Your Conscience: Are you Neglecting It?

Recently I taught a Sunday morning message on the human conscience. Afterwards a seasoned Christian told me that in all his years he had never heard anybody talk about the conscience. As I reflected over my 45 years of following Christ, I, too, have never heard anyone speak about it. So, in this post I make the case for paying attention to our conscience, developing a healthy one, and if you are a pastor or teacher, teaching on it.

What is the conscience? We intuitively understand it as that part of us that reminds us when we do wrong. We use conscience in our vocabulary: he has no conscience, I had a guilty conscience, she has a clear conscience. The word conscience (suneidesis in Greek, a combination of two words: together + know) was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite words. He used it over 20 times. Scripture records one of his most famous uses in Acts 24.16 when he stood in his own defense at a trial and said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”

Conscience is akin to a moral compass. A conscience controlled by the Holy Spirit points the way that pleases God, although not perfectly for we are fallen creatures. I believe conscience works to our benefit in these three ways.

  1. Convict us when we have sinned. That is, the Holy Spirit uses it to cause the unpleasant sensations in our bodies when we feel guilt or remorse over sin.
  2. Commend us when do right. Again, the Holy Spirit uses it to give us an emotional sense of peace and joy when we do the right thing.
  3. Serve as a moral GPS to warn us when we are about to cross a moral or ethical line.

In summary, our conscience is a silent but deeply felt witness to spiritual and moral truth, behavior, and the satisfaction of choosing right over wrong. It is a God given capacity of our minds and souls that we exercise through our bodies when we make both good and bad choices. It monitors our beliefs and attitudes against our behavior and signals our bodies and souls when we are aligned with or out of alignment with biblical values. We can strengthen our conscience, desensitize it, or destroy it.

Five inputs that fashion and form our conscience.

  1. Nature: our genes. Some people are simply born more sensitive to right and wrong (the rule keepers).
  2. Nurture: our parent’s influence. How our parents raised us impacts the health and accuracy of our conscience, especially as it relates to whether or not we experienced a stable and consistent attachment to them.
  3. Daily experiences of life.
  4. Our spiritual maturity.
  5. Our body’s physical state: if we are tired or sick

Why does conscience matter?

  1. Because without it we would have no moral guide.
  2. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence before God (2 Cor. 1.12).
  3. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence in our relationships. Without we have to hide.
  4. Because a clear conscience gives us personal peace.
  5. Because a clear conscience promotes real love. With a clear conscience we are most free to truly love someone else (1 Tim 1.5)

The 7 kinds of consciences:

  1. Natural. Every person is born with a conscience. A natural conscience would be one of a person who is not a follower of Jesus. To a degree our conscience is hard-wired. Most people intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. It’s called natural or general revelation. (Rom 2.14-15). When a person comes to faith, however, the Holy Spirit makes his or her conscience come alive to the things of God.
  2. Weak. A weak conscience is an underdeveloped and uninformed one. Paul speaks of this kind of conscience in 1 Corinthians 8 in his discussion about new Christians who struggled with more mature Christians who ate meat offered to idols. At the point in their spiritual growth, they still hadn’t separated meat from idol worship when meat was eaten after those pagan ceremonies.
  3. Tired. When we resist temptation, our willpower to resist it soon thereafter is drained a bit. It’s called ego depletion (and a related term decision fatigue) Read more about decision fatigue here. Our conscience gets tired and less able to function when we don’t rest and sleep properly.
  4. Seared. Repeatedly refusing to listen to the voice of our conscience degrades and desensitizes our conscience to the things of God (1 Tim 4.2, Eph 4.19).
  5. Shipwrecked. The inevitable result of a seared conscience is what the Apostle Paul described as a conscience that shipwrecks faith (1 Tim 1.19). Such a person, because he continually refused to heed the Spirit’s promptings through his conscience, destroys his faith, now approving of what at one time he readily admitted was sin.
  6. Hypersensitive. This person lives with a perpetual vague or even an acute sense of guilt, even though he or she is not guilty. They constantly second guess themselves, ruminating over experiences and wondering if they offended someone or did something wrong.
  7. Clear. This is what we all desire, what Paul said he strived to keep. A clear conscience gives us a lightness to our soul, freedom with others, and confidence to be ourselves since we have nothing to hide or conceal. Peter wrote about having a good conscience toward God. (1 Pet 3.21)

When we understand more about our conscience and apply such truth, I believe we can most please God, bless others, and experience personal peace.

