Have you Overlooked this Brain-based Insight that Improves Public Speaking and Teaching?

My teaching has included 1,500 talks, sermons, speeches, and Bible studies during my 37 years in ministry. Sometimes when I’ve spoken I’ve felt like I was in the zone. At other times I didn’t. Only in the last few years have I discovered perhaps the single greatest key that has helped keep my mind sharp during a talk and improve its effectiveness. What was it? Exercise. Specifically, exercise within two to three hours of my talk. Here’s what I’ve learned about the brain and exercise that has improved my speaking.

Scientists increasingly see exercise as a powerful way to keep your brain healthy. Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey wrote an entire book on the subject called SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that exercise increases a key protein necessary for a healthy brain, BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). Brain derived means that the brain makes it and neurotrophic implies that it helps make neurons (brain cells) strong. It’s considered the master molecule of learning (Ratey, p. 38) that he calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’

This brain fertilizer benefits the brain in many ways.

  • It protects neurons from premature death.
  • It improves their function.
  • It enhances communication between them.
  • It stimulates their growth (neurogenesis).
  • It provides a key link between emotions and thoughts (Ratey, 2013, p 40).

In one study Dr. Ratey writes about neuroscientist Arthur Kramer who divided fifty-nine sedentary senior adults into two groups (p. 226). One group simply did stretching exercises for six months while the other group exercised for six months three times a week on a treadmill. MRI scans showed that their frontal and temporal lobes actually increased in volume, a surprising finding. And, their brains looked two to three years younger than the brains of the stretch only group.

Another study showed that even one 35-minute workout on a treadmill at 60-70% of maximum heart rate can improve our brain’s processing speed and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes your brain’s ability to shift its thinking and to create new ideas.

Dr. Ratey also studied students in a school system in the Chicago suburbs. The school began a before hours exercise program called Zero Hour P.E. Students who participated in the program improved their mood and their reading comprehension compared to students who didn’t participate. He directly attributed this improvement to exercise.

Although for years I’ve regularly exercised during the week, I usually didn’t do so on Sundays since I had to arrive at church early. However, when I learned about this insight, I began to exercise 20-30 minutes early each Sunday morning. I now ride a stationary recumbent bike to get my heart rate to 60-70% of its maximum. When I began my Sunday morning exercise routine, I quickly realized these benefits.

  • I was less anxious about my message.
  • My memory improved and I more easily recalled the sermon’s points as I spoke.
  • I felt more physically energized than when I didn’t exercise.
  • I was more relaxed around others.
  • My overall mood was much better.

So, if you regularly preach or teach, consider exercising 20-30 minutes 2-3 hours prior to your teaching. I believe you’ll experience some of the same benefits I did.

What has helped improve your preaching/teaching?

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10 Ways Pastors can Escape the Ministry Stress Zombie Zone

In my last post I discussed how ministry stress can sometimes make pastors feel like zombies: listless, unmotivated, and mentally distracted. Many of you took the Zombie Zone Quiz to find out if you were in that zombie zone. If ministry stress is draining you, this post offers some practical guidance.

pastors under stress

purchased from Deposit Photos

If you currently feel like a zombie pastor, what can you do to renew your passion, energy, and zest for ministry? Consider these 10 simple steps that can help you regain your joy and step into God’s healthy zone.

  1. Admit that something is out of kilter in your life. Simply naming the problem is your first step to solving it.
  2. Share with a safe friend that you feel like a zombie and ask him or her for prayer and support.
  3. Take an honest look at your average week. Does it include a full day of rest when you disconnect from all things ministry?
  4. Start getting 30 more minutes of sleep each night.
  5. Schedule time each day when you email or do social networking. Don’t get sucked into them every hour.
  6. Ask the Lord to renew your strength.
    • But those who wait upon GOD get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind. (Is. 40.31)
  7. Do something fun that you enjoy doing. Make a date with yourself each week and do it. Don’t feel guilty that you are taking time for yourself.
  8. If it’s serious, find a coach or counselor who can help you dig out. Even if it’s not serious, periodically see a coach or counselor to help give you perspective.
  9. Ask your closest friends and family to tell you when they sense you are mentally preoccupied. When they tell you, write down what was on your mind. Learn how to catch yourself when you become preoccupied with those thoughts so you can change them and become more present with others.
  10. Practice silence and solitude. See the related posts below for insight on this important spiritual practice.

How do you keep yourself emotionally and spiritually healthy so that you don’t become a zombie pastor?

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Has Ministry Stress made you a Zombie Pastor? Take the Zombie Zone Quiz to Find Out

Zombies are big today. Big budget movies, popular TV shows,  commercials, and even zombie action figures have invaded our culture. Even before they became popular, when someone said, ‘I feel like a zombie,” we knew what they meant… they felt exhausted, lifeless, listless, and were simply going through the motions. How do you know if ministry stress has made you a zombie pastor? In this post you can find out.

photo purchased through Deposit Photos

As a pastor for over 35 years, at times I’ve felt like a zombie pastor. Ministry stress, disappointments, and pressure sometimes seemed to sap my soul of life, energy, and joy.

So how do you know if you are a zombie pastor? Take the Pastor Zombie Zone Quiz. (Tweet this quote here)

Are you a Sleep Deprived Pastor? Take this quiz and find out.

