8 Reasons Why Church Change is so Difficult

Wise leaders and pastors understand that lasting change requires individuals to change first before an organization will change. Your change won’t last or will disrupt your church unless those in your teams personally embrace the change first, at least at some level. So it behooves us to first understand why most people initially resist change. Brain insight helps us understand hidden processes around which we can design our change initiatives. Awareness of how people’s brains work in response to change can help you craft more lasting changes. Here are eight reasons why change is hard.

  1. People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive. Two-thirds of the brain cells in the flight-fight part of our brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on the negative (Hanson, 2010). Most people’s initial response to change comes from these emotional centers rather than from their thinking centers.
  2. People usually fill in knowledge gaps with fear instead of faith. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear. The less information and the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear and resistance to change.
  3. We don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. That’s not simply a quaint saying. Neuroscientists have shown it to be true (Lount et al., 2008). Poorly introduced change will always start your change on the wrong footing.
  4. Emotions influence receptivity to change. Just presenting facts without engaging positive and hopeful emotions will seldom move your team forward. Although we may prefer it not to be so, most people make decisions based on emotion.
  5. The brain can only handle so much change at once. Trying to create too much change too quickly can engage the brain’s fear center and cause people to resist, thus hindering change (Hemp, 2009).
  6. Old habits die hard. The older we get we more easily default to what we know. It’s like a river that for many years has cut a deep gorge in the earth. It would be hard to change its course. It simply becomes harder to think about other options. Our brain’s habit centers more easily kick in as we age. It’s like a tug-of-war between the familiar and easy (what we are used to, our habits) and the unfamiliar and difficult (the change).
  7. Resistance to change often increases the closer you get to the change. People’s response to change changes over time. Let’s say you introduce a change that will take place a year from now (you plan to add an early service on Sundays). Initially your staff easily sees benefits that an early service can provide such as more space and more service options. The negatives such as more work, recruiting more volunteers, and a longer day loom very large at that point. Neuroscientists have discovered that when the change is far away, the positives usually outweigh the negatives (Lw et al., 2008). However, the closer we get to the change we get more fearful as we think about the implications and the personal cost (i.e., “Now I have to arrive at church two hours earlier each Sunday). The cost becomes more concrete whereas further away from the change the positives stood out more. So the closer you get to beginning the new service, the more it can feel like a threat to your staff. Uninformed optimism gives way to informed pessimism.
  8. The brain often interprets change as a threat which in turn creates resistance. The brain is organized around a fundamental principle: Minimize threat-maximize reward that results in either resistance or openness. Change seems like a threat which often breeds resistance from others. Change brings uncertainty and the brain doesn’t like uncertainty.

So, the next time you begin to think about change, keep these brain insights in mind when you craft your plan.

What else have you seen in others that makes them averse to change?


“I just learned 8 brain-based insights that create resistance to change from others.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).


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References:

Hanson, R. (2010) Confronting the Negativity Bias [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 31 January 2013].

Hemp, P. (2009) Death by Information Overload – Harvard Business Review [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 20 March 2013].

Lount, R.B., Zhong, C.-B., Sivanathan, N. & Murnighan, J.K. (2008) Getting Off on the Wrong Foot: The Timing of a Breach and the Restoration of Trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (12), pp.1601-1612.

Lw, A., Lang, P.J., Smith, J.C. & Bradley, M.M. (2008) Both predator and prey: emotional arousal in threat and reward. Psychological Science, 19 (9), pp.865-873.

Do You Have a Healthy Leader’s Brain? Take this Quiz and Find Out

God gave us an amazing three pound part of our body called the brain. And today, the brain is big. Books about the brain are flying off the shelves. Neuroscientists are studying the brain like never before. And millions of dollars are being spend on research. So how can we keep a healthy leader’s brain? Dr. David Rock and Dr. Daniel Siegal combed years of research to assimilate what they call the “Healthy Mind Platter,” seven activities that help people, including leaders, maximize that three-pound wonder. I’ve put my own spin on their findings and listed those seven activities below that when practiced, can help leaders maximize their effectiveness.

