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.

Five ways to Motivate others you may have Skipped

Motivating staff and volunteer leaders in the church or in any organization begs the question: How can we do it better? I believe David Rock, author and speaker, offers fresh insight from neuroscience about how we can best motivate others. He developed a paradigm based on five domains that influence behavior that he coined with the acronym SCARF.

The letters in this acronym stand for these domains that affect brain functioning and thus performance in our jobs and ministries.

  • Status: a feeling of importance relative to others around us
  • Certainty: a sense of predictability about the future
  • Autonomy: a sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: a sense of safety with those around you
  • Fairness: a perception of being treated fairly

When a staff person, employee, or volunteer experiences SCARF in his or her ministry it actually increases a chemical in their brain called dopamine which has a positive effect on our moods and our thinking. When a leader intentionally tries to meet the SCARF needs of those around him or her the more he will see positive results in the areas below. The less these needs are met, the opposite will occur.

  • collaboration
  • intrinsic motivation
  • productivity
  • change management
  • healthy relationships

So how might a church leader meet some of the SCARF needs in his church or team? Consider these.

Status: Teach that every person has intrinsic worth and value in God’s eyes. Just because a person lacks certain skills does not mean his status in God’s eyes is anything less than someone who seems to be super talented.

Certainty: Keep your people informed about the future. Don’t spring new initiatives on them. Don’t blindside them. Give them sufficient time to process something new. Consistently do this.

Autonomy: Don’t micromanage. Give choices to your staff and volunteers within reasonable parameters. Let them own some decisions.

Relatedness: Provide plenty of time for your teams to do social stuff together. Encourage involvement in a small group. Intentionally build community.

Fairness: Make sure you treat everyone fairly. Don’t ever play favorites.

Motivating others will always test us as leaders. The SCARF model can help us become more intentional and effective in how we motivate them for Kingdom impact.

What have you found that has helped motivate those you work with?


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Rock, D. (2008) SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal, (1), pp.44-52.

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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Disapproval in the Church: What a Pastor can Do

Serving as a pastor brings many joys as well as headaches and hurts. One of the biggest hurts comes when others disapprove of us. Neuroscientists have discovered that a disapproving look from a person physically hurts. A disapproving facial expression stirs up the flight-fight part of our brain and heightens anxiety, even more than an angry facial expression does. I’ve experienced those disapproving looks and have learned how to cope with disapproval.

When the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) takes over, we lose the ability to think clearly and lead well. When that happens, these behaviors surface.

  • We react and act impulsively
  • We assume the worst
  • We get defensive
  • We lose our creative ability to solve problems
  • We grieve the Holy Spirit
  • We lose perspective
  • We can’t truly listen
  • We can’t think as clearly

These kinds of behaviors show their ugly selves when the emotional brain takes over. Constant disapproval, especially from significant people in your church, can evoke these behaviors.

In a previous church several years ago, the most influential lay leader there was once my number one supporter. His words, body language, and facial expression would almost always encourage me. I could count on him to lift my spirits when I was down. However, something happened in our relationship and his demeanor took a 180-degree shift. He now became my greatest disapprover.

His view of me carried significant weight because he held a very high status in the church. When our paths crossed at church and I saw his disapproval, my anxiety level shot up. When I saw those disapproving looks, a brain dynamic kicked in in the flight-fight part of my brain that dampened my ability to think most clearly so I could preach at my best and compassionately relate to others on Sundays. Essentially, I stifled the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Initially I was not consciously aware of this dynamic.

However, as I began to learn how my brain worked when I saw a disapproving expression, I started to make these choices that helped me cope with disapproval, especially his.

  1. I consciously took notice when his physical presence evoked anxiety in me. Instead of stuffing the emotion, I named it. I would breath a prayer under my breath, “Lord, I feel anxious right now after I saw _________. Please help me cope with this tension in my heart.”
  2. I sought out a coach/counselor to help me reappraise the situation quicker. Taking a different perspective helps calm the fight-flight part of our brain. Often we need an objective person to help us see the situation clearly.
  3. When I would preach, I would look for approving faces instead of his. I purposefully did not lock eyes with him in a sermon because I knew the toll it might take on my focus while preaching.
  4. I finally met with him for breakfast, shared my concerns, and asked him how I could regain his confidence. Essentially, his view of me as a leader had changed and I could not change it back. At least I cleared the air with him. However, through this experience the Lord helped me more consistently moderate the painful distraction I often felt when I saw his disapproval.

