Review: Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke

Congregation Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke: A Review 

by Glen Bickford

Peter Steinke continues his church consultation legacy with this book focused
on church leadership: how to be a non-anxious presence. His first chapter, Anxious Souls, describes the effects of anxiety: contagiousness, reactivity, black and white thinking. He also quotes Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger’s reasons why clergy often leave the ministry. A common reason, not surprisingly, is conflict over pastoral style, finances, worship style, staff issues, and building construction/renovation.[1] The following chapters in part 1 deal with relations between individuals: Steinke’s playbook of family systems theory and well differentiated leadership. In these opening chapters, the illustrations from congregational life are much more useful than the information of these opening chapters, material most of which is contained in Steinke’s other works. On occasion, Steinke goes beyond restating information and expands on it. For example, that neurological research has discovered why people under stress tend to have a limited repertoire of responses and magnify slight injuries into much greater hurts.[2]

Once again, however, the later materials in Parts 2 and 3 are worth the price of the book. The five most common issues in troubled congregations Steinke names from his years of experience are helpful: high anxiety, polarization, no clear sense of mission, poor boundaries, and avoidance of problems. He describes the leaders’ positions in the emotional “field” of a congregation. Quotations like “The antagonism of the anxious is proportionate to the niceness of the leader” are invaluable in understanding emotional resistance (by “nice,” Steinke means the willingness to avoid risk at all costs).

For congregational health, leaders need firm stands on issues. Leaders must have a tolerance for pain or else those who are anxious will control the congregation. Leaders need to act as immunity for the congregational system. Leaders need to challenge congregations in these anxious turbulent times rather than merely protecting them. Leaders need to have clear boundaries and protect and support healthy boundaries within the congregation. Such boundaries define territory and protect space from invasion by others. Within the congregational system, less mature people act without self-regulation to destabilize the congregational system.[3]

Churches today are “far too fearful of conflict,” Says Steinke. We need a paradigm shift to understanding conflict as part of life. According to Steinke’s research, four out of ten congregations in any five-year period have a moderate to serious conflict. [4] Congregations in conflict exhibit coping mechanisms such as peace-mongering, neglect or denial and the equating of conflict with forces of evil. Where congregational conflict differs in recent years is that there is a new aggressiveness, a natural outcome of the increased stress of recent years. Theologically, Steinke argues persuasively, churches need conflict. Jesus himself upset people emotionally to bring about change.[5]

The positive path to conflict management includes 1) expect behavior in a conflict to be substandard for a while 2) Ask questions and seek clarity 3) encourage self and others to observe behavior rather than participate 4) convey information 5) Work with the healthy individuals 6) structure a process 7) Reframe 8) work hard on healing post conflict 9) bring in a third party.

The twenty observations Steinke makes about congregations in conflict are alone worth the price of the book.[6] Noteworthy among these observations are that sabotage should be expected, that a cycle of allowing fighting, problem solving and allowing more fighting is effective in solving conflict (all with controlled boundaries- GB), change in individual congregational relationships is necessary for a congregation to be changed by conflict, people’s functioning depend on context rather their “usual” style and that the degree to which the conflict is positive or negative depends greatly on leadership response. Finally, Steinke says to expect a healing process of 2-5 years in any moderate to severe congregational conflict.

There come times, says Steinke when “rocking the emotional boat” by leaders is necessary to promote congregational health.[7] Using the example of Moses and Aaron, Steinke claims leaders must move beyond survival mentality to challenge the congregation. Steinke ends with the notion from Henri Nouwen that in leaders who challenge humility and courage are both necessary.[8] As in his later book, A Door Set Open,Steinke ends with encouragement and hope that leaders have the help of God in these tasks. The book’s postscript deals with narcissistic functioning among clergy and congregations.

With most of Steinke’s books there is a tendency to repeat material from earlier books. Even theses repetitions, however, can be helpful to those who desire a fuller understanding of Steinke’s theories and the development of his thought. To those who are well-versed in Steinke’s thought and do not wish greater depth, the book essentially begins on page 65. Given Steinke’s experience as consultant with conflict in over two hundred churches, there are few people in a position of knowledge and experience to adequately critique his insights in the book’s remainder. In my opinion the observations and principles which follow the opening chapters are immensely valuable: the book gives us one more chance to sit at the feet of the master consultant.