Ministry demands never seem to end. There’s always one more person to serve and reach. If you’re a pastor or work in a church in any capacity, our days often don’t end at 5 pm. Meetings and emergencies can take us into the late hours. Even if nothing specific demands our attention, in our off hours our minds often ruminate about the church. Unfortunately, this causes many pastors to be sleep deprived. In fact 1/3 of all Americans are sleep deprived. I imagine pastors exceed that percentage. Take this quiz and discover if you’re sleep deprived. Mentally check below the statements that apply to you.

Sleep deprived quiz:

  • After I get up I feel tired most of the day.
  • I often hit the snooze button in the morning.
  • I wake up a lot at night.
  • I often feel mentally sluggish during the day.
  • On weekends and vacations I sleep a lot longer than I normally do to “catch up.”
  • I tend to load up on caffeine through coffee, energy drinks, or sodas to “keep me going.”
  • Within a couple of hours before I go to bed I exercise or spend a lot of time in front of my computer monitor or my iPad.

If you checked at least three, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough sleep.

And when you don’t, your brain doesn’t work at its peak…you increase the stress hormone cortisol in your body which damages it…and you’re more likely to react and be less self controlled when under stress.

Sleep deprivation does NOT help us become more productive pastors, even though we may think that extra hour of work that we get each day from sleeping an hour less helps. This Harvard Business Review article paints a compelling tie between decreased job performance and sleep deprivation.

So why is it such a problem for pastors? I have a few hunches.

  • Perhaps we’ve over emphasized productivity. What pastor hasn’t read or memorized Proverbs 6.10.A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (NIV)
  • Perhaps we’ve too often compared ourselves with uber-successful pastors or famous leaders and have heard how they got by on little sleep.
  • Perhaps we’ve gotten used to being sleep deprived and don’t know what it’s like to get adequate sleep.

What can we do about it?

  1. If you are sleep deprived, admit it. Admitting a problem is the first step toward victory.
  2. Realize that sleep and rest is biblical. We see this in the creation account and God’s establishing Sabbath rest as a principle. We see this in Jesus telling His disciples to pull away from ministry and rest (Matt. 6.31). And we see Jesus sleeping, even in a storm (Matt 4.38).
  3. Re-adjust your schedule to get more sleep. Get an accountability partner to hold you accountable. It may not be easy.
  4. Go to bed earlier. This is a very effective way to regain that sleep.
  5. Ask your leadership to limit evening meetings.
  6. Give yourself some grace if you are in a season with a new baby. Most babies don’t respect your need for sleep. Give it time and this will pass.

What has helped you get adequate sleep?


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How to Keep Your Brain Sharp

Weighing a mere 2-3% of our body weight, yet requiring 20% of our body’s energy, the brain is a masterpiece of God’s creation. It grows rapidly from birth until the mid-twenties. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. Even though you can’t avoid getting older, you can take some simple steps to keep your brain sharp. In this post I suggest 6 simple ways to stay mentally sharp well past your twenties.

Neuroscientists have coined a phrase, cognitive reserve, to explain our brain’s resistance to its normal decline. It’s the way the brain builds resilience against the natural loss of cognitive abilities due to aging.

When one neighborhood of our brain slows down, cognitive reserve helps another neighborhood take over to compensate for the loss.

As we age, though, certain brain process inevitably occur.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

So, what can we do to build our cognitive reserve and minimize cognitive loss, especially since you will probably live longer than your parents will or did?

These five “use it our lose it” brain hygiene steps have been scientifically shown to build cognitive reserve.

  1. Learn, learn, learn. Researchers have discovered a relationship between years of education and greater cognitive reserve. You don’t need to go back to school for a PhD, though. Just be curious. Challenge your brain. Learn new things. Read challenging books, magazines, and blog posts. Although I’m 62 and have 4 degrees, I’m planning on getting another degree for the sheer pleasure of learning (and to keep my brain sharp). Check out adult education courses community colleges offer, usually at a good price. Also, many colleges (even Harvard) offer free courses online, the same ones you’d pay for.
  2. Prioritize friendships. The Bible often speaks to the value of healthy community with others. Building healthy relationships helps us deepen our walk with God, but also provides a brain benefit. Friendships keep your brain sharp, partly because when we interact with others we learn new things and see different perspectives which stretches our thinking. So, don’t be a hermit.
  3. Exercise your brain with brain games. Although a recent lawsuit against one of the brain game companies has given brain games a black eye, a recent metastudy (a study of studies) has shown significant cross-over value in some of these games. That is, playing them doesn’t just make you better at playing them, but playing them actually boosts brain power and cognitive reserve. I use BrainHQ (I don’t work for them) five days a week and these games challenge my brain in a way that nothing else does. This company was rated highest from the study I cited above.
  4. Get adequate sleep. Lots of good stuff happens when you sleep. Scientists are discovering more and more benefits from getting a good night’s sleep. So, don’t skimp on your sleep. In this post I explain three important brain benefits from sleep. One important function of sleep is that it clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. Learn a foreign language. Learning a new language helps make more efficient use of our brains and encourages something called neuroplasticity, the ability the brain has to change itself. At one time scientists believed the brain was more like porcelain – once we reached a certain age we were stuck with what we had. However, they’ve discovered that the brain is malleable, like putty. What we do with our lives and what we put into our minds can change our brain. I’m now learning Spanish. I use a free, nifty iPhone app called Duolingo. It’s easy and lots of fun. I try to practice on our Spanish language pastor at church. I think he gets lots of laughs.
  6. Keep you devotional life strong. At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistently have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time can help keep your brain sharp.

If we take care of our brain, it will serve us well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, check out my most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

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