How Your Church Family Works

Church’s are like families.  That’s a comforting thought, right?  Maybe.  I guess it depends how much you enjoy the ups and downs, ins and outs, troubles and joys of your own family life.

Peter L. Steinke is a noted author, consultant, pastor, and therapist.  His specialty is applying “family systems theory” to congregational life.  Briefly, family systems sees people as emotionally connected.  This theory does not approach individuals as isolated units.  Nor does it operate with a unidirectional “cause-effect” paradigm.  Instead, individuals are seen as actors in a system.  And all parts of the system not only affect others, but allow for “feeback loops” and mutual influence.   As a result, people are assumed to be connected to and affected by one another in explicit and implicit ways.

What Steinke attempts to do, in this book, is clearly and helpfully lay out how a church family negotiates and lives interdependently.  The hope is to live well as a system, properly and purposefully confronting challenges and changes.

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” (13).   What is anxiety?  Steinke defines it as “emotional pain” (62).  What causes or triggers this anxiety can be a number of things; for example, a new pastor, declining membership, financial strategizing, changes in worship styles, long-range visioning, 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 pastors, like myself, 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 herself from feeling the tensions.

When considering how anxiety functions in a system it is also important to remember that no system is self-enclosed.  There are numerous systems in which we all participate; as a result, systems overlap.  People “import” anxiety and trouble from one system to another.

So, for example, a church board chair may have anxiety from potential job cutbacks at her place of employment.  She reacts to that stress by shutting down and closing others off.  In so doing, she slowly withdraws from her responsibilities as the church board chair, thereby leaving a gap in leadership at the church.  Without her energy and involvement, just the “shell” of a person as board chair, the church board functions lethargically; minimal decision-making thwarts the life of the congregation as it attempts to revise its stewardship and financial practices.  Pastors and staff become frustrated with the same troubled financial practices continuing to define the church… anxiety is erupting.  Worse yet, the stress created by the continued financial practices of the church can intensify the stress felt by the board chair.  The cumulative weight of all the stress and anxiety then reinforces the coping mechanism:  withdrawal.  Left untended, this system would spiral out of control until something “broke.”

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.  Church leadership is enhanced when pastors and laity alike are attuned to the emotions and anxiety which confront a congregation.  Pastors and others might respond to the uncharacteristic behavior of the church board chair in ways that address what is going on for her, alleviating the stress in helpful ways.  Church board meetings might begin with an opportunity for people to bring their concerns, anxieties, and life-situations before one another for support.

Recognizing that there is more going on in any situation than what is immediately taking place is a big first step.  Sometimes angry words in a church board meeting find their source and energy in the stress and anxiety of another system–though it would be equally problematic to assume that such outbursts are entirely unrelated to the immediate proceedings.  Still, I find that “irrational” behavior becomes far more understandable when we keep systems theory in view.

We all need to be reminded, and Steinke consistently reminds us, 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 us the change 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.

We can respond to anxiety in two basic ways:  reactively or purposefully.  We all, whether we like it or not, respond reactively as a means of self-preservation.  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 “self-differentiates,” that is, balances these poles by being with others but not so connected that he or she “loses herself.”

You can see how all 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.  Gossip 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.  While no theory can ever fully explain a situation–there is always a lot going on for us–it can provide an orientation to human relationships which fosters attention, sensitivity, self-awareness, and commitment to the well-being of all.

Peter Steinke offers church’s advice  as a consultant with the Alban Institute.   In addition to this book, he also offers his observations about life in a troubled church family:  Twenty Observations about Troubled Congregations.

Steinke, Peter L.  How Your Church Family Works:  Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems. Washington, DC:  The Alban Institute, 1993.


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