A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 3

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 10, 2005

So how can a leader help bring healthy systemic change without reinforcing his/her role as congregational burden bearer?

First we need to define the role of leadership within a congregation…what is the function of leadership within a church? I direct your attention to a previous post I wrote (which you can find here on; it gives a basic outline of somewhat fluid view of church leadership. 

Peter Steinke uses family sytem theory to understand the dynamics of the church as an emotional system.  In his book, How Your Church Family Works, he likens the function of leadership to the function of the immune responses in the human body (he gets this idea primarily from Friedman).  The immune systems differentiates native DNA with foreign materials…when something exists within the body that lacks this DNA (or isn’t an appropriate building block for cells) it expells it.  Leaders, then, help the Body stay true to its DNA…and to keep non healthy things out of the Body. 

To Steinke, leaders need to be responsive to dishealth on the one hand, without being destructively protective on the other. Steinke lists seven health-influencing responses that a healthy leader can give to promote systemic health: 

  1. Focus on self, not others
  2. Focus on strength, not weakness
  3. Focus on process, not content
  4. Focus on challenge, not comfort
  5. Focus on integrity, not unity
  6. Focus on system, not symptom
  7. Focus on direction, not condition

These seven responses offer the core of Steinke’s understanding of leadership within a church system.  Tomorrow, I’ll begin to examine these 7 responses.  After that, I’ll begin to offer my observations about the nature of church leadership, including my take on what role the leadership should play in promoting church health, and what role those who aren’t involved in leadership should play.  As most of you know, I don’t believe their is a real distinction between clergy and laity, so I’ll try to offer an understanding of healthy leadership that takes that into account.  As a foretaste, let me just say that the move some have taken to destroy the notion of "clergy" is misguided.  It may seem like mere semantics, but I believe that we ought to destroy the notion of "laity" instead.

for further reading . . .

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3 Responses to “A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 3”

  1. Gregg on November 18th, 2005 2:37 pm

    Is there anything in the material from Steinke or Freidman that works the prescription versus description angle? I think this would be a fascinating #8 (or is it maybe implicit in one of the other points?)

    A systems perspective would caution leaders from prescribing a “right” way of doing / being in relationship and spend more time being curious enough to be able to describe dynamics; description vs. prescription. Both are needed, because if we do a good job of describing, the prescription may not even need to come from us. So, in the case of infidelity, it relieves some anxiety to begin by prescribing that the behavior of the pastor was wrong and then conclude that a consequence must be imposed. Naturally, it relieves our anxiety and the congregation’s anxiety to have such definitive prescription. And biblically, there is warrant for that. But not outside of the relational context. If we don’t spend time exploring the context–which makes everyone anxious because we have to tolerate some ambiguity now–we miss the whole system of dynamics that led to the pastor’s behavior. It may be that the pastor’s behavior is akin to the rebellious teenager in a family. The analogy being that sometimes the rebellious teen is the only one in the family courageous enough to challenge (albeit in a hurtful way) the shame or emotional disconnection that is an unwritten code. So, the teen looks for validation or emotional connection outside of what is appropriate. Wrong, sure, but before we prescribe that it’s wrong let’s describe what is gained by wrong behavior or what is gained to a shaming / disconnected atmosphere.

    In church planting, it seems that this would be what draws people into community. So, instead of telling people the ‘right’ way to form community and then trying to motivate that particular vision of community, it might be more fruitful and spark curiosity to work through a phase of describing what community means to people, what has drawn them to others in the past, in what contexts to they seem themselves acting in incarnational ways, etc. etc.

    Anyway, I’m lobbying hard here for an eighth point and maybe the most controversial, since it’s human to determine what is right or wrong and then to build around those sacred castles.

    Back to the infidelity example, what do we

  2. Van S on November 18th, 2005 2:58 pm

    Hey Gregg,

    You cut out mid sentence; maybe Typepad only allows a certain amount of words. Could you finish your thought?

  3. Gregg on November 18th, 2005 4:15 pm

    uh…actually, that was how I was going to start the earlier sentence “So, in the case of infidelity, it relieves…” and then I retyped it and forgot to delete my original wording. Oops. So, I was done, ya just got to see some of my rough draft leftovers…

    My life change after I won the salad shooter, because

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