intrudes a little too much, albeit rarely. And unlike most on the church, this book suffers from over-editing. It reads like the original manuscript was much longer but had to be condensed to fit a publisher’s page count. But any work that leaves me hungry for more words, not fewer, is worth re-reading. I am on my third reading now.
At first blush I was struck by the glaring omission of any mention of sin. And in a book on church? This is however a superficial reading, a mistake not worth making and best avoided from the outset. Once we granted Steinke the benefit of the doubt we discovered his whole thought-world is, in a sense, trying to understand the dynamics of sin – how it manifests, spreads and enervates a whole group of people who at the same time are bound together in Christ’s love. His final chapter finally mentions sin – but gifted only through a beautiful, integrating discussion of our faith.
Steinke uses other terms throughout to summarise how sin presents behaviourally. He speaks plenty about unhealthy anxiety, immaturity, instinct, defensiveness, blaming, conspiring, self-soothing, ‘reptilian behaviour’ and reaction. So, it’s not that there’s no developed theology of sin – better to say it’s just too implicit! His stories of congregational factionalism, coups, civil war, betrayal, and cunning cut close to the bone. This man understands the conundrums of ministry. But what to do about it?
I first read this book on my own, as moderator of another church in a town not my own. My second reading has been with my own elders, sharing leadership in our local congregation. We meet every Monday afternoon and spend an hour or so discussing the content. It is a catalyst for the process of culture-building in my Session. Some days we cover most of a chapter. Most days we cover just some. Our goal is not to complete the book, but to enjoy what God is doing in us as we go through it. The reflection it fosters is where the treasure is – the provocative and galvanising cargo hidden in the belly of this horse.
Steinke’s guiding convictions are that our churches are essentially family systems, emotional systems which are inherently anxious, and that we as church leaders have failed to grasp the implications for how we manage ourselves. His primary focus moves from building awareness of our congregation as a singular whole, to a healthier understanding of our own role as stewards, leaders, custodians of the health of this localised body, this body of believers in Christ Jesus. As an eldership, our most confronting discussion was at the end of chapter 6 ‘Do Not Go Gently into That Glob of Glue’: “The keys to treating an unhealthy congregation… are the leaders. They are positioned to be the church family’s ‘differentiation,’ the immune cells of the whole. They are the body’s mature cells. Leaders are responsible for defining themselves and ensuring the group’s definition of who they are.” (p.88)
We take our time – we reflect on past mistakes when Steinke identifies them for us – his writing shows us up like the ‘roos in the high beams of our Landcruisers at night. We learn about triangulation from Steinke: “I let myself get triangulated by her back there”. We see more anxiety: “We only saw how they crashed and burned – but now we see what led them to it.” On non-anxious presence: “The reason the church didn’t split is because we took our time to respond, rather than react.” We identify fusion: “I worry that one day his over-familiarity with me may flip to vengeance.” We practice differentiation: “I disagree. But I understand why we have taken this position. How do we best act as a result? Let me lead us in prayer.” We ask about story: “What happened in her past to make her so wary?” We re-assess vision: “We’re seeing that real value lies not so much in what our vision says, but what it does.” We account for genealogy: “But how would they know any different – that behaviour is all that’s ever been modelled for them!” Of course, the proximity of a Monday reflection to last Sunday’s service is a playground for real-time application. In a word, this book is about truthing-in-love (Ephesians 4:12).
To finish where we began, let’s allow Steinke the last word: “The only way to increase our functioning in a differentiated manner is in the midst of forces that fight against it: anxiety, hostility, immaturity and dependency.” (p.102).
I highly recommend opening the gates. Welcome this book in. And brace for Steinke’s infiltration of your most secure and as-yet-unchallenged leadership battlements.