July 1, 1997
Systems thinking is a little like immunology: If the T-cell count plummets, that jeopardizes the body's resistance to disease. One thing affects another. Everything is connected.
To understand the parts, you must look at the whole—that's systems thinking.
In his book Generation to Generation, Edwin Friedman, who died in 1996, applied the way family members related to one another to the way churches and synagogues operate as a whole. A disciple of Friedman, Peter Steinke, a Lutheran (ELCA) minister and counselor, has written Healthy Congregations (Alban Institute), which evaluates the health of a congregation using family-systems theory. Steinke views churches as living, breathing organisms.
Leadership senior associate editor Dave Goetz asked Steinke how systems thinking might help pastors bring health to their congregations.
In Healthy Congregations, you say that disease in a church can
be good. How so?
Peter Steinke: For any system to be healthy, it has to be challenged;
sometimes that challenge comes in the form of conflict. A healthy congregation
is one that actively and responsibly addresses or heals its disturbances.
It is not one with an absence of trouble.
I work with many churches that deal with their problems in secrecy—talking
behind people's back, for example. That sort of behavior doesn't lend itself
to healing. Healing comes with exposure to the light.
How should a pastor resist secrecy?
One way is simply to announce it: "We've had secret meetings. We need to
deal with things openly here."
The biblical injunctions in Matthew 18 are so clear. By going to the offending
brother or sister, taking along a leader, bringing the issue to the whole
community, you are creating exposure.
On the other hand, sometimes criticism or complaining may be legitimate,
and if the pastor attacks, he prevents people from speaking their mind and
How does a church build a strong immune system?
By having a strong sense of vision and mission. Then a church can judge its
behavior and activities. Otherwise, the basis for decision-making becomes
Can a pastor evaluate a church's health before accepting the call to
If the congregation hasn't had much vision or a sense of mission, you should
ask yourself, "Are they ready for it? Do they see the value of it?" So often
a church says, "We want you to help us change," but the change is never
specified. The more specific and concrete the discussion about change becomes,
the more likely that change can take place.
How long does it take for an unhealthy church to become healthy?
From two to five years. Edwin Friedman once said, "For any chronically anxious
system to get better it has to go through an acute phase." The biggest enemy
of the healing process is to short-circuit the change or conflict or whatever
is creating the acute phase. I think it was Kierkegaard who said, "In order
for the wound to be healed, the wound must be kept open."
When the system has conflict, the system opens up. It's a wonderful time
for the church family to learn. But the first thing it wants to do is close
up again. For example, when a church loses a pastor, the first thing it wants
to do is get another, quickly. Instead, the church should use that period
How does a pastor survive the acute phase?
First, remember that it's not going to stay acute forever. You have to have
fevers. You have to vomit before the system gets back into balance. That
means you need stamina and a long-range view of things. This is where a
consultant, a coach, or someone on the outside can be helpful.
Second, you need to find a release outside the church so the conflict isn't
on your mind all the time.
Third, you need to remember that everything that goes on is not about you,
even though it gets focused on you. In any emotional system, the people in
the most responsible or vulnerable position become the target of the anxiety.
If you're the senior pastor, the anxiety in a church will be focused on you.
How can a pastor evaluate whether the church is in an acute phase leading
to health or is so unhealthy that it will never improve?
If you're in a situation where people always blame or collect injustices
and become victims, the situation may be chronic. If people continually imply
that if you were not there, they would be fine, you may be in a no-win situation.
How does a pastor not react when people respond negatively?
Try to remember that it's never anxiety that undoes the system; it's the
overreacting to it or trying to kill it that causes problems.
I just returned from two days of interviewing people in a diocese in conflict
on the East Coast. I listened to a lot of anxiety and angst. Even as a
consultant, I was becoming anxious about the problems in this diocese. I
called a friend last night and talked about it, and I feel better now. He
kept saying, "Pete, it's not your issue." That's how infectious anxiety can
But we need to remember: Anxiety can't continue if it doesn't have a host
A host cell?
A host cell provides viruses with shelter and nourishment. For example, often
a member of a church staff will become a host cell to a group of complainers
in the church and begin to undermine the staff. I not only look to see who
generates the anxiety but also who is amplifying it, who is contributing
to it. Amplifiers are as much of a problem as the person who generates it.
If you as the pastor become the host cell to everybody's anxiety—you try
to appease everybody or you try to squash those who oppose you—you're simply
providing shelter and nourishment for the virus.
Are larger churches more immune to disease?
The larger the church becomes, the harder it is for everybody to stay focused
on you in a negative way. Politics are less personal.
Regardless of church size, though, if viruses find a host cell, that will
continue their capacity to replicate and to infect the body. But with an
immune system, a church can have community.
How can a pastor encourage healthy behavior when anxiety is
By normalizing the anxiety. Whenever there is change, loss, separation, we
become anxious. For example, in grief counseling, therapists say to folks,
"The way you're functioning right now seems strange and odd to you, but this
is what should happen. You're going through the process of grieving."
A pastor could do this in sermons, conversations, and church newsletters.
We must allow people to articulate what's going on. It's also important for
pastors to bring the gospel to bear on the anxiety: that even in the midst
of this, we have not been abandoned. Nothing shall separate us from the love
This puts a lot of pressure on the pastor to be a healthy person
That's what Ed Friedman was really after. He said, "Leadership is not technique,
expertise, skill. It's who you are."
Is it possible for a pastor to become healthy in a unhealthy
I think you can become healthier. Be aware of how you function and make choices
about what you are ready to do. That's maturity. It's good stewardship. The
first thing God asks us to be is a steward of ourselves.
A healthy person is comfortable with himself or herself in the presence of
others. A healthy person is not a John Wayne, who says, "I don't give a rip
about you; I'm just going to be me." He or she is always in relationship.
1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.