I recently sat down with the Rev. Peter Steinke, the respected interpreter of Bowen/Friedman systems theory for churches and congregations. Also referred to as family systems theory, the concept sees families and organizations as emotionally interdependent units. The relationship between A and B within these units is mutually influenced and interactive rather than one-directional, cause and effect. Systems theory teaches adherents to think in overlapping arches, not in straight lines.
I’ve known Pete for twenty-five years as we’ve lived in proximity of one another in the Houston and Austin areas. Whether from personal consultations in ministry settings or public presentations, I’ve benefitted immensely from his wisdom and insight. Pete was instrumental in helping me write Just a Little Bit More, with suggestions and comments at all phases of the process. The excellent foreword he wrote for JaLBM reflects his solidarity with the book’s perspective. The author of Healthy Congregations and Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times has a new book coming out this spring: Teaching Fish to Walk. This new work emphasizes adaptive challenges as the vehicle to bring about positive and healthy changes in congregations.
Societal life in the post-9/11 world is never more than a moment away from elevated anxiety. Recent events from terroristic attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, California to calls from politicians and political candidates to be wary of Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and Syrian refugees have raised societal anxiety in America. I asked Pete – pastor, psychologist, educator, and author with extensive experience working with individuals and congregations in conflictual situations – to comment on these and related issues.
JaLBM: How do you see what systems theory calls “societal regression” playing out in our current context?
Steinke: When people become more anxious, they tend to blame others more easily. People take less responsibility for their own lives and their own pain. When people are anxious they’ll either focus their anxiety upon persons in charge – presidents, school principals, pastors, parents – or upon the most vulnerable. Currently this vulnerable group consists of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees – those who are “outsiders.”
Anxiety is not a negative. Anxiety just is. It becomes a negative when it intensifies or becomes prolonged, because it interferes with clear thinking. Anxiety is an informer, rather than an enemy. It tells us something about ourselves and the world around us.
Neurologically we’re designed to assume something is bad because the lower brain is on the outlook for something that might create a problem. That’s the lower brain’s job. Yet, the lower brain has no sense of time. So, something that was a stimulus in the past that activated your anxiety, when it happens again – boom – it goes off and you’re in an elevated state of anxiety.
JaLBM: Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, has achieved sustained popularity. From a systems point of view, what do you see behind this phenomenon?
Steinke: For some people, Donald Trump has named the demon. And when you name the demon, people feel you have power over the demon.
As a society, we’re vulnerable to a demigod, to somebody who has all the answers, who is impressive, who has a sense of power and charisma. Everyone else in comparison to this person looks weak and ineffective. This type of behavior – acceding demigod status to someone – is grounded in anxiety. We know in actuality no such person exists. When you’re at the low end of things and it’s not working out for you, it’s very easy to look up to that person who could lift you up and lift society up.
JaLBM: As a society, we have a tendency to esteem those who are “financially successful.” This is also part of his charm . . .
Steinke: When the economy is declining or people perceive it to be, societal anxiety is aroused. Money is a great arouser of anxiety.
JaLBM: What is the adaptive challenge – to use your phrase – for American society at this moment?
Steinke: We’ve got to work together more often, rather than each staying in their own little silo and doing things solo. But when you’re anxious, what do you do? You pull apart, you separate, you get into your own little fortress, which is the opposite of what we need to do.
How can we use our commonalities instead of our differences to do what motivates us to do what we need? We’re here to cooperate with one another – that’s civil society.
Anxiety pulls us apart because anxiety magnifies differences. That’s a key understanding of anxiety. It magnifies the differences that we have. And until we can reduce the anxiety, the chances we have of doing things together is diminished.
JaLBM: Tell us a little more about your new book, Teaching Fish to Walk.
Steinke: A study of a type of bichir fish that lives in shallow water habitats in Africa provides the name for the book. Researchers put them on land and compared the test group’s progress to that of a control group that stayed in the water. The test group learned to walk within eight months. These fish did not learn to walk until they were confronted with an adaptive challenge. They had to change their physiology.
My point is that in the church we’re not going to find people changing in adaptive ways until we break with how we’ve done things in the past.
Fewer people are coming to us – in our congregations. It only makes sense that we’ve got to go to them. We have to find ways to live out the life of who we are or who we want to be in the world . . .
JaLBM: The day and age of people coming to us is over.
Steinke: It’s over. It’s true of lots of organizations, not just the church. We don’t have the belongers like we used to. And it’s true of all kinds of groups. Volunteering for the Red Cross and scouting is down. We do have groups, like AARP, the NRA, and the Sierra Club that are stable, but you’re a member by writing a check. That’s the extent of your participation.
JaLBM: In what direction do churches and religious organizations need to go?
Steinke: We know that change is resisted less if it’s connected to an organization’s purpose, or sense of mission.
A lot of groups today have forgotten why they’re here. They’ve lost touch with their mission. I’m talking about churches and other groups. As I asked previously: Why are we here? We’re here to cooperate with one another.
(Interview conducted on December 31, 2015 in Austin, Texas.)
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.