The Brain and Successful Church Change: 11 Insights you need to know

Wise leaders carefully manage church change. Healthy church management includes not just the bird’s eye view (big picture implications) but also considers the individual view, what’s going on inside the individual church member or leader when you, as the leader, present change. Neuroscience offers helpful insight about unconscious processes that go on inside our brains when people face change. Consider these insights and suggestions the next time you plan change for your church.

People appreciate certainty and autonomy because the brain craves both. David Rock, one of the leader proponents of applying neuroscience to leadership (neuroleadership) suggests an acrostic called SCARF that represents five essential brain processes that influence motivation and change management. See my blog here that explains SCARF. The ‘c’ and the ‘a’ stand for certainty and autonomy. I’ve listed 5 insights below that relate these two components to change management.

  1. People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is actually wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive. 2/3 of our brain cells in the flight-fight part of our brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on the negative.
  2. People naturally fill in knowledge gaps with fear. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear.
  3. Ambiguity creates more fear than measured risk. That is, the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear about and resistance to change. Measured risk, however, fills in some of those gaps and lessens anxiety.
  4. Undoing a wrong impression is harder than creating a good impression. It’s the old adage “you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression.” That’s not just a quaint saying. Neuroscientists have shown it to be true.
  5. People understate their ability to ride out difficult future events. Uncertainty causes us to poorly forecast how well we can face difficulty. The term is “affective forecasting.” When you present change, people will initially assume that the church will come out worse than expected, although the opposite is often true.
  6. Emotions play a very important part in decision making. Just presenting the facts is seldom enough to move people forward.

So, in light of these insights, what are some positive steps you can take to most effectively manage church change?

  1. Build in small, short-term wins along the way. These wins will give a greater sense of certainty. Remember, people (and their brains) love certainty.
  2. Fill in the knowledge gaps with truth. In other words, communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep people in the loop about your progress with the change initiative.
  3. Provide a feedback loop. Give people in your church a real, tangible way they can give feedback to you about the process. Simply knowing they have that ability to communicate to you and that you are really listening will decrease their anxiety about the future.
  4. Within reason, provide people small ways they can choose about how the change will look. Although the leadership will have decided the big picture change, providing options and opportunity for people to hone what those changes within the big change will look like increases autonomy. Remember, people love autonomy.
  5. Fill in knowledge gaps with Faith. Preach and teach on faith. Keep verses like Hebrews 11.1 often before the people.

Heb. 11.1 Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (NLT)

What have you done that has helped smooth church change?


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6 Tips to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

Every January millions make new year’s resolutions. The top ones include lose weight, quit smoking, use money more wisely, and spend more time with friends. Unfortunately, 50% never keep their resolution for more than 6 months and only 10% make it through the year. So, should we avoid setting resolutions (goals) for the new year because we might fail? I don’t think so. As the new year begins, it is a great time to evaluate your life and look ahead. Here’s what I suggest.

6 tips to help you keep your resolutions.

  1. Specifically state what you want to do (ie, read through the bible in a year).
  2. Really want it. Is it in your gut? Have you decided that you just can’t continue down the same path any longer? Are you really serious?
  3. Believe God wants it for you. He wants you to move forward in your faith and in your life. He is on your side. He is on your team. 2 Peter 1.3 tells us, By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. (NLT)
  4. Put real effort into keeping your resolution/goal. God wants you to partner with him and put your heart into God prompted resolutions. New birth does not rule out human activity. 2 Peter 1.5 says, … make every effort to respond to God’s promises. (NLT)
  5. Break down your goal into small, bite-sized pieces.
  6. Enlist help. Ask a  trusted friend to periodically check on your progress.

If you apply these simple steps, keeping a new year’s resolution won’t seem so daunting.

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Do You Problem Solve too Much as a Leader?

Good leaders help team members solve their own problems with their own insight. Average leaders tend to solve their team members’ problems, thus truncating their opportunity to grow themselves. So, how do we help our team members learn to problem solve on their own? In this post I begin with a story and then suggest ways to problem solve in a balanced way.

