In Memoriam: Peter L. Steinke

The Rev. Dr. Peter L. Steinke, noted author, congregational systems thinker and teacher, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis alumnus, and pastoral counseling colleague died on July 13, 2020. In 2009, Concordia Seminary honored Dr. Steinke by presenting him with an honorary doctorate, Doctor of Letters. At a luncheon to celebrate the honorees of that year, I offered the following tribute:

It is true that Dr. Steinke is a 1964 graduate of this institution. We are honoring an alumnus. But Peter’s contributions have extended far beyond the LCMS.

Building on the groundbreaking work in Family Systems of the former Georgetown University professor Murray Bowen, being under the tutelage of Edwin Friedman, whose work extended Bowen’s work into congregational life, and being of an essential entrepreneurial spirit, Peter has brought systems thinking into the warp and woof of congregational life. The fundamental idea of human interconnectivity, and that this interconnectivity must be part of our understanding of people and of organizations, is crucial to Steinke’s work. In individualistically oriented America, attention to the interplay of individuals and how they function as groups of people, attention to the process of that function and not just to the content and words of the interaction, and self-care for the leaders of organizations so that they are less anxious than the organizations they serve—these are all central hallmarks of Steinke’s work.

You, Peter, have taken these contributions far beyond the LCMS, and, indeed, have served the church catholic. Those of us who have grown by reading you, like myself, but even more so those in the church catholic who have grown by direct contact with you in supervision, workshops, training events, and consultation, have reason to rejoice with us in this the granting of to you of a Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa.

Peter, you have traveled far and wide. Welcome home to your alma mater, Concordia Seminary.

Now, over ten years later and in reflection upon Peter’s death, much of what was spoken about him in 2009 can be underlined and even magnified. Peter’s legacy is a rich one. Healthy Congregations, an organization founded by him, continues to contribute to the life and vitality of our congregations. Accessible at www.healthycongregations.com, it offers thoughtful work and consultation concerning congregational dynamics. Peter published two additional books, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (2010) and Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (2019), since the time he was honored at Concordia Seminary. These books expanded and deepened the insights of some of his previous works, such as How Your Church Family Works (1993), Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach (1996) and Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (2006). The new books show that his remarkable competence and keen interests stayed active as he aged.

Attention to the emotional processes of congregations and those processes in individuals led Peter to observe keenly how people and institutions behave. This then led him to attend to the personhood of the leaders of congregations. Hear him as he wrote in 2006:

People vary considerably in how they address emotionally challenging events. On the lower (immature) side, people are reactive. They blame more often; they criticize harshly; they take offense easily; they focus on others; they want instant solutions; they cannot see the part they play in problems. On the higher (mature) side, people are more thoughtful and reflective; they act on principle, not instinct; they can stand back and observe. They are responsive. Intent and choice characterize their behavior. The leader’s capacity to be in conscious control over (to respond to) automatic functioning (reaction) affects the well-being of the whole community. The leader’s “presence” can have a calming influence on reactive behavior. Rather than reacting to the reactivity of others, leaders with self-composure and self-awareness both exhibit and elicit a more thoughtful response. [1]

We still need to hear Peter, and we can in his newest book, Uproar, where he takes on larger societal questions. Does this sound familiar?

Under the siege of Uproar, our thinking capacities decline. We even use our reason to justify the irrational. Our trusty inventory of opinions is imperiled. Truth is put on a seesaw; suspicion is overseeded. Polarized, groups find it difficult to converse without wielding emotional hatchets. Explosive tantrums throw respect to the wind. Ethics are stored in the attic—“out of sight, out of mind.” God is reduced to a candy machine, easily nickled-and-dimed. Buffeted by lies, stable folks lose confidence. Normal has become a backseat driver. [2]

When I began to offer “Congregational Dynamics and Behaviors” as an elective at Concordia Seminary, I called Peter and asked if I could use one of his training tapes to help our students understand the basics of his understanding of family systems theory as it applies to congregations. He graciously offered the training tape for my use in the class, a tape funded by Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent). His permission to use his training tape was so characteristic of Peter: he was hopefully committed to the healthy life of congregations and was willing to share himself and what he taught in a very gracious and open way.

I believe that this openness was made possible through God’s work in and influence on Peter. As he wrote as a word of encouragement to leaders:

Your ministry of leadership is grounded in the freeing gift of God’s grace. In Christ, you are no longer a slave in bondage to fear. Knowing yourself to be accepted as a child of God, you are free to serve in love. . . . You can be faithful to your task because you believe God is faithful to you. Anxious times test your wisdom, your patience, and your hope. But you draw courage, knowing, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31) [3]

Like many others, I have been deeply influenced by and greatly thankful for Dr. Peter Steinke, his being, his work, and his contributions to the healthy life of congregations and the church catholic. We all owe him much and we still need and have his voice.

Bruce M. Hartung

Endnotes

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 1.

[2] Peter Steinke, Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 2–3.

[3] Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, 158–159.

Related posts

Educating Youth in the Age of COVID-19

Educating Youth in the Age of COVID-19


Educating Youth in the Age of COVID-19

Lutheran high school administrators Tim Brackman and Cindy Burreson discuss in-person and virtual learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Christ Centered Counseling: Next Steps

Christ Centered Counseling: Next Steps


Christ Centered Counseling: Next Steps

A new blog series on techniques and best practices to make Christian counseling more Christ centered.

Race, Ethnicity, and the Gospel

Race, Ethnicity, and the Gospel


Race, Ethnicity, and the Gospel

Resources for further reflection, conversation, and ministry.

3 Comments

  1. Allen Hellwege August 11, 2020
    Reply

    Thanks Bruce for a wonderful and thoughtful remembrance of Peter Steinke and his marvelous contributions to the whole church. I had the privilege of playing golf with Peter on the Seminary’s team, 1963-64. We read and studied many of his books while training for and serving in Intentional Interim Ministry. He was truly a gift for the church catholic!

  2. Bruce Jeskee August 11, 2020
    Reply

    Thank you, Bruce. Excellent words to honor Pete and good words for me to hear today!

  3. Phillip Kohlmeyer August 18, 2020
    Reply

    Thanks, Bruce, for your fine summary of some of Peter Steinke’s contributions. And thanks for your fine contributions to the church as well, Bruce.

Leave a comment