[1] Hoge, Dean R. and Wenger, Jacqueline E.. Pastors in TransitionWhy Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI Eerdmans, 2005) 76-79

[2]Steinke, Peter L.. Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What. (Herndon, VA, Alban Institute, 2006) 53

[3]Ibid., 95

[4]Ibid., 99

[5]Ibid., 107 ff.

[6] Ibid., 113-117

[7] Ibid., 121 ff.

[8] Ibid, 157; from Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Dance of Life ed. Michael Ford (Notre Dame IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 156.

Mediation Brings New Ideas

One of the most valuable things that a mediator brings to a conflict is a different perspective. A mediator can offer new ideas without seeming to be on one side or another. For example, there are at least five different ways to divide personal personal property in a divorce mediation.  A mediator can offer a solution without pushing it on either party.

Mediators are not always lawyers.

Many mediators are lawyers but I am not a lawyer, so when people ask me a legal question the best thing I can do is refer them to a lawyer. This makes divorce mediation slow at times. But it it better to know one’s boundaries than give poor legal advice. At times in divorce mediation, however, being a pastor is a great advantage: I know how to calm parties in a way that not all lawyers can.

Review: The American Church in Crisis by David Olson

David Olson is a pastor, church planter and church planter coach for the Evangelical Covenant Church. A long-time resident of Minnesota, he recently moved to Chicago to take a position with the national office of the Evangelical Covenant Church. His book The American Church in Crisis is a statistician’s attempt to make sense of the overall decline in the American church using worship attendance records of the period 1990-2006 from a data base of 200,000 churches in many denominations. Almost every way conceivable for one to parse the data is used in the book, and to great effect.

Olson begins by noting the difference between what people report to pollsters about church attendance vs. how many actually attend. The self-reported figure for a week in 2000-2005 is 40-44%,[1] while the actual figure based on 2005 attendance records is 17.5%[2]. Quite a difference! Furthermore, he states that while total church worship attendance was about 51 million in 2006, the US population grew by nearly the same amount from 1990-2006; thus while numbers of attendees from 1990-2006 declined, the percentage of Americans attending church declined significantly. Factoring in deaths and immigrants, 91 million people are new to the US during those years.[3]

After discussing the attendance decline in every area of the country and in each denomination he studied, Olson goes on to hypothesize the reason. Young churches on average grow more quickly than older ones. The older the church, on average, the lower the growth rate in members. In addition, for the churches studied, churches with under 50 members and those over 1000 members worshipping each week grew in attendance while those churches in between declined[4] This is true for conservative evangelical churches as well as for the mainline denominations. Thus, he begins a very convincing case for more church starts.

Why did the smallest and largest churches grow? Olson states quite reasonably that very small churches have family-like closeness, while the largest churches have resources to do worship and many other aspects of church with excellence. Those churches in between are both too large to be intimate and too small to compete with the larger churches in resources. Many pastors have told me that their middle-sized congregations have a self-esteem problem from looking at the largest. As a growth strategy, Olson suggests that in-between churches try to foster intimacy using small groups (imitate small churches) and not attempt to compete with the largest churches in all areas but instead choose only a couple aspects of church to do very well. 

Why did the youngest churches grow? Young churches grow quickly and tend to be more attractive than older ones because they are flexible, dynamic and adaptable. Olson then goes on to say that much of the reason the American Christian church is not growing is because decades after the 20th century church building boom many churches are older and hence numerically stable. Today, fewer churches are being started and thus denominations are not taking advantage of the growth rate of young churches. The ELCA, for example, has 81% of its churches over 40 years old, 17% between 11-40 years old and only 2% of churches less than 10 years old.[5] Olson states a denomination needs to plant 2 churches per year per hundred existing churches (2%) to keep up with population growth (mainline denominations’ rates range from .2% for UMC to .4% for PCUSA and ELCA). The reason evangelical denominations are growing says Olson, is that they simply plant more churches (3-4% of existing churches per year).[6]  

Olson spends the last portion of his book explaining the shift from “American Christendom” to a postmodern world and beyond. Since 2000, Olson states we are living as mission churches in a “secular yet spiritually curious culture.”[7] For Olson, the need to plant churches is not only Biblically mandated but also essential if the American Church is to survive. The message and mission of the church is the good news of Jesus Christ.

