Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times:

By Peter L. Steinke

The Alban Institute, Herndon, VA: 2006

Biographical Sketch

Peter L. Steinke is an internationally respected congregational systems consultant who has also served as a parish pastor, an educator, and a therapist for clergy. He is the author of the best-selling books, How Your Church Family Works, and, Healthy Congregations.

Major Emphasis

Part 1 – The Leader’s Presence
Steinke’s book was a delightful read. The first section, comprised of three chapters, focused on the way leaders handle themselves in anxious times. It was reassuring to read that trouble and anxious times comes to most every congregation. I realize that might seem like an odd thing to say, but this former pastor often wondered, What am I doing wrong? – if I were doing everything right we would not be having this conflict. While I never voiced those words, they were nevertheless deeply imprinted in my thinking. The truth is that conflict will hit most every congregation at one time or another and it is important how the leader reacts to the situation.
The reason that the leader must become a calming force is because anxiety is so infectious (p.10). The biblical illustration (p.11) of the Israelites complaining and murmuring would be something to which most every pastor could personally relate. Murmuring, gossiping, spreading rumors, and always looking for what went wrong seems to be the norm for many congregations.
This student was stunned to read the quote by Edwin Friedman (p.13). How sad and how true it is that churches “are the worst offenders of encouraging immaturity and irresponsi-bility.” The author stated that it is because of familial relationships that churches cannot or will not put a stop to one bully. Because the bully is either related to, or long-time friends with, much of the congregation the people are paralyzed from action. This type of “blindness” to the source of anxiety is not Christ-honoring. We must learn not to allow our “emotional processes” (p.23) to keep us from disciplining those who are chronic disrupters of God’s holy church.
No leader should ever think that he or she is infallible. Also it should be acknowledged that sometimes even bullies may have a valid point or at least a shred of truth in their allegations. Therefore, this section ended with a check-point for leaders who face anxious times.
  • Know your limits and the limits of others
  • Have clarity about what you believe
  • Take stands with courage
  • Stay connected with others, despite it all (p. 44-45).
The first section of this book was actually quite affirming to this reader. It acknowledged that having conflict does not necessarily indicate poor leadership. However, the manner in which the leader responds to murmuring, complaining, and accusative remarks is vitally important.
Part 2 – The Leader’s Functioning

This section began by listing the author’s top five recurring issues in troubled congregations:

  • High (chronic) anxiety
  • Systemic impasse (a polarization of two parties)
  • Lack of a clear sense of mission
  • Poor boundaries
  • And avoidance of problems.
There is a sense of empowerment from learning this material. Understanding these categories is the first step in becoming a problem-solving pastor.
The first chapter in the second section helped the reader to understand (in laymen’s terms) something about the wiring of the human brain. Basically, we are wired for survival. Learning the functions of both the amygdala and the hippocampus was fascinating to this reader. The amygdala comes into play in those immediate no-time-to-think situations, and the hippocampus is where learned responses are stored. The author used that knowledge to point out that “when the amygdala is in control, our perception warps measurably.” Simply put, pastors cannot react in survival mode when he is questioned in conference about the church budget proposal. We must not resort to a survival mentality every time a potential threat is perceived. Leaders must learn to think quickly but speak slowly and cautiously. Because, as the author stated; “Our fear system can make us too sensitive to danger” (p.55).
Building on the previous information about how the human brain functions, the author then stated that “during a crisis, a structure of some sort is needed” (p.71). Humans need to know that “chaos is not king” and that order can and will be restored. This, too, is a part of our brain’s wiring. Again, this information was empowering to this reader. In fact, the author went on to argue that it is precisely during chaotic times that leaders can enact much needed change. During times of peace and tranquility no one sees any need in changing, but when a crisis hits the wise leader can use that as a catalyst for change that otherwise would never have happened.
The final focus on personal boundaries ended this section. Church bullies often violate the boundaries of others, often with impunity. But the author stated, “Having good boundaries, a person focuses on his own functioning, being careful not to violate the boundaries of others” (p.94). This book was as convicting as it was empowering.
Part 3 – The Leader’s Challenges

The author wrote that along with the seasons of victory and celebration we must accept the seasons of confrontation and anxiety. Leaders must be braced and ready to handle those low seasons. This runs counterintuitive to the idea that good pastors steer their wise and mature congregations away from any and all confrontation. In fact, the author went on to add some confrontation can be healthy and productive (p.99).

The opening section on “Conflict Habits” was again both convicting and informative. Peace at any cost is not an option for the leaders in military conflict and it should not be the mantra for leaders in spiritual warfare. By appeasing rather than opposing, we are not being the protective shepherds that God has called us to be.
Another way that I was convicted by this section was in the “False Attribution” conflict habit. I remember preaching a sermon or two on Jannes and Jambres withstanding Moses, or Korah and his family being swallowed up for daring to stand against the man of God. I am sure that probably only diminished my authority rather than build it up like I had intended. It was the idea that any questioning of the pastor was “the work of Satan” (p.102). While I still believe my point was valid, I should not have reacted with a high hand.
Finally, the author wrote of the danger that neglect or denial can have upon an anxious congregation. Leaders cannot simply wish away problems or act like they do not exist. That type of non-leadership will fuel the insecurity of any congregation. Perhaps this student has been guilty of that conflict habit as well.
The section on “The New Aggressiveness” affirmed a conversation that this student had with a fellow pastor some time ago. I had stated that people in the church have begun to emulate the character assassination techniques of the political parties. For some time politicians have tried to go beyond winning debates based upon political ideals to utterly decimating their opponents character, and if need be, their families. It seems that is now happening in the church. It is no longer enough to lobby for, or against, a certain issue; in this climate some would seek to have the pastor fired and his name sullied just to “win.” Assassinating a character or two along the way is a price that too many are willing to pay in order to win.
The author closed by refocusing the reader on the importance of managing one’s self. The Bible called that trait temperance. But the final section closed with a lesson on narcissism. This information is empowering as it gave the reader the tools to combat narcissistic, unyielding, often hateful people who sit on our church pews just waiting to pounce. We do not have to be their victims – we can be more than conquerors through Christ.

Marcus Merritt
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