Leaders will keep their brains healthy when they make time for these activities. Both the Bible and brain science help us see their importance. Mentally check the ones you practice consistently.

  1. I take time to focus.
    • Brain science tells us that when we deeply focus (like when we plan or prepare a sermon), the brain makes deep connections.
    • Jesus challenged the crowds to think deeply about the cost of discipleship (Luke 14,25-33).
  2. I take time for fun.
    • Having fun allows for novelty and spontaneity which helps the brain make new connections.
    • Children were attracted to Jesus. Although we don’t have any direct Biblical references, I believe children saw Jesus as someone both approachable and fun to be with.
  3. I take time for family and friends.
    • Neuroscientists are learning that the brain is a social organ and when we build relationships it deepens our relational brain circuitry.
    • One of the hallmarks of Christianity is true community, spending time with others in deep relationships (Acts 4).
  4. I take time to exercise.
    • Brain research abounds about how exercise improves brain functioning.
    • The Scriptures tell us that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit which implies we should take care of them. Exercise is one way to do that (1 Cor. 6.18-19).
  5. I take time for stillness.
    • Researchers have found that when we quiet our inner world through meditation, we are able to regulate our emotions better and think more clearly.
    • Often Scripture tells us to be still before the Lord. When we reflect and meditate on Him and His Word, we not only draw close to him, but it keeps our brain healthy as well (Is 46.10).
  6. I take time to simply chill (down time).
    • When we allow our brains to be non-focused (mind wander or daydream) our creativity increases.
    • I doubt that Jesus held a non-stop theology class with His disciples. I imagine that at times he simple chilled out with His disciples with no specific goal in mind, except to enjoy each other and enjoy God’s creation.
  7. I take time for adequate sleep.
    • When we sleep our memories deepen and our brain recovers from the day’s stress.
    • I’m encouraged that when Jesus got tired, he slept, even in a storm (Mk 4.38).

How many of these practices do you consistently practice? Which one is toughest for you?

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Sticky Church Vision: a 4-step Process that Works

I’ve served in churches for over 35 years and I’m still learning how to craft a sticky church vision. In my current church I delivered our vision for my first year after being here for only three months. That may seem quick, but I sensed it was well received. In this post I explain the the four steps I incorporated that created greater involvement, buy in, and spiritual success.

Before I came to my new church, West Park Church in London, Ontario, I read extensively about how best to onboard (the term used when we transition to a new job). As a result, I created a six month learning agenda which essentially set my priorities for the first six months.

If you are new to your church or are considering a new church, I highly recommend the book The First 90 Days. It’s one of the best to help you navigate your first few months. You can also purchase an iPhone/android app that goes along with it.

Here are the four steps I took.

1. Wisely time the vision reveal.

I was a bit reluctant to share a big five year comprehensive vision. It would have been foolish to do so. Yet, it would have been equally foolish to wait until I thoroughly knew the church before casting a vision. So, after setting up multiple 1-1, group, and leadership listening sessions, I felt that I had sufficient knowledge to cast an intelligent one year vision to capture West Park’s current situation and reflect God’s plan for the church.

2. Collaborate extensively.

I received some wise counsel from a Canadian pastor the first week I arrived. I asked him for one bit of advice he’d offer me as an American pastor newly arriving in Canada. He wisely said, “Lead collaboratively. Many American pastors come here and fail because they try to lead with a heavy top down leadership style.” I took his advice and have built a close and great working relationship with our board. I have appraised them all along about what I’m learning and have often asked for their input. That collaborative mindset helped me craft that initial vision (and the ones that followed) that most closely aligns with reality and resulted in good buy-in from the board.

3. Sequence who you tell.

I intentionally rolled out the communication of the vision in this order.