Have you ever heard a message on the human conscience? What did you learn that you could share?

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Motivate your Teams with these 4 Neuroscience Keys

Motivating staff and volunteers in your church is often as elusive as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Yet to move our churches from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ we must motivate those around us. Often pastors use the same ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach the marketplace has used for decades. If you do such-and-such you will receive a reward (salary increase, pat on the back, etc). If you don’t, you’ll get something negative: you won’t receive the reward, you will have to step down, etc. We’re now learning that this approach does not work in the long term. However, neuroscience is discovering effective ways to motivate others based on how our brains work. Consider putting these four brain-based ideas into your motivation toolbox.

1. Build interpersonal likeability among team members.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but neuroscientists have discovered a brain-based reason to help your team like each other more. Performance increases when co-workers like each other (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011).

  • Leadership application: regularly use team building and social experiences to build common interests and community among your staff, board, and volunteers.

2. Encourage sharing of mistakes.

We all learn from our mistakes. However, some church environments discourage sharing them. We don’t want to look like failures. However, brain studies have discovered that when we observe how a friend (see point 1 above about likeability) learned from his mistake, we learn from it, just as if we ourselves made the same mistake. At the same time we are more open to receiving feedback about our mistakes from our friends (Kang et al., 2010). So the greater community you build, the more easily your team will learn from each other and receive feedback. Such relationships foster a “your mistakes are my mistakes” attitude. As Prov. 27.6 says, Wounds from a friend can be trusted….

  • Leadership application: set an example by sharing your mistakes and what you are learning from them and create an environment that makes it safe for others to share theirs.

3. Repeat the common “why” often and delegate the “how.”

Leaders must constantly seek answers to two key questions: “Why are we doing what we are doing?” and “How do we do it?” A common why (a shared goal: being on the same page), helps churches avoid silos and those same shared goals actually increase personal productivity (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011). Pastors should prioritize vision clarity as one of their top three roles, along with leadership development and teaching. When you pair a clear and shared why along with allowing your team to create the how, you will foster an atmosphere of personal freedom and autonomy, a key component for high performing teams (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).

  • Leadership implication: Stay focused on keeping the why clear and allow staff and volunteers to develop the how.

4. Communicate using personality specific language.

Our brains process motivation in different ways. One study about motivating people to floss their teeth discovered that different sides of the brain light up in a scanner depending on how the message was communicated (Sherman et al., 2006). If a person is more motivated to avoid certain negative things (i.e., floss to avoid bad breath), avoidance type messages motivated them to floss more often. For those motivated more by an approach personality, (if I do such-and-such I will get something good: floss to get great breath), approach messages motivated them to floss more often.

  • Leadership implication: know your team well enough so you can tailor your messages to match personalities either as avoidance ones or as approach ones.

What has worked well to motivate your team?


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References:

Kang, S.K., Hirsh, J.B. & Chasteen, A.L. (2010) Your mistakes are mine: Self-other overlap predicts neural response to observed errors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), pp.229-232.

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

Sherman, D.K., Mann, T. & Updegraff, J.A. (2006) Approach/Avoidance Motivation, Message Framing, and Health Behavior: Understanding the Congruency Effect. Motivation and emotion, 30 (2), pp.165-169.

Shteynberg, G. & Galinsky, A.D. (2011) Implicit coordination: Sharing goals with similar others intensifies goal pursuit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), pp.1291-1294.

4 Ways Pastors can Refill their Depleted Souls

Have you ever felt depleted? As a pastor I have. Recently I heard the president of Heritage College and Seminary located near Toronto give an uplifting talk about how pastors can refill their depleted souls. He spoke at a monthly gathering of pastors and Christian business leaders in London, Ontario, where I serve as a pastor. With permission, I share his insights below.

Rick based his thoughts on this passage in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus Himself got away from the crowds.

35   Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,  37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38   Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”  39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (Mark 1.35-39)

Here are four ways Rick suggested that can refill a depleted soul.

