How the Brain Stifles Church Change

If you want your church to thrive you can’t avoid church change. Yet it is seldom easy, even though we leaders see the benefits of change before others see them. One hidden reason that makes it so difficult comes from how our brains respond to change. I believe that the more we know how the brain works, the more effective change managers we’ll become. In this post I explain how brain processes in stifle change in your church.

In a prior blog about the brain’s influence on change I wrote…

Our brains are wired for us to want certainty in our lives. When something feels ambiguous or uncertain, we subconsciously feel threatened. When we feel threatened, it creates an away response, rather than a toward response. In the case of church change, an away response might be negativity, fear, passive resistance, or complaining from people. On the other hand, a toward response would be excitement, support, and good gossip, how we hope the church would respond. The more uncertain and ambiguous church change appears, the less support we’ll get and the more difficult the change will become.

Ambiguity about changes we propose, plus many other brain factors, influence how well people in your church will respond to your leadership. I knew of one church in the southern U.S. that was preparing for significant change by attempting to raise several million dollars for a building renovation. However, several key players and church members at that time had yet to embrace the plan. The resistance to the change rose from these core issues.

  • Fear that this fund raising effort would hinder other fundraisers that several ministries depend on.
  • Sparse information given to the church before key milestones in the process.
  • Resistance by some about going into debt.
  • Older church members who felt uncomfortable with the change.

Based on brain insights, I’ve listed five ways that this church or any church should consider to best manage such change.

  1. Leaders should first understand that two fundamental brain systems are at play in the people they seek to lead. One process, called the “X-system,” got its name from the ‘x’ from the word reflexive. This system is more emotional, reactive, habitual, impulsive, spontaneous, and fast. It’s the non-thinking, automatic process that most people live by day-to-day. It’s what prompts someone to emotionally react to a change. The other process, called the “C-system,” comes from the ‘c’ in reflective. It’s more intentional, controlled, slower, and causes us to think before we speak or act. This system prompts people to reflectively consider the change. Simply knowing how the brains of your people work can help you manage change better. If you want to learn more about these processes, read, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
  2. Recognize that change can create an away response in our brains and our emotions (see the quote above). If we feel threatened and fearful (caused by an away response), we’re less likely to embrace change. Older church members may feel especially threatened due both to the effects of age on the brain and to their long term ingrained church habits that aren’t easily changed (Williams et al., 2008). Therefore, leadership should publically acknowledge that they understand that change is difficult and scary and that it’s scary for them as leaders as well.
  3. Bring key players into the conversation. If key players believe they’ve been excluded from the process they can feel that they are in the “out” group. When they do, resistance to change will be higher because it also creates an away response in the brain (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).
  4. Over communicate using all means possible. The more information church people receive, the less ambiguity and more certainty they will feel. As a result, they will be less tempted to fill in the information gaps with worst case scenarios and will become more open to the reasons you give for the change.
  5. Finally, seek to minimize something called cognitive dissidence. This term simply describes the inner tension we feel when our belief conflicts with our behavior (i.e., I want to lose weight but I’m eating a bag of Cheetos). Cognitive dissonance creates anxiety that can make us less open to change. One way to help minimize it is to preach and teach to change people’s beliefs about the change you’re proposing. If you can help them agree that the reason for the change is Biblical (i.e., reach more people), you can help them shift their behavior to align more with the change (i.e., their willingness to sacrifice convenient parking during the renovation). Behavior change follows change in belief.

God has given us this incredible thing called the brain. The more we learn how it works, the better leaders and change agents we will become.

What insights about change have helped you in your ministry or job?


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Sources:

Rock, David & Cox, C. SCARF in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. Neuroleadership Journal, (four).

Williams, L.M., Gatt, J.M., Hatch, A., Palmer, D.M., Nagy, M., Rennie, C., Cooper, N.J., Morris, C., Grieve, S., Dobson-Stone, C., Schofield, P., Clark, C.R., Gordon, E., Arns, M. & Paul, R.H. (2008) THE INTEGRATE MODEL OF EMOTION, THINKING AND SELF REGULATION: AN APPLICATION TO THE ‘PARADOX OF AGING’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 07 (03), pp.367-404.

Is This the Hidden Factor that Hinders Change in your Church?

In my 35 plus years in ministry, change management has been one of the most challenging tasks I’ve faced. Most pastors would probably agree. Recently I learned an insight about how people’s brains work that helped me see what I may have unintentionally overlooked when I initiated a change. This might be the hidden factor that most hinders change in your church.

Our brains are wired for us to want certainty in our lives. When something feels ambiguous or uncertain, we subconsciously feel threatened. When we feel threatened, it creates an away (avoid)  response, rather than a toward (approach) response. In the case of church change, an away response might be negativity, fear, passive resistance, or complaining from people.

On the other hand, a toward response could be excitement, support, and good gossip, how we hope the church would respond. The more uncertain and ambiguous church change appears, the less support we’ll get and the more difficult the change will become.

So how we can we make church change less ambiguous and easier to bring about? I’ve listed some pointers below based on some recent findings in neuroscience.

  1. Stay close to your key influencers during the entire change process. Remember, the more threatened someone feels, the more they will resist change. Learn their unique personalities because some personalities respond better to change than others. (Brin Jr. & Hoff, 1957).
  2. Remain sensitive to characteristics that impact a person’s feeling of threat caused by the uncertainty change brings.
    • The more politically conservative they are, the more they may feel threatened by change (Jost et al., 2008).
    • The more personal anxiety they’re experiencing, the more threatened they may feel from change (Bishop, 2007).
    • The lower a person’s self esteem, the more resistant they can be to change (Ford & Collins, 2010).
  3. Keep people informed with timely reports on how the change is progressing (helps minimize uncertainty).
  4. Cast a compelling vision on how the new change can make things better (a form of reframing current reality).
  5. Teach about characters in the bible who created certainty through faith, believing God was in control despite difficult circumstances and uncertain futures.
  6. Teach about how to keep a healthy Christ centered self-esteem.
  7. Teach on how to biblically manage anxiety (see this post on how).

What are some tips you’ve learned that have helped bring change?

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References:

Bishop, S. (2007) Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Anxiety: and Integrative Account. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, xxx (x), pp.1-10.

Brin Jr., O. & Hoff, D. (1957) Individual and Situational Differences in Desire for Certainty. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 54(2), pp.225-229.

Ford, M.B. & Collins, N.L. (2010) Self-esteem Moderates Neuroendoctrine and Psychological Responses to Interpersonal Rejection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), pp.405-419.

Jost, J.T., Nosek, B.A. & Gosling, S.D. (2008) Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (2), pp.126-136.

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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My Top 10 Most Read Posts in 2016

Each year I compile a list of the top 10 most read posts for 2016. Thanks for all you who follow me and read my posts. Have a great new year.

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2016

  1. 8 Benefits of Integrity in Life and Leadership
  2. Top 10 Reasons People Don’t Tithe
  3. 5 Big Mistakes Pastors Make Every Sunday
  4. Tithing: a Simple and Effective Way to Encourage it
  5. How Porn Damages your Brain
  6. How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend Preparing a Sermon?
  7. How to Make Boring Church Announcements Memorable
  8. The Narcissistic Pastor: 10 Signs that you Might be One
  9. 5 Essentials Necessary to Build Team Unity
  10. What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

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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