  1. First the board heard it and approved it. It was not new to them because they had followed my learning the entire time.
  2. Then the staff heard it. They too, weren’t surprised as I had shared my learning along the way.
  3. Then a large group of our leaders heard it at a leadership gathering.
  4. Then the church heard it in a morning message.
  5. Finally, after my first 90 days I mailed out a progress report which repeated the vision for those who may have missed it on the Sunday I shared it.

4. Maximize the visual component.

Since one third of our brains are involved in visual processing, we hired an artist to translate the vision into a clear and compelling visual format. We visually reinforced the vision in several ways I’ve listed below.  I’ve include the logos the artist designed for us here.

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  1. We incorporated it into my Sunday sermon presentation on the screen.
  2. We printed a bookmark that we gave to everyone as they left.
  3. We unveiled two large banners that we hung in the auditorium.
  4. We hung small posters of the vision in various places in the building and kept them there for the rest of the year.
  5. We posted the visuals on our web site.
  6. We incorporated the visuals into our bulletin on a regular basis.

These steps definitely paid off because four years later, we are a growing and vibrant multi-culture church.

If you are casting vision, whether or not you are new to your church, consider using these four steps to increase the buy-in for your vision.

What has helped you effectively cast vision?

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8 Ways to Bust Leadership Discouragement

Discouragement is a universal experience for ministry leaders and the word actually self defines itself…dis-courage meaning no courage. Some of the Bible’s greatest characters faced it: Moses, David, Paul, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the apostles. Nehemiah, the great Old Testament leader faced it when he led the Jews to rebuild the wall. Yet, his response offers us hope when we face it.

Nehemiah had been hammered with criticism and it was taking its toll. Discouragement had set in. Nehemiah 4.10-21 tells us what Nehemiah did in response to it. This part of the rebuilding story gives us 8 discouragement busters.

Buster 1: Monitor your thoughts.

This buster is perhaps the most important one. An unconscious chatter is always active inside our minds because our mind simply wanders a lot. When we are not thinking about anything else, it wanders off into worry, fear, anxiety, or discouragement.

A key concept gaining greater prominence today is something called metacognition which simply means thinking about what you are thinking about. To battle discouragement we must discipline ourselves to be aware of this constant chatter that often leads us into discouragement. I believe the Apostle Paul understood that when he wrote this verse.

Phil. 4.8   Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

So, to bust discouragement stop and ask yourself, “What am I thinking about?” Monitor your thoughts, your self-talk, the inner chatter. Change you thinking if it’s going negative.

Buster 2: When you feel discouraged call it what it is, don’t stuff it, ignore it, or rehearse it.

Nehemiah didn’t ignore the discouragement the people felt.

When we name our negative emotion we actually decrease its power, contrary to what we often tell ourselves, “Just ignore it or stuff it.” Neuroscientists have discovered that when we stuff our emotions it actually reinforces them over the long term. But when we actually name them, it decreases the power of our emotional centers and engages the thinking centers of our minds.

Buster 3: Guard against emotional pig-pens.

Pig-pen, one of the characters in the Peanuts cartoon was always dirty and carried around a cloud of dust wherever he went. And, he seemed to spread his dirt everywhere he went. Pig-pen is a great word picture for some people who carry around a cloud of discouragement with them wherever they go. In Nehemiah’s day some of the Jews living in the surrounding areas would come into town and bring their discouragement. When you know someone around you is an emotional pig-pen, keep your distance.

Buster 4: Do nothing.

Nehemiah had to stop the building for a time to re-group and re-focus the Jews. Sometimes as leaders we get so tired or sleep deprived we simply need to stop, rest, sleep more, or simply take a break.

Buster 5: Do something.

Nehemiah responded to this discouragement and resistance by getting the people to be intentional about doing something to get them off their negativity. He gave them a common goal. He did something constructive by setting new plans in place to deal with his enemies. So, when discouragement comes, don’t wallow in it. Rather, do something constructive.

 Buster 6. Be specific with your plan.