  1. Disengage from ministry demands.
    • This passage said that Jesus did just that. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and got tired just like you and I get. The Scripture says that Jesus went to a desolate place. In other words, he removed himself from the hustle and bustle of ministry life. He separated himself from the crowds.
    • Question to ponder: Do you take a day off  when you truly disengage? Or, do you keep yourself tethered to your cell phone or your email ‘just in case’ someone needs you?
  2. Seek communion with God.
    • Notice that Jesus didn’t just get away from doing something (direct people ministry). But he disengaged so that He could engage more fully with His Father. We not only need to rest our bodies from the demands ministry places on us, but we need to fill our souls with spiritual nourishment.
    • Question to ponder: Do you regularly engage with God’s Word simply to fill your soul? Or, do bible reading, reflection, and contemplation have an end game to give you material for your sermons?
  3. Build supportive friendships.
    • Rick noted that in other places in the Gospels Jesus often took aside his disciples when He withdrew from the crowds. Disengaging does not mean that every day off we spend in solitude. Occasionally that’s a good idea. But God uses friends to fill our souls as well. In this post I list several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
    • Question to ponder: How many close friends do you have with whom you feel safe to share your joys and sorrows?
  4. Focus on your God-given calling.
    • Sometimes we pastors have bad weeks, really bad ones. People criticize us. Crises interfere with our study time. Offerings come in really low. When that has happened to me, I’ve taken great comfort and received renewed energy when I recall my call to ministry. I remind myself that then God calls us to vocational ministry, he provides everything we need. One simple practice has helped me do this. Two to three times a month when I plan my upcoming week, I review my personal mission statement and values. This simple practice reminds me to remember my calling when I experience a bad week. In this post I explain a process to help you refine your mission and personal values.
    • Question to ponder: When was the last time you recalled your call to ministry?

Rick concluded his talk by noting that although we intuitively understand how to refuel ourselves, we often don’t do it. He challenged us to ask why we don’t. He suggested that these five issues often keep us from consistently refueling.

  1. We need to be needed too much.
  2. We undervalue our communion with God.
  3. We overvalue what we can accomplish.
  4. We confuse many relationships with deep relationships.
  5. We can’t stand to disappoint people.

That simple talk that day reinforced my commitment to regularly refuel my soul.

What would add to either list?

If you want to follow Rick you can read his blog posts here.

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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.

Six Ways to Encourage your Pastor

Being a pastor is a high calling, yet pastors often face loneliness and discouragement. Surprisingly, some surveys reveal that up to 80% of pastors face regular discouragement in ministry. If that statistic even remotely reflects reality, then your pastor probably needs your encouragement. Yet, it seems so rare. The influential writer Henry Nouwen even wrote these insightful words. … there is little praise and much criticism in the church today, and who can live for long in such a climate without slipping into some type of depression?[1] If your pastors need encouragement, should you offer it to him or her or should they just suck it up? If you do want to encourage them, what’s the best way to do it? I suggest some practical ways here.

I’m convinced that we all need encouragement, even the strongest believer and most mature pastor. In fact, the Apostle Paul admitted he needed it and often referred to those who refreshed his and other people’s spirits, Philemon, Onesiphorus, and the Corinthian church. At times he even asked for it. A key character in the bible, Barnabas, was known as the son of encouragement.

Hebrews 13.17 speaks to this need and admonishes followers of Jesus to respond to their leaders in such a way as to make their work a joy. These translations bring out the meaning.

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief … . (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

In the research I did for my book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I surveyed hundreds of pastors and asked them how people in their church encouraged them. These were the top six responses.

  1. You showed me tangible appreciation (such as small gifts like a gift card to a coffee shop).
  2. You let me know that I spiritually impacted your life (such as sending an email to him or her about a recent message that helped you grow).
  3. You prayed for me (such as sending a note telling your pastor that you prayed for him).
  4. You accepted and understood me, cared for me, and were there when I needed you (such as communicating in a genuine way that you know how difficult it is being a pastor and that you truly care).
  5. You supported my leadership, defended me, and trusted me (such as going out of your way to tell your pastor that you truly believe in him and trust him).
  6. You ministered to my spouse and/or my family (such as remembering his or her kids’ birthdays).

The pastors who responded to this survey shared many touching stories and sad ones as well. One pastor even wrote that he wasn’t sure anybody in his church really cared about him. I hope your pastor doesn’t feel that way.

If you’re a pastor, would sharing this statistic with your church in an appropriate way open the door for the encouragement you desperately need in your life right now?

If you aren’t a pastor, what is God prompting you to do this week to encourage your pastor?


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[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 32.