Peter Steinke, the noted author, congregational systems consultant and professor, died unexpectedly at home on Monday, July 6, 2020. I learned of it that Thursday and wept in disbelief. I could not imagine a world without my friend Pete in it — I still can’t. I first met Steinke 20 years ago while taking his “Bridge Builders” training when I was a pastor in Long Island, New York. I had no idea that I would eventually move to his city of Austin, Texas, that we would become good friends and that he and I would offer workshops together on family systems theory.
Steinke conducted over 500 interventions in conflicted congregations — and even several seminaries. Over the years I benefited greatly from his “nuggets of wisdom” about anxiety, ecclesial systems, church conflict, family systems theory and life itself.
Below, I offer 35 of my favorites.
- Steinke often quipped: “Never let your suffering go to waste” — reminding us that people are usually more interested in quick fixes to conflict than in learning ways to mature and grow from it.
- In anxious systems, people tend to be far more interested in binding their anxiety in herd mentality than managing it maturely.
- Anxious people usually prefer cheap peace over justice. Systems often choose false harmony over genuine health — fake tranquility over rocking the boat.
- Once leaders become the “lightning rod” for the system and cannot extricate themselves from that position, their leadership is usually over.
- Not all persons identified by the system as “sick” are unhealthy. The symptom bearer is never the real problem.
- All neuroses have accomplices. Anxiety that remains unresolved in one relationship will definitely play out in other relationships.
- Even before the consultant enters the system, triangulation has long been a part of that system. Eventually every dyad gets triangulated. An African proverb aptly notes: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.”
- All dissemination of information is an emotional process. What we hear, how we hear it, how we interpret it and how we pass it on to others is governed by our emotional state and maturity. It is not what you said, it is what people heard.
- The key to effective leadership is the courage to define yourself clearly by sticking to your core values — especially when others are working so hard to define you against your best interests.
- When addressing systemic conflict, losses will result no matter what choices are made. There are no clean breaks, no soft landings. Some ragged edges will linger for a while.
- Secrets must be exposed. Hidden agendas, invisible realities and “shadow scripts” must be named and claimed for true healing to occur. Maintaining and protecting secrets never ends well.
- Emotional reactivity can issue from intelligent, erudite, educated and sophisticated persons. Being highly intelligent, educated and sophisticated does not equate to emotional maturity.
- Your position in the system usually trumps the gravitas of your personality.
- As much as possible, leaders must normalize anxiety. Unfortunately, most systems normalize reactivity. Highly differentiated people respond maturely while immature people react. Anxiety can never be fully eradicated, but it can be maturely managed.
- When managing conflict, leaders cannot simply identify what has happened — the most differentiated persons in the system must respond maturely to what has happened.
- For systemic healing to occur, clear outcomes must be identified as well as who is responsible for managing those outcomes.
- Sabotage of new health will not only come in the predictable forms of hostility and negativity — expect it to come equally in seductive niceness and unctuous charm. Human beings are very adept at masking pernicious willfulness.
- Often the real problem underneath all conflict is a lack of clear vision, purpose and mission compounded with the system’s absence of a mature immune system to respond to reactivity and boundary intrusion promptly and adequately.
- Where there is no awareness, there is no choice. Where there is no insight, there can be no healthy change. Whenever crippling anxiety mounts, the capacity for critical self-reflection diminishes and narrows — and imaginative gridlock soon ensues.
- Sadly, very few people in our churches are adequately equipped to manage conflict well. Our seminaries are generally not effective in training ecclesial leaders to be agents of change or managers of conflict. There are very few seminary courses that train pastors how to handle immature, reactive people because there is something in the DNA of the church that prefers to avoid conflict and “just be nice.”
- “Being a prophet is a noble profession if you can find the work, but always keep your resume updated.” Far too many pastors are what rabbi and family systems theorist Edwin Friedman called “peace-mongers at the top” —
pleasers wired with helper genes that predispose them to avoid conflict.
- When you decide to address conflict, do not get out on a limb all by yourself or you will probably get struck by lightning. Always develop a sense of common mission and vision with your most mature members. Learn to spread out anxiety — so all can enjoy it as much as you do!
- Jesus could have said: “Anxiety and conflict will always be with you.” Much healing would occur if we could reframe conflict from a problem to be fixed to an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and grow from it. Anxiety is polarizing — it usually either paralyzes or motivates. What plays out all depends on how leaders respond to it.
- No intervention of severe conflict is ever total — some residue always remains. Rushing in too quickly to heal is usually more about our need to fix and is usually connected to what we learned about conflict in our own families.
- We often forget that the church has unique spiritual resources to help us manage conflict that the world does not have: the cross, resurrection hope, worship, liturgy, prayer, spiritual practices, fasting, meditation, fellowship, Scripture, the sacraments, tradition, apostolic succession, laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit, the communion of the saints and atonement.
- The Body of Christ always has hope because human beings are made in the image of the Creator to be potentially teachable and possess the capacity to mature, adapt and learn new ways of being and living.
- Human beings only reach their highest potential when they welcome challenge and embrace adventure.
- Deeply entrenched conflict is better addressed with questions that require the use of one’s “higher brain” than statements that trigger the “reptilian brain.”
- You can test the differentiation level of any system by defining yourself clearly and taking a stand. Write and present your own job description to your church board and see what happens!
- “I am anxious; therefore I am.” Anxiety might be described as an irrational state of dread. It is infectious and contagious. You can catch it from others. It makes us dumber and less reflective. It demands a quick fix, and makes us impatient and reactive.
Five positive ways leaders can influence a system:
- Effective leaders bring calm and restore systemic stability through a non-anxious presence. Although anxiety is contagious, calm maturity is contagious too. Effective leaders possess the capacity to regulate their anxiety.
- Effective leaders know how to challenge systems appropriately. Most of our churches are underchallenged. Far too many churches are in survival mode, not adventure mode. People have an innate need to be challenged, stretched and pushed — and they atrophy when they are not.
- Effective leaders foster healthy change and both promote and protect the system’s most creative and imaginative innovators.
- Effective leaders promote a clear vision and focus. No vision = no clear direction. If you have no clear destination, you will wander, drift and meander. A boat on the sea with no captain and no direction will go somewhere — but where?
- Effective leaders allow people to fail and do not enable, cave in or rescue them.
DAVID LEE JONES is director of the doctor of ministry program at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin.