How Your Church Family Works

Church’s are like families.  Not necessarily a comforting thought.

In “How Your Church Family Works,” Peter L. Steinke describes how all families, be it a congregation or a home, works with the reality of anxiety. As Steinke observes, “Put people together and inevitably anxiety will arise.” A number of variables can trigger anxiety. For example, a new minister, declining membership, financial strategizing, changes in worship styles, long-range visioning, and death in the church family.  However the anxiety arises, it will flow and settle in a relationship system in potentially predictable ways.  Typically, the most responsible and most vulnerable people are affected most. Thus, this book is particularly useful to clergy, like me, who are prone to be the ones taking responsibility for everything that happens.

Steinke explains that congregations have patterns and roles of relating that “handle” anxiety. For example, someone works really hard to make everyone else happy.  Someone else “acts out” to get attention and assert control in the midst of uncertainty. Someone else quietly removes himself to stay out of conflict. Someone else floats along thinking eventually “God will work it all out,” hoping to shield himself from feeling the tensions.

The author also points out that understanding how people and systems are interconnected can make us aware of more helpful ways of responding to the situations we face as a church. Specifically, it is important to recognize that there is more going on in any situation than what is immediately taking place.

We all need to be reminded, and Steinke consistently does so, that anxiety is not only inevitable, it is also not necessarily bad. Anxiety is the energy and friction we have when operating with others in the midst of change. As a child, we’ve all gone through, in one form or another, “growing pains.”  Change is painful. Still, the pain of change gives a person the chance to grow stronger.  In a similar way, anxiety can lead to life-giving, relationship-enhancing outcomes when handled purposefully and properly.  In fact, stress on a system can indicate that the system is not working well and needs to be adjusted.

The author notes that we can respond to anxiety in two basic ways:  reactively or purposefully.  For example, shock at the news of a death is a reactive response.  We don’t practice or prepare for shock.  However, when we limited ourselves to our reactions, only ever reacting to stress and anxiety in the same way over time, we can establish life-draining behaviors that hinder a system. It is not healthy to live “shocked” for the rest of one’s life.  Other responses are called for to live well after the tragedy of death.

Two basic reactions are at work in each of us:  we are prone to a) alienate ourselves from others or b) lock-on to others. The healthy person is able to “self-differentiate,” that is, balance these poles by being with others but not so connected that he or she “loses herself.”

It is clear that this “theory” might help us choose intentional ways of structuring our church practices and relationships. For example, gossip is an unhealthy, and often times reactive response to anxious situations. It establishes “triangles” which erects and reinforces barriers; barriers which can dismantle trusting relationships needed for a church to function well. Open, honest, direct communication is important.  So a church, aware of this, might foster “covenants of communication” between staff members and within church committees. Gossip would be named and avoided. Or, to promote self-differentiation, a church might cultivate practices of “staying with ourselves” in which we claim our feelings, emotions, and ideas in conversations; rather than blame or impose ourselves on others.

The book is full of wisdom on leadership, identifying actors and roles in emotional systems, and navigating church-specific practices with systems theory.  I found the book insightful, helpful, and illuminating (albeit a little dry and tedious reading).  While no theory can ever fully explain a situation, it can provide an orientation to human relationships which fosters attention, sensitivity, self-awareness, and commitment to the well-being of all.

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