The “TCA” Interview with Peter Steinke

What sad news to hear that Peter Steinke, esteemed pastor, writer and church leadership consultant passed away on July 13, 2020. Pete was a cherished colleague – he was incredibly well-read, an ever-flowing fountain of new ideas. Additionally, for the past seven years, he’s been a principal writing mentor for me. I conducted this interview with him on December 31, 2015 immediately prior to the release of his book, Teaching Fish to Walk.

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 benefited immensely from his wisdom and insight. Pete was instrumental in helping me write my first book, Just a Little Bit More, with suggestions and comments at all phases of the process. The concise 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 in the spring of 2016: Teaching Fish to Walk. This new work emphasizes adaptive challenges as the vehicle to bring about positive and healthy changes in congregations.

Peter Steinke – Austin, Texas, Dec. 2015

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.

TCA: 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.

TCA: 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.

TCA: 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.

TCA: 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.

TCA: 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 . . .

TCA: 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.

TCA: 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.)

Like so many other good ones, you left us too soon, Pete. I’ll claim what our shared tradition says and hope to see you with all the saints in light in the new world to come.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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