As painful as this experience was, it became a great learning experience. Now that I know what happens in my brain when I see disapproval in someone’s face, I’ve become quicker to more proactively moderate its negative effects.

How have you managed those who disapprove of you?

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Source: Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activate to disapproving facial expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, pp.238-253.

5 Qualities to Look for in a Youth Pastor.

Occasionally I offer a blog by a guest blogger. Today’s post comes from my friend and youth pastor expert Jeremy Best. Jeremy has served in student ministry for many years and is one of the most knowledgable guys around on the subject. He speaks with wisdom on the qualities to look for in a youth pastor.

You’re looking for the wrong qualities in your youth pastor.

I’ve been through the hiring and interview process a few times, have helped churches design job descriptions, and I’ve walked with other youth pastors as they’ve gone through the job hunt. Through all of this a few trends have emerged, but one stands out clearly – churches don’t have a grasp on the type of person their youth pastor needs to be. They get caught up looking for someone who checks off the boxes in the usually unrealistic job description and who seems to have that classic youth pastor look and feel (which is entirely subjective and typically based on the past experience – good or bad – of the people conducting the search). Because of this, churches often either hire the wrong person or miss out on great candidates that didn’t happen to meet their criteria.

So, let me submit 5 qualities to look for in your next youth pastor.

1. Horses over Cattle.

What does it take to get a horse to run? Not a whole lot. It’s in their nature. In fact, if you’re riding a horse you’ll hold on to the reins to slow the horse down or change its direction. But, what does it take to get cattle to move? A prod, an electric stick that shocks the cow to get them to move. Sure, cows are easier to control, but you’re much better off hiring a horse that you have to rein in from time to time than a cow that you’re constantly prodding just to get them moving.

2. Character over Charisma.

Charisma is by definition, attractive. People are drawn to charismatic leaders. Churches will often look for a charismatic leader whom people will be drawn to. Charisma isn’t a bad thing to have in a youth pastor, but it shouldn’t be a priority. What you need in a youth pastor is someone who will draw students to Jesus, not to themselves. Hire character. Look for a person who is deeply respected by those that know them and that is deeply in love with Jesus. This person will lead students to Jesus. If they happen to have charisma too, bonus!

3. Potential over Pedigree.

It seems every church is looking for someone with a master’s degree and 5-10 years experience.  They want someone with a good pedigree, and for good reason. Experience is extremely valuable. But, don’t limit your search based on how many years someone has been working. Look for potential. Look for someone who wants to prove they can do the job and is willing to work their butt off to do it. That person could be someone who has the education and the experience, but it could also be someone who’s still looking for their first shot.

4. Relational over Relevant.

Relevance is likely the most overrated quality churches look for in youth pastors. The idea that typically lies behind it is a good one – hire someone who the teens can relate to.  Yes, do that. But that doesn’t mean a youth pastor needs to dress like, talk like, or act like a teenager. What a youth pastor needs to be is relational. Find someone who cares deeply about teens and legitimately enjoys spending time with them, and that person will become relevant to your teens because he cares about them.

5. Curator over Custodian.

A custodian’s task is important, but limited. They are hired to care for a space, to keep it clean, tidy, and in good working order. However, a curator is a specialist in their area and are hired, typically by museums and art galleries, to design exhibitions. Curators determine what pieces are important and how they should be displayed. Many churches are looking to hire custodians for their youth ministry.  They want someone to make sure the program runs well and to keep the kids out of trouble. Aim higher for your church, hire a curator. Hire someone who will specialize in youth ministry and youth culture. Then trust and empower them to create a program that meets the unique needs of your church and community.

What quality would you add to this list?

Jeremy blogs at jeremyjbest.com.

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