The message and mission of the church is not to return to the status quo. Rather it is to reach out beyond to the millions who have not heard the gospel. In this, I agree with Olson wholeheartedly. A critique of Olson’s excellent book might be that numbers growth does not always equate to spiritual health and that decline in attendance does not necessarily mean the church is spiritually unhealthy. Perhaps many of the church attendees in generations past attended church due to social obligation rather than to faith. Thus, the American church today might be smaller but truer to the faith of Jesus Christ. Still, it is reasonably clear from Olson’s research and statistics that the American church needs to do a better job in the future of reaching out than it has in the recent past. I heartily recommend Olson’s book, a surprising readable look at the statistics of church attendance and decline.

                                                                                     Pastor Glen Bickford 

[1] David Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 26.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 35ff.

[4] Ibid., 83, 86.

[5] David Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 125.

[6] Ibid., 146.

[7]Ibid., 167.

Review: Peter Steinke’s A Door Set Open and New Visions Training Program

This is a new Blog devoted to Church Consultation.
I recently attended an Interim Ministry Conference in Nashville. We spoke about mediation, consultation and how to change the mindset of many congregations today. Below is my review of a post conference seminar program.

Review: Peter Steinke’s A Door Set Open and New Visions Training Program
Peter Steinke has been a guru of understanding emotional systems in churches for over thirty years. A Student of Edwin Friedman and Murray Bowen, his books seek to explain why church members act as they do and what pastors can do about it. His latest book: A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope and its accompanying New Visions study materials give a good background into how the American church got where it is, (once the dominant culture in America but no longer) to where it is now (on the edge of society looking in), struggling with secularization and the concept of too much information and change to process it all properly.

As in his other books, Steinke spends some time explaining family systems theory for novices. He throws in his favorite concept, “reptilian brain thinking,” the idea that change throws most church members into “fight or flight” syndrome and his favorite word in conjunction with anxious church members, “amygdala,” an emotional center of the brain. Beyond the usual, however, the book also states a clear premise: churches resist change least when it involves mission and when that mission is grounded in hope. The purpose of Steinke’s book is to get churches out of survival and social club mode and return to the original mission of the Christian church, doing good for others. For Steinke, hope is the key. He states correctly that the temptations of denial, despair and the desire for “quick fix” magical outcomes are common in today’s churches and must be resisted.

The process of change is deep and a struggle, says Steinke[1] His “eight steps to significant change” (establish urgency, form a congregational coalition, visioning, communicating the vision, empowering action, consolidation of vision, incorporation into the system and identifying leaders to continue the vision) should be essential reading in any seminary.

Steinke seeks to move congregations one small group at a time from “mission drift” into “mission culture.” This paradigm shift is touted not for church survival or growth in numbers or finance but for spiritual growth in members and mission beyond the congregation. If properly developed this program could also result in numbers and financial growth. His book is accompanied by excellent workbook materials chapter by chapter, as well as Steinke himself in a couple of videos telling stories of his experiences in churches. These additional materials, though pricey ($40/group member but reusable, with optional videos extra) can be very helpful in leading change over several months.

If Steinke’s gambit succeeds, it will transform church culture as we know it into a dynamo of social improvement and will succeed in adapting it to the rapidly changing environment we live in today and to become the yeast in the dough of society. One can hope this endeavor succeeds. Steinke himself would be the first to admit that, American churches being the resistant emotional systems that they are, only a percentage will themselves to be transformed in this way. I agree; many churches as we know them are doomed to extinction but those that do persevere and succeed in adopting Steinke’s “mission culture” will become the foundation of the future church.

I am available to teach this series to any congregation or judicatory that would desire it. I can arrange to teach this via the internet to avoid travel expenses

[1]Peter SteinkeA Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope. (Alban Institute, Herdon, Virginia, 2010), 49 ff.

Racheting down tension

Sometimes in mediation two parties are more bent on hurting and destroying each other than working things out. They may even prolong a mediation to hurt each other. Sometimes, the best thing a mediator can do is to simply end the session and give parties space and time to calm down. Sometimes this can be accomplished with a short break; occasionally it means rescheduling. One accomplishes more at times by indirect  results. Lower the tension so people can think and then mediate. This is often more helpful than trying to mediate under a dark cloud of pain and reactivity.