Archimedes was a brilliant Greek scientist. He lived 250 years before Christ and is best known for inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the Greek king, King Hiero II. The king 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 hit him. One day as he took a bath he noticed the water level rise as he stepped into the tub. Suddenly he realized that by making a few mathematical calculations he could use water volume displacement from the crown to determine if it were made of pure gold. In his excitement, so the story goes, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.”

Thus, we use the word “eureka”  for personal insight. Through this insight he discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold, a not-so-good discovery for the goldsmith.

Leaders tend to be tellers.

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We communicate goals and strategies by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.
  • We teach by telling.
  • And we tend to solve our team’s problems by telling.

When a team member comes to us with a problem, it’s often expedient to give a quick answer if we see the solution. We tend to be more experienced so it can be easy to see the solution. But when we solve their problems too quickly, we can create other problems.

  1. We can inadvertently foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation to follow through because people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas.
  2. We can rob them from learning how to problem solve, an important leadership quality.
  3. We can diminish opportunities for them to experience the joy of those ‘eureka’ moments.

I believe this is the key to helping your team learn to solve their own problems: ask questions.

Jesus often asked questions when he wanted to teach important concepts. The Gospels include 135 questions Jesus asked. He asked questions to create readiness to learn and to get his listeners to think for themselves.

Consider five compelling reasons to ask your team more questions.

  1. Questions help your team see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue about their problem they are trying to solve that they otherwise might have missed.
  2. They help foster innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  3. They help your team self reflect. Telling someone an answer may stifle her need to thoroughly think through the answer for herself.
  4. They provide perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  5. They help your team focus on the real issue.

Asking good questions can become a potent team development tool to put into your leadership toolbox. 

An interesting brain process occurs when we get a eureka insight.

Several different brain waves course through our brains every day. During sleep, your brain produces delta and theta waves. When we’re awake and our brains are at rest (i.e., during daydreaming), alpha waves occur. When we are awake, alert, and focused on something, the beta wave is most prominent. But the fastest wave is called a gamma wave that sweeps through our entire brains over 40 times per second through a process called synchrony. Similar to what happens to an orchestra when a conductor raises his baton and brings the whole orchestra to attention, the gamma wave sweeps through our brains and brings it to attention when we experience a eureka insight. Several benefits occur from the gamma wave.

  • New brain maps get formed in the eureka moment.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere which processes information intuitively and holistically increases its activity by making subtle connections. This fosters insight by connecting disparate bits of information which otherwise may have seemed inconsequential.
  • The brain produces the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. As a result, a eureka insight actually feels good which makes us want more insight experiences.
  • The solution to the problem, the eureka insight, gets stamped deeper into our brains creating greater ownership to the solution and more motivation to follow through on it.

So what can you do to ask more and better questions to foster eureka insights in your team. Consider three suggestions.

  1. Practice the art of the W.A.I.T.
    • WAIT is an acronym for this question. “Why Am I Talking?” In meetings and conversations with others when you sense you may be dominating, mentally ask yourself this question. It has helped me listen more carefully and talk less.
  1. Ask the question, “What do you think?”
    • This handy question helps when you sense a team member wants you to solve his problem. You may immediately know the answer, but if you answer it too quickly you may foster unhealthy dependency on you that you want to avoid. So when a team member asks you to solve his problem, first respond with, “What do you think?” Remember, self generated insights create better buy-in than quick answers.
  1. Use the AWE question.
    • Michael Stanier suggests this question in his great book, The Coaching Habit. AWE stands for, “And What Else?” He suggests we use this question 3-5 times in a coaching or problem solving conversation. He calls it the best coaching question in the world. It helps pull out insight from a team member that might be missed if you end the conversation too soon.

Try one or more of these suggestions when a team member wants you to solve his or her problem.

What kinds of questions have helped you develop your team?

