Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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Stack your Leadership Teams with your BFF’s-good or bad?

BFF: Shorthand for “best friends forever” Dictionary definition: “Used mostly by teen girls when texting”

You may have never used this texting shorthand, but the concept captures essential human nature. We all want a few best friends. We need them. In fact, the Scriptures speak positively about friends

  • friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Prov 17.17, NIV)
  • A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Prov 18.24)
  • If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! (Eccl 4.10)

But considering leadership teams, should we fill our upper level teams such as deacons, elders, or key leadership staff with best friends? I share a true story below from a pastor friend, but I’ve changed the details enough to protect anonymity.

My pastor friend’s church in the south was lead by a deacon board of four men plus himself. He was considered the board’s leader and the four other members were very close. Two of the deacons had been roommates in college and stayed close friends. One of those deacons was the best friend of the third member on the board. And the fourth member of the board met each week with the third deacon in a discipleship relationship. You can see that these four were very tight in one way or another. The pastor was friends with all the deacons, but not close to any of them.

Over the years at his church conflict began to rise between he and the board. It seemed that he was the odd man out each time they discussed a new initiative or direction for the church. The other four seemed to always be in agreement with each other, usually in opposition to how the pastor viewed things. Ultimately, the tension became so great that he left the church after 10 years and began to teach at a seminary.

Although other issues were certainly at play, groupthink seemed to influence the four members of the board. The BFF’s appeared blind to any other perspective except to the views of their four friends on the board.

So, based on this scenario and your experiences, what have been the pros and cons you’ve seen in boards or key leadership teams when most of those in those groups were BFF’s? Did the friendships help or hinder decision making? Did groupthink result or did the Holy Spirit simply use their kinship (like David and Jonathon in the Bible) to help them make good decisions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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How to Foster ‘Aha’ Moments in your Team

Wise leaders encourage their teams to solve their problems with their own insight rather than with the leader’s insight. When an staff person or a volunteer brings a problem to us, it’s often easier and less time consuming to give them advice and solve their problem. Yet in the long run such a response can foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation simply because the solution isn’t theirs. And, people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas anyway. So how can we replace ‘answer giving’ with self generated insight?

Insight is a solution to a problem that recombines what we know in a new and fresh way that often leads to creativity. Rather than solving a problem analytically, when we focus our attention outwardly on the problem, insight occurs when we turn our attention inward and becomes less focused. This inward focus can help us experience a sudden ‘aha’ solution. This historical illustration about insight describes the ‘aha’ process well.

We use the word ‘eureka,’ attributed to Archimedes (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC), to describe an ‘aha’ moment, a flash of insight we sometimes get. As a brilliant scientist in antiquity, Archimedes is perhaps known for a story about his inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the then king, King Hiero II. He was concerned, however, that the goldsmith has substituted the cheaper metal silver for some of the gold. He asked Archimedes to find the truth without melting the crown. This stumped Archimedes until a flash of insight appeared to him.

One day as he took a bath, he noticed the water level rise as he stepped in. Suddenly he realized that by making few mathematical calculations, he could use water volume displacement of the crown to determine if it was indeed made of pure gold. In his excitement, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.” Thus, the word ‘eureka’ we use for insight. Through this insight he then discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold.

Archimedes had discovered an insight in a moment when he wasn’t even thinking about the problem. When we get a ‘eureka’ or an ‘aha’ insight, we just know the answer without actually knowing how we got it. The insight doesn’t come piece by piece, but usually all at once.

Researchers who study insight use a word game called Compound Remote Associate (CRA) problems. Study participants try to create three two-word phrases from three words that could share a common word. For example, consider these three words: barrel, root, and belly. What two-word phrases can you create that share a common word? Participants often use the word beer to create beer barrel, root beer, and beer belly. After they solve the problem they press a button to indicate how they solved it, either logically or with an ‘aha’ insight. Using both EEG and fMRI, neuroscientists then examine their brain functioning (Jung-Beeman et al., 2008) to learn what happens during insight.

Through these studies they’ve discovered a process that occurs in our brain when it receives an insight. First, our brain is at rest in what is called the default mode. We may be daydreaming or our minds may be wandering. MRI studies show that at this stage, the alpha wave (the wave active when the brain idles during daydreaming and relaxation) spikes. This indicates that our brain is visually gating (Sandkühler & Bhattacharya, 2008), reducing the visual input it’s processing to reduce distractions.

This is in contrast to the brain’s dominant wave, the beta wave, active during visual focus and alertness. The alpha wave shows that the part of our brain behind our eyebrows is more active prior to an insight. This part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, lights up when it senses conflict. This makes us more aware of competing alternatives and enhances our predisposition to switch between difference solutions (Beeman, n.d.), potentially creating an insight. That is, if one solution doesn’t work, the brain will try another. This part of our brain helps orchestrate attention since it is so highly connected to the rest of the brain.

