Steve sat down in my office and began to talk about his small group. He talked about the past year and shared one meeting in particular when the air was thick with tension as a result of some controversial church decisions. The tension had been building for weeks. The next meeting, he sat everyone down and bossed them around a bit. Steve said, “Look, there is an elephant in the room and we are getting rid of it tonight. Talk!” They did. The small group members each took a turn and everyone else listened. Steve was right, there were some big concerns about the future. They talked; they cried; they prayed. As the meeting drew to a close, Steve said, “Look, everything I’m hearing tonight is fueled by fear and we simply cannot let that paralyze us. It’s time to move on.” They did move on, complete with the glitchiness that comes with being a group of believers living life together.
As Steve relayed this story, I was blown away by his leadership. Steve had built up enough trust in his group that when times were tough, he had the spine to lead the group through this tough challenge and they still wanted to be together. That is a major, major victory. Dr. Peter Steinke would be proud.
I was first introduced to Dr. Peter Steinke, when our church staff was reading and discussing his book, How Your Church Family Works. The back of the book cover reads:
Drawing on the work of Bowen and Friedman, and on his own many years of counseling experience, Peter Steinke shows how to recognize and deal with the emotional roots of such issues as church conflict, leadership roles, congregational change, irresponsible behavior, and the effects of family of origin on current relationships.
I won’t try to paraphrase the entire book—and you may already be familiar with his work—but basically, it describes the different parts of the brain and how some very natural responses can sabotage individual and organizational growth. As we read it, our staff studied how to effectively handle the anxiety that is a natural part of any organization. If you would like to investigate further, Steinke has written several other books and has multiple videos on YouTube. I also recommend this related animated video about self-differentiation. Dr. Steinke loves the term non-anxious presence. To me, it all basically boils down to, “Settle down, little buckaroo; it’s going to be okay. We have work to do, so let’s go.”
However, sometimes I’m not sure it is going to be okay, and my buckaroo is anything but settled. Rather, I might be completely sure that everything is coming unhinged. After all, church work is a big black hole. There is always more work than time, and complex situations arise that I couldn’t have predicted. When I solve one problem, I generally create others. Doubts attack! Have we just thrown hand grenades into our church? What was my part in a family’s decision to leave? Did I reach out enough? Did I push that decision through? Did I pray about that enough? Were my motives pure? Why do I want to work at a church anyway? Why does my church want me on staff at all?
It’s in those moments where I really want to grab Dr. Steinke by his shlumpy little vest and punch his non-anxious face. Sorry, Dr. Steinke; please forgive me. I know what you are saying is the exact right thing to do and I’d like to think that most of the time, just like my small group leader, Steve, I manage to keep calm, listen carefully, and respond respectfully. I understand that being willing to go through conflict is essential for maturity and growth. I preach that constantly. I understand that giving in to the fight or flight mentality sabotages the maturing process.
But wow, sometimes being a church leader is a study in failure. I desperately want to lead courageously, step out on faith, and lean into God’s dream for my church. I so want to be a strong link in that chain. I know I’m not expected to be perfect but the weight of leadership is heavy. Just because I want to be a good leader doesn’t mean that I am one. Will someone please tell me where the line is between confidence and arrogance? The stakes are so very, very high.
I guess the good news is that I haven’t actually punched anyone in the face and I still have a job. Perhaps Dr. Steinke would settle for a less-anxious presence instead of a non-anxious one, because I don’t really have a good conclusion for this article or for my intrapersonal anxiety. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to be inspired by the leaders around me, like Steve, who may not have read Dr. Steinke’s books, but are truly effective and inspiring leaders. No doubt, that calms my anxiety.