Teaching Fish to Walk

Teaching Fish to Walk: Church Systems and Adaptive Challenge by Peter L.  Steinke; Available from New Vision Press, Austin, TX. 2016.  $20

Review by John Czarnota


Peter Steinke tells of how a particular fish was, in fact, taught to walk. The Bichir, a “snake-like” amphibious fish, indigenous to Africa, was “taught” to walk by placing it on land for eight months, despite a clear preference for the water. The fish learned to walk, changing muscular structure even, to adapt to the new environment.

This scientific story serves as the underlying metaphor for Stenke’s latest book on systems work in the church. For those familiar with Steinke from his other works, they have come to expect the surprising wisdom of systems theory applied to the congregational context. This is certainly the case in this latest volume.

This work though is not a general systems approach. It specifically delves into the issues of adaptive change -buzzwords in our “the church is dying” era. Adaptive challenges, by their very nature, defy the “quick fix” approaches our culture, and thus our churches, find so addictive.  Adaptive change means being put in an environment for a prolonged period of time where struggle is required. Reconfiguring muscle structure doesn’t happen to non-challenged, water-happy fish.

Steinke’s book thus serves as a major challenge. As leaders in systems thinking, we are encouraged to expose the true environment of our congregations to its leadership, leaving them to learn to walk. We are to resist giving quick fixes, but instead to cheer-lead the indigenous process of re-inventing ourselves. The process is made more challenging by not having a clear end direction. If we knew that an adaptive change process leads to X, then we’d jump right to X. Instead, congregations are called to work and struggle and fuss until the old pulls of homeostasis die, and new adaptive strategies can fully emerge. It is imaginative work. It is dreaming. It is becoming comfortable with frustration and disappointment.

In digesting this book, I felt personally challenged. This is a tall order to do, particularly in the role of an interim. I also felt that this was precisely the challenges we are called to lead churches into at this time, but -it is a doozy! It’s a heavy prophetic work, truly pushing us professional change agents, out of our comfort zone and “quick fix” models, that have worked in the past.

I was grateful for having read Steinke’s previous work, “A Door Set Open”, prior to diving into “Teaching Fish to Walk”. “A Door Set Open” carries strong notes of hope and missional verve. “Teaching Fish to Walk” conveys a feeling of picking up a heavy burden. The two combined leave systems thinkers with some new challenges and a heavy load, but also with hope in and for God’s church on earth. We are invited to switch from “changing to” to “an experience of change”. One that, tempered with hope, is a place of joy, even as we struggle together with new realities. I come away appreciating Steinke’s honest treatment of reality and insightful systems comments. Maybe, this fish too may learn to walk, as I apply an expanded grasp of adaptive challenges into my systems thinking and leadership.