Peter Louis Steinke, 1938-2020

Peter Louis Steinke, an influential Lutheran minister, psychologist, educator, and author of more than 14 books, passed away on July 13. He was 82 years old.

Steinke was well-known in many Christian circles, but especially among Lutherans and those interested in pastoral care and church leadership. Much of his scholarship and writing applied Murray Bowen’s family systems theory to understanding the way a church community, not unlike a family, works as an emotional system. Steinke’s recent books include Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019); Teaching Fish to Walk: Church Systems and Adaptive Challenge (New Vision Press, 2016); and A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (Alban Institute, 2010). He has worked with religious leaders all over the United States, and also in South Africa, Australia, and Canada.

A frequent lecturer and public speaker, Steinke helped many pastors and lay leaders better understand their work. His latest book, Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times, was aimed at a wider audience, including leaders in many different fields. “The systems perspective gave me the vantage point from which to view emotional process, whether I was observing, a family, a congregation, a hospital, an educational unit, a small business, or large company,” he wrote. 

Peter Steinke was born in Glen Cove, New York on June 18, 1938, to Rev. Arthur F. Steinke and Marguerite (Frankel) Steinke. He was the third child in a family of six children, a family heavily invested in Lutheran education and ministry. Two of Steinke’s brothers, Paul and Alan, are also ordained ministers. Steinke attended Concordia Lutheran Prep school in Bronxville, NY, and went on to attend Concordia Lutheran College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. While living in St. Louis, Steinke met his wife, the artist Carolyn (Kelly) Steinke. They were married in 1963. After Steinke’s ordination, they moved to Chester, Virginia, near Richmond, where Steinke helped to found Grace Lutheran Church. After serving as pastor for this congregation for several years, Steinke moved with his wife and young children to Hyde Park in Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. at Chicago Theological Seminary.

During this period, Steinke became especially interested in working with youth, and in 1972, he and his family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Steinke was the director of Janus House, a home for troubled teens. Steinke’s first books, published in the early 1970s by Concordia Publishing House, were written for a young adult audience. These books include Right, Wrong, or What?; Whose Who; Is There Life After Thirty?; and With Eyes Wide Open

In 1973, Steinke became the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Friendswood, Texas, and he served that congregation until 1981. During this period, Steinke became especially fascinated by his work with counseling parishioners. He was also inspired through his teaching college courses at Huntsville State Prison, to further investigate issues surrounding mental health. In 1981, Steinke left the parish ministry to become a counselor and psychologist who served other ministers, and for the next ten years he was Director of Clergy Care for Lutheran Social Services of Texas. Over the years, he worked with hundreds of clergy and congregations. He was passionate about the importance of nourishing the mental health of pastors, which he felt was too often neglected. From this experience, he learned “about the disappointments and joys, the conflicts and challenges, and the needs and hopes of clergy and congregations. They told their stories, shared their experiences, and spurred my thinking.” In 1983, he published Preaching the Theology of the Cross (Augsburg Publishing House).  In the preface, he wrote that he hoped this book would help readers to “present the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its folly and foolishness, paradox and scandal, power and primacy.” In 1988, he published Dealing with Your Discontent (Augsburg Publishing House). “The word content literally means ‘keep together,’” Steinke wrote. “You are content when you feel whole, not torn apart by restless desire. In the British House of Lords, content signifies an affirmative vote, similar to the expression, ‘aye.’ Contentment is saying ‘yes’ to life.” 

In 1988, Steinke met Dr. Edwin Friedman, an event Steinke called “life-changing.” Friedman, a rabbi and family systems therapist, introduced Steinke to Bowen’s theory of family systems, and became a mentor. What Steinke learned from Friedman would inspire many of Steinke’s later books, including Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006); How Your Church Family Works; and A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (Alban Institute, 2010). “The church is holy, set aside for God’s purposes,” Steinke wrote, “and yet it is ordinary, subject to human ends.”  In the mid 1990s, Steinke continued his work independently as a leader of workshops for clergy and lay leaders, and as a consultant for church congregations in crisis. He expanded his practice to work with religious leaders of many different faiths. He also taught courses at several seminaries and continued to write numerous articles and essays, along with his books. In 2009, he received an honorary doctorate from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. 

A lifelong student of creativity and an advocate for the importance of play, Steinke was delighted to be part of a family of artists. His wife, Carolyn (Kelly) is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited in the US and internationally. A detail of one of her paintings is reprinted on the cover of Uproar. His daughter, René Steinke, is a novelist. His son, Tim Steinke, is an animator and app designer; his daughter Krista Steinke is a lens-based artist, and his son Matthew Steinke, is a musician and multi-media artist. Throughout his life, Steinke was an encouraging and enthusiastic supporter of all of his family’s creative projects.

In addition to his wife and children, Steinke is survived by his three grandchildren, Porter, Ava, and Eliot; his son-in-law Sherman Finch and his daughter-in-Law Laura Willis; his brothers Russell Steinke, Paul Steinke, and Alan Steinke, and his sister Bonnie Finck; his sister-in-law Ann Williams; his brother-in-law David Betzner and his brother-in-law Richard Finck, and many nieces and nephews. Steinke is pre-deceased by his sister Sally Betzner, his sister-in-law Penny Steinke, and his sister-in-law Roxanne Steinke.

At the end of his life, Steinke was working on a book about the future of the church, a subject that preoccupied him, especially in the last few years. He was always a hopeful person, who believed in the gospel of Christ and its message of renewal. He wrote, “Today is always the first day, a new day, a green dawn, a day for resurrections.”

For those who wish to make a donation in Peter Steinke’s name, please make a contribution to: 

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Or Lutheran World Relief