Nehemiah was specific in what he did in response to the discouragement. He made many changes in how the work was done. The same holds true for defeating discouragement. We know that discouragement will come our way, so be prepared. When it comes, act upon your predetermined plan. Such a plan may include calling it what it is, going for a walk, calling a friend, doing something nice for someone, or spending 10 minutes on a short term project you’ve been avoiding (like cleaning off your desk).

Buster 7: Count your blessings, not your burdens.

Nehemiah often reminded the people of God’s faithfulness to them. In doing so he was helping them count their blessings. Neuroscientists are learning that when we count our blessings and shift our attention from the negative we actually decrease the chemicals in our brain that make us feel blue. By counting your blessings you are intentionally shifting your attention off the source of and the emotion of discouragement. The Psalmists counsels us with these words.

Psa. 77.11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

Buster 8: Don’t face your discouragement all alone.

Nehemiah would keep his trumpeter at his side and if he saw the enemy marshaling forces in the distance, he’d sound the alarm to bring everybody together. The beauty of the body of Christ remind us that we don’t have to bear our burdens alone. When you face discouragement, take the initiative to be a friend, get into a safe small group, or see a counselor. Don’t bear it alone.

Every ministry leader will face discouragement. Nehemiah’s response gives us hope in our discouragement.

What has helped you battle discouragement?

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The Addiction Many Pastors are Hooked on

Addiction. Usually the word connotes a physical compulsion to drink or eat too heavily, use illicit drugs, or satisfy our sexual passions in sinful ways. Although some may, most pastors don’t get sucked into such destructive behavior. We are called to serve God with our whole hearts and we mostly stay clear of these issues. But, there is one thing that I’d guess many pastors are addicted to, yet don’t realize it. We can blame our brain on it.

The addiction? Dopamine. Dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters in our brain. It’s what we feel when we put the final touches on a sermon. It’s what we feel when we see an uptick in our blog followers on google analytics. It’s what we feel when we accomplish a goal or drink an energy drink.

Dopamine gives us a nice feel good kick. It’s involved in developing the more destructive addictions I mentioned above  causing us to want a greater and greater ‘hit’ to feel good. The chemical is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure prompting us to seek out experiences that invoke it. We not only want it (the motivation) but we like it (the reward it brings).

All the above and more behaviors elicit dopamine which is released in the pleasure center of our brains called the nucleus accumbens. This structure lies just behind the front part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex.

It simply feels good to get things done. And when we feel good, our brains want to repeat the process so in turn, dopamine helps us form habits, whether good or bad.

So how do I know if I’m addicted to dopamine?  Consider these possible indicators.

  1. I constantly check email. I might get a nice email from someone and when I do, it gives me a tiny shot of dopamine.
  2. I constantly need something new and novel to feel ‘right.’
  3. I constantly check Facebook to see if I got more ‘likes.’
  4. I feel jittery if I can’t look at email for a day or so.
  5. I have become compulsive about some things, like having to pick up every call that comes to my cell phone or home phone.
  6. I find that I’m more easily distracted than I once was.
  7. I can’t get through a day without caffeine or sugar (caffeine and sugar also gives us a nice dopamine fix).
  8. I’m often mentally exhausted even though I’ve not done mentally taxing tasks.

Fundamentally, when we get addicted to dopamine, we are seeking shots of it while often not doing anything truly productive (like constantly checking email).

So, what can we do if we think we are addicted to dopamine. Consider these ideas.

  1. Acknowledge that you have a problem.
  2. Turn off automatic email and social media notifications on your cell phone or computer.
  3. Take a day off each week when you don’t interact with email or social media.
  4. Make sure you spend time each day alone with God.
  5. Check out this entire website dedicate to dopamine addiction.
  6. Purposely don’t pick up a call when you hear the buzz on your cell phone. Do this for several days to convince yourself that you don’t have to.

What has helped you keep from being addicted to this subtle addiction?

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