Finally, at the moment an insight occurs the gamma wave spikes (Kounios et al., 2006). A gamma wave, the fastest brain wave, sweeps across the entire brain 40 times per second to bring our brain to attention, much like how a conductor synchronizes an orchestra when he raises his baton. The gamma band activity indicates new brain maps are being formed, the insight. And when that happens it literally feels good because neurotransmitters are released. As the insight occurs at the point of gamma synchrony, right hemisphere activity also increases to help us make connections with subtle associations we might have otherwise missed. The brain’s right hemisphere, which process information more intuitively and holistically, apparently drives the insight process.

I envision a setting ripe for an insight akin to a guy drinking lemonade while sunning in a lounge chair at the beach. Then, as he reads a fishing magazine, the solution to a nagging work problem suddenly pops into his mind. That image contrasts to his intense mental state a week prior at work when he tried to solve the problem, much like how Rodin’s famous sculpture ‘The Thinker’ pictures. So, insights are more apt to come when are brains are less focused and rested.

Consider these tips to help your team learn to develop insight.

  • Daydreaming: Insight often comes when we daydream and allow our minds to wander (Christoff et al., 2009). Teach your team how daydreaming can help them solve problems. Encourage your team to schedule times to daydream and to allow their minds to wander rather than always actively trying to solve problems. Help them realize that thinking less about a problem may actually bring the solution. In fact, some companies such as Google, Intuit, and Twitter expect their employees to take time for daydreaming about projects other that than those they’re working on (Waytz & Mason, 2013).
  • Mood: When we are in a positive mood, problem solving often comes more easily (Subramaniam et al., 2008). Yet when we’re anxious, we solve fewer problems because the anxiety uses up brain resources. So if you’re facing a dilemma in your organization, it might help if the team watched a funny movie to stir the creative juices.
  • Location: Encourage your team to discover the kinds of activities that help put them into an insight state. Two settings have helped me generate insight. Ideas pop into my mind when I read and walk at a reasonable pace on my treadmill. Insight also comes more readily when our family leaves for vacation while it’s still dark. I’m the driver and I’m usually the only one awake that early in the morning. With little roadside distraction, my brain has generated many good ideas during those three or four hours of solitude.
  • Application: Although insight gives us a nice dopamine rush (the neurotransmitter involved in attention and reward), we all know that the feeling eventually wears off. Remind your team to record their insights in an easy to remember location so that they won’t forget them. Even if your team member can’t immediately act on an insight, getting him to commit to acting on it at a later time can help translate the insight into action (Rock, 2007, p. 108).
  • Speed: If you’re working with a team member who is trying to find a solution to a problem, don’t rush the process. Give him time to engage his brain. Allow space in conversations and encourage him to carve out some down time to give his brain a break.

The above is a brief excerpt from of my newest book to be released next April entitled Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

How have you helped foster ‘aha’ moments among your team members?

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Beeman, M. Insight in the Brain. Available from: <http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/mbeeman/PLoS_Supp.htm>.

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719–8724.

Jung-Beeman, M., Collier, A. & Kounios, J. (2008) How insight happens: learning from the brain. Neuroleadership Journal, (1), pp.20–25.

Kounios, J., Frymiare, J.L., Bowden, E.M., Fleck, J.I., Subramaniam, K., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2006) The prepared mind: neural activity prior to problem presentation predicts subsequent solution by sudden insight. Psychological Science, 17 (10), pp.882–890.

Rock, D. (2007) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Reprint. HarperBusiness.

Sandkühler, S. & Bhattacharya, J. (2008) Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving. PLoS ONE, 3 (1), p.e1459.

Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008) A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21 (3), pp.415–432.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013) Your Brain at Work [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2013/07/your-brain-at-work/ar/1> [Accessed 26 June 2013].

Resolving Conflict: 5 ways to prepare your heart

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 he forcefully deals with a judgmental spirit which often gets in the way of resolving conflict. Often when we try to resolve conflict, it doesn’t go well because we’ve not prepared our heart beforehand. I’ve found these 5 heart benchmarks crucial to prepare my heart before I attempt to resolve a relational conflict.

Benchmark 1… Attitude: I have a constructive one.

When Jesus tells us in Matthew 7.1 to not judge, he’s not prohibiting what judges do in the court room nor saying we can’t call sin sin. Neither is he saying that we should never confront another about their unhealthy or destructive behavior. Rather, He’s speaking against what we’d call a judgmental, morally superior, or hypercritical spirit that He often saw in the scribes and Pharisees. Before we deal with a conflict, we must examine our attitude to make sure our goals for doing so are constructive and corrective rather than critical and condemning.

Sometimes a judgmental spirit shows up in a subtle way when we take delight in the misfortune of others. The Germans coined a word for this experience, schadenfreude (shod-en-trod-a). When we take delight in another’s misfortune, our brain actually releases dopamine, one of the feel-good neurotransmitters, into our brain’s pleasure center. So, the next time you take subtle delight in the misfortune of the person with whom you face conflict, you’re probably doing what Jesus said we should avoid.

