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. 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.
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.
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.  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.
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. 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. 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. 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.