Steinke Addresses ‘Anxiety in Congregations’

Steinke speaks to the audience
Peter Steinke speaks on “tending to mission in a time of anxiety” in a public address at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
Photo by Jim Bishop

A certain amount of anxiety isn’t a bad thing, but it can divide or even destroy a congregation if allowed to run rampant.

Peter L. Steinke, long-time Lutheran pastor and counselor, has spent the past 12 years helping churches in turmoil to deal with internal conflict in healthy ways.

In a public address Mar. 2, at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Dr. Steinke told an audience of some 50 pastors and lay leaders of the need for churches to stay focused on their primary mission and purpose as God’s people amid an increasingly anxious world.

The author of nine books including “Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach,” has done work on the cutting edge of a perspective that recognizes congregations as “emotional systems.” He employs “systems theory” to understand the emotional reactions people have to one another when they come together in congregational settings.

“The local church is an emotional system; emotional forces take place each time we gather,” Steinke said. “It’s critical for those in leadership positions, pastors and others, to recognize these forces and respond with thoughtful clarity rather than reaction, thus intensifying the anxiety-driven behaviors and problems they are trying to solve.”

Numerous things help raise anxiety levels in congregations, Steinke noted, including differences over money, worship styles, sex and sexuality issues, internal staff conflict, the death of a member – especially a child – and major transitions in church life.

“If these issues aren’t addressed and resolved in constructive, healthy ways, they won’t go away but will be played out in other forms and relationships,” Steinke maintained.

He maintained that how a congregation manages its anxiety “is the key to staying focused on its primary reason for being,” adding: “Sometimes it’s the most anxious and least mature members who determine a congregation’s direction. Leadership and members together have to make tough decisions – decisions that may not please everyone and if the congregation is to maintain focus on its primary mission and focus.”

“Jesus modeled how to deal with anxiety,” Steinke said. “He used ‘I’ statements. He appealed to people’s God-endowed ability to think. He told stories that connected the cognitive and the emotional. He offered the ultimate answer to anxiety, found in His salvation and His grace.”

Steinke conducted a “Healthy Congregations Facilitator Training” workshop at EMS Mar. 1-3, designed to help persons conduct similar workshops in congregations of all sizes.

His appearance was co-sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Seminary, the Harrisonburg District of the United Methodist Church and Lancaster (PA) Mennonite Conference.