Benchmark 2… Fairness: I’m using a fair standard.

In verse 2 Jesus says, For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. This is another way of explaining how the golden rule works. What goes around, comes around.

The attitude or standard we use against others will be the same attitude others will judge us by. This passage seems also to imply that God Himself will apply that same standard against us. As John McArthur writes, “Self-righteous judgment will become its own gallows.”[1]

Before we attempt to resolve a conflict, we must check the standard of fairness we’re applying that we hope the other person will apply with us.

Benchmark 3… Introspection: I’ve looked within.

Jesus used an exaggerated metaphor of a guy trying to take the speck out of another’s eye when he himself had a log sticking out of his own eye. He was illustrating that as ludicrous as that image appears, it’s just as ridiculous to be judgmental and picky toward somebody with whom we have a conflict when we have not faced up to our own sin and responsibility in the conflict. So, we must first look within. Otherwise, we can become so obsessed with the other person’s issues that we miss the really big stuff in us.

The next benchmark is a close cousin to this one.

Benchmark 4… Responsibility: I’ve owned my part in the conflict.

In verse 5 Jesus says that we must first take the plank out of our own eye. In other words, before we can address another’s contribution to the conflict, we must own what we’ve done that has contributed to the conflict.

Jesus even includes the concept in one of the beatitudes where he says, Matt. 5.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt. 4.4)  He looks with favor on genuine repentance.

When we do this we then become qualified to attempt reconciliation… and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7.5)

Benchmark 5… Discernment: I’ve counted the cost.

In verses 6 Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

The dogs and pigs He refers to are not cute puppies nor pet potbelly pigs. They represent mangy, wild dogs and pigs that would just as soon rip you apart as anything. Jesus uses an exaggerated picture of a man holding precious pearls trying to convince the dogs and pigs that his pearls are valuable. Doing so is fruitless because such animals only care about getting food and would rip you into pieces were you to get in their way. Pigs and dogs don’t appreciate valuable things.

Here’s His point. It may not be worth the price to attempt reconciliation. It may be better to yield your rights that you are morally and legally justified to receive. It may be the wisest choice not to confront. For by doing so, you may simply make things worse. Some people will reject you no matter how well-meaning you are, how concerned you are for them, or how well you prepared your heart. With such people, don’t force the issue. Practice discernment and count the cost.

On the other hand, it may be costly as well to not attempt reconciliation. Bitterness and a further unraveling of the relationship could result if you don’t attempt reconciliation. The longer you go without attempting to work through conflict, the more the issues can fester that can poison and destroy a relationship. Refusing to seek relational reconciliation may bring a lot of hidden costs. Again, practice discernment and count the cost.

Resolving conflict is never easy. But the chances of successful resolution increase when we appropriately prepare our heart.

How have you prepared your heart before attempting to resolve a conflict?

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[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 434). Chicago: Moody Press.

Leadership Transparency: 4 Ways to Build it

Leadership transparency can build or break trust. Without trust, leadership suffers. However, when a staff, customers, or congregation trust their leaders, good things happen. Several years ago our church made some significant changes to our governance and our church constitution. After a two-year study process, our board of elders presented the changes to our church resulting in overwhelming approval, a unanimous vote. A key reason the process went so well was because they ruthlessly practiced leadership transparency. Here are 4 ways to practice leadership transparency and move your church or ministry forward.

  1. Communicate-communicate-communicate.
    • Our board went out of the way to communicate the proposed changes. They included some key influencers in the re-write. They provided copies of the change several weeks in advance. They convened a focus group of key influencers to get their take before it came to the church. We asked for a strong congregational attendance at our annual meeting where these kinds of issues must face a vote. We had a great attendance.
  2. Welcome input and questions.
    • In addition to the focus group, they gave plenty of time during the annual meeting to field questions. Our head elder who led the meeting kept encouraging questions without appearing to rush the meeting in any way. He allowed spaces of time when no one raised questions, yet he still conveyed an openness to field any questions as they might come up.
  3. Be graceful in the face of difficult questions.
    • A few people raised some tough, but fair questions. Neither the head elder nor the assistant head elder who fielded questions responded defensively when those questions were raised. They acknowledged the question, affirmed the person who asked it, and answered the question without a defensive or off-putting tone.
  4. Be totally forthright.
    • Some of the proposed changes required a significant change from congregational rule to a board rule form of governance. When such questions were raised, the head elder didn’t attempt to soft sell, beat around the bush, or obfuscate the reality of the change. He answered clearly and explained the why behind each answer.

I hadn’t lead a church for some time that held such significant congregational meetings. Yet, the spirit in which the board lead provided a textbook example how good leadership transparency can move the ministry forward.

What other ways have you seen that builds leadership transparency?

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