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How to Pull out of a Leadership Lull

Every leader at some time in his or her leadership will face multiple leadership lulls. We have a down Sunday. A new ministry doesn’t take off. Someone expresses disappointment in us or criticizes us. A seasonal program doesn’t bring as many new people as we expected. Sometimes those lulls can push us into a downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to pull out. Understanding what goes on in our brains offers insight on how to pull out of a leadership lull.

Our brains actually contribute to downward cycles. When we feel disappointed, a brain chemical that helps us feel positive, dopamine, drops which causes us to operate more from an emotional mode rather than from a thoughtful mode driven by the thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex). This decreases our performance because we enjoy our ministry less which in turn leads to decreased confidence. The spiral continues downward as our decreased confidence dampens our mood which further drops dopamine.

When we face such scenarios, five simple steps can help us move from a downward spiral to an upward spiral. God created our brains to provide doses of dopamine which makes for greater well being in our leadership and in our lives. This in turn can improve our performance which in turn opens us to fresh spiritual and leadership insight. As a result we receive a confidence boost about the future. Thus, we move from a downward spiral into an upward one.

Consider these five ideas to try the next time you face a leadership lull.

  1. Take some time to read a few uplifting portions of Scripture about hope, God’s grace, and joy.
  2. Write down the expectation that was unmet. Was it unrealistic given the current circumstances? Can you adjust the expectation downward to bring it more in line with current circumstances or with what God is telling you?
  3. Think of something unusual or outside-the box that could apply to this situation. Is there a unique or novel way to frame or modify your expectation? Novelty helps boost brain chemicals that help us gain perspective and think more clearly.
  4. Take a small step to accomplish something related to this goal or focus on another goal. Make the goal one that you can accomplish rather easily and quickly. After you do, take another small step. Each successive accomplishment will boost your confidence as it boosts dopamine. Accomplishing even small tasks from our daily to-do list has been proven to boost dopamine.
  5. Call a friend you trust who can help you think through the situation. Often we simply need fresh perspective from an objective friend.

The next time you face a leadership lull, try one or two of these simple steps and see what happens.

What have you found that helps pull you out of a leadership lull?

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10 Signs a Leader May Need a New Challenge

One of my favorite writers is Liz Wiseman. She has spoken at the Willow Creek Summit a couple of times. She has authored these two great books that I love… Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. In one chapter of Rookie Smarts she lists 10 signs that might indicate you need a new challenge. As you read these, ask yourself if they reflect your current world.

10 Signs a Leader Needs a New Challenge*

As you read each one, mentally check the ones true of you.

  1. Things are running smoothly.
  2. You are consistently getting positive feedback.
  3. Your brain doesn’t have to work hard to be successful.
  4. You don’t prepare for meetings because you already know the answers.
  5. You’ve stopped learning something new every day.
  6. You are busy but bored.
  7. You’re taking longer showers in the morning and you take your time getting to work.
  8. It makes you tired to think you could be doing the same job a year from now.
  9. You’ve become increasingly negative and can’t identify why.
  10. You’re spending a lot of time trying to fix other people’s problems.

So how many did you check?

Liz says that two or more of these experiences indicate you need to, ‘renew your rookie smarts,’ (approach your ministry with a beginner’s mindset to become a better learner). And if three or more are true of you, you need a new challenge.

When I read this list, it made me think deeply about how I approach my role as a lead pastor.

  • I don’t want to get stuck on cruise control because things may go well.
  • I don’t want to look back one day and realize I squandered God-given opportunities because I was taking the path of least resistance.
  • I don’t want to get too comfortable by using what worked well before.
  • I don’t want to become so drained by other people’s problems that I have little energy to think into the future.
  • I do want to approach each day from a possibility mindset, how God can use me to make an eternal Kingdom impact.

As you lead, guard against becoming complacent and comfortable.

Relish your wins.

Enjoy the successes God gives you.

Take joy in God’s pleasure in you.

And ponder and heed these words of Joshua.

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. (Josh. 1.8, NLT)

What would you add to this list that might indicate a leader needs a new challenge?

*list from Wiseman, Liz. Rookie Smarts (Enhanced Edition): Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work (p. 165). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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