Systems Thinking 101: How Your Church Family Works (Steinke)

Steinke_Healthy CongregationsA “system” is a process with its distinct yet interrelated parts. Interlocking systems (nervous, skeletal, respiratory) make up the one human body. The human body is itself a sort of system of systems.

The Bible uses systems imagery when it describes the body in Romans 12: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” In a healthy body, all the systems do their part and work together as one toward balance and health. As Peter L. Steinke says in Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, “Health is a continuous process, the ongoing interplay a of multiple forces and conditions.” One thinks of the biblical notion of shalom, where health, wholeness, peace, and justice are all present.

Systems thinking offers what Steinke calls “a way of thinking about life as all of a piece… and how the relationships between the parts produce something new.” The key is not just the individual parts, but the interrelatedness of the parts and the dynamics they produce and reinforce together.

In How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, precursor to Healthy Congregations, Steinke suggests that the church is “an emotional unit” and that “the same emotional processes experienced in the family operate in the church” (xvi). Just like the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!”, the budget-setting process of the church cannot say to the strategic planning process, “I don’t need you!”

Similarly, anxiety in one part of the system or church affects what is happening in another part of the system or church, as when a parishioner loses a loved one and directs the anger outward at a church leader or other member. (Steinke later refers to this as shifting the burden.) Systems crave homeostasis, and sometimes anxiety in the system causes its members to pursue survival in less than healthy ways.


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In How Your Church Family Works Steinke aims to

conceptualize emotional processes so that we can recognize them and, ultimately, let them serve rather than corrupt the purpose of our bonding together–“for the sake of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), that “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

There are two main parts to the How Your Church Family Works. First there is “Conceptualizing Emotional Processes.” Here Steinke talks about systems and their “emotional processes” (“anxiety and reactivity,” “stability and change,” and so on). Second is “The Congregation as an Emotional System,” which uses anecdotes to show the theory of the book’s first half in action.


The Whole, Not (Just) Parts


How Your Church Family Works is one of the most insightful books I’ve read in a long time. My first exposure to systems thinking a decade ago (through Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline) permanently altered how I make sense of relationship dynamics, especially in an organizational setting. The idea of systems thinking is generative for creativity and problem solving. “Instead of seeing isolated, unrelated parts, we look at the whole” (3). But it’s far easier in pastoral ministry to fixate on isolated parts, or to fail to see an interaction as situated within a larger system. I have personally experienced what Steinke says, that systems thinking “deepens our understanding of life” (4).


Anxiety and Its Targets


Steinke_How Your Church Family WorksI loved Steinke’s section on anxiety. He remarks, “The most vulnerable or responsible people in the relationship network are the usual targets” (15) when anxiety hits. This would explain why pastors (and other organizational leaders) serve as lightning rods when the people’s anxiety is high. It’s not that anxiety itself is bad, Steinke says. It can provoke positive change (16), but only if it’s regulated. Otherwise, “what is stimulus becomes restraint” (16). In part this is because of the automatic reactive processes from the 15% of our brain’s functioning that is rooted in the brain stem (“survival processes”) and limbic system (“emotional response”) (17).

I’ve been in the Church long enough to no longer expect that a Christian community should magically be conflict-free. Neither do I expect that conflict is always handled in a healthy way. Steinke brilliantly notes just what is going on when anxiety is high in the body of believers: “Threatened, any of us may dispense with our Christian convictions and values. Anxiety is no respecter of belief systems” (21). Indeed, since the stakes are higher in Christian communities (centered as we are around the deepest truths of life), unchecked reactions to anxiety may ripple throughout the system with even more impact.


Difficult? Do It


So how should church leaders respond to anxiety? Here was one of my favorite takeaways from the book for my own ministry. Leaders ignore anxiety in systems at their own peril. (People-pleasing pastors will especially be attempted to just keep the peace.) Steinke cautions:

But “benign neglect” only reinforces malignant processes. Moreover, ignoring is as reactive as placating or attacking. VICIOUS CIRCLES CAN ONLY BE DISABLED THROUGH EXPOSURE. They are enabled by secrecy and avoidance. (27, all caps are original to Steinke)

Exposure is difficult, but a Christian calling. One thinks of the warnings in the New Testament about deeds of darkness and bringing them into the light. I was fortified by Steinke’s quotation of Rainer Maria Rilke: “That something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it” (43). Difficult ministry-related conversations get easier the more experience I have, but a part of me would would rather just keep the peace. However, to apply Steinke’s insight, that risks perpetuating anxiety and reactivity in a system, in a way that is less than helpful. The better thing is to seek (in humility, love, and confidence) to expose and address those parts of a system that seem to be exacerbating problems. (Realizing, too, that I myself am part of the system and capable of contributing for good or for ill.)


Case Studies


The book’s second half provides ample case studies to help the reader better understand the concepts. Steinke breaks down one church’s dysfunction into a series of triangulations, which he diagrams for clarity (84-5). Earlier in the book he describes a church he consulted with, where he encouraged them to redefine problems they’d articulated “without focusing solely on a person or issue as presented in the original problem” (57).

His “Presenting Problem” vs. “Redefined Problem” chart is a model for how to reframe conflict. His ten group reflection questions that follow are virtually alone worth the price of the book. Here are two highlights: “What would it take to have a pastor stay here ten years, twenty years?” (59) and, “How would you be willing to invest yourself in the process of creating the image you defined above?” (60) I photographed these ten questions and saved them to my Evernote, so I can access them for future work in church evaluation.

I’ll be mulling over these systems thinking concepts for years to come. Both of these books by Steinke are worth reading a.s.a.p.


Where to Find out More


How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems: Amazon / Publisher’s page

Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach: Amazon / Publisher’s page



Thanks to Rowman & Littlefield for the review copies of both books, given to me for review purposes but with no expectation as to the content or nature of my evaluation.

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