9 Signals Your Hormones May be Hijacking your Leadership

God gave us a magnificent creation called the brain.Weighing less than three pounds, it wields incredible influence over how well leaders lead. Although we usually call the brain a computer, it’s more like a pharmacy that constantly dispenses drugs (hormones and neurotransmitters) into our bodies and brains which affect our emotions, our thinking, and our leadership. A new field called neuroleadership is helping leaders understand how brain function relates to leadership. It’s a burgeoning field pastors and leaders should pay attention to. My most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministryintersects brain science with biblical principles on leadership.

HIJACKED red stamp text on white

Are your hormones hijacking your leadership?

Brain researchers have discovered that sustained high levels of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline affect our ability to think clearly, creatively, and decisively, thus diminishing our ability to lead most effectively.

And how do sustained high levels of these hormones get into our system?

They get there from chronic anxiety, when we face long-term stress. It’s akin to a car accelerator getting stuck and revving at high rpm’s for a long period of time. If it continues, the engine will wear out prematurely. In the same way when leaders and pastors stay stressed 24/7, their anxiety, and thus their hormones, get stuck at a high level which dramatically reduces their ability to lead.

Take this simple assessment to discover how many chronic anxiety markers are currently in your life.

  1. I react and act impulsively when people disagree with me.
  2. I assume the worst and connect dots where there are none.
  3. I easily get defensive.
  4. I don’t seem to be as creative as I once was.
  5. I often find myself in a mental and emotional fog.
  6. I lose perspective easily.
  7. I don’t listen well to others, not because I don’t want to, but because my mind wanders and can’t focus.
  8. I find it difficult to concentrate.
  9. I find that others often mirror my defensiveness and reactivity.

How many markers did you find?

If more than two, your hormone accelerator is probably stuck and you aren’t leading at your best. The solution to reducing stress can be a bit complicated. But a wise pastor once advised me to regular take breaks. He shared these three simple statements that have helped me keep my stress hormones in check.

  • Divert Daily (take time out to reflect and be still before God every day).
  • Withdraw Weekly (take a weekly sabbath).
  • Abandon Annually (take a vacation every year when you truly disconnect).

How have you kept your stress hormones under control?

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When Plans Get Interrupted, What Should You Do?

What do you do when your plans get interrupted? Fume…fuss…cuss? I tend to fume. I recall two experiences that interrupted my well laid-out plans. In the process, I also learned a few important life lessons.

Concept of difficulty in business with broken stairs

Interruption #1

I was taking a voice-over class in Chicago a few years ago and I had parked in the same building where the class was held. The valet kept the keys and after the class (later that night), I was to retrieve my keys from the security guard and drive home.

Except this week.

The guard couldn’t find my keys. She called the boss and while he drove back to the building, I had some time to kill. For the next while, I was able to have a meaningful conversation with Faith (the guard) about having a relationship with Jesus. She didn’t trust Christ, but I believe her heart opened a bit. Eventually, the boss found my key and I made it home.

One redeemed interruption.

Interruption #2.

Two days later I prepared for my quarterly overnight planning retreat at a retreat center a few miles west of my home. Just before I left, I opened my Mac to send an email. When I opened the lid … a black screen stared back. This had happened two weeks prior and I thought is was a one-time glitch.

Apparently not.

Fortunately, the first time it happened one of our staff was able to perform a convoluted fix because my re-booting, removing the battery, and screaming at my Mac didn’t work. But, he was now out-of-town. I checked with another staffer and he said he thought he could fix it. He did. By the time he fixed it, though, I had lost a half-day of my retreat. Plus, I had lost the file of my current sermon.

On my drive to the retreat center, I faced a choice, I could fume or pray. I choose the latter. Amazingly, that focused prayer time centered me and prepared my heart for the retreat, even though a train stopped me on the way there and when I arrived the place was locked.

Another interruption redeemed.

Here are the 3 lessons I learned from those interruptions.

  1. Life can seem like a series of interruptions punctuated by a few plans that get accomplished. 

  2. When interrupted, we all choose how we will respond.

  3. When we respond with God’s grace, He will redeem even the most frustrating interruptions for His glory and our benefit.

How did you respond the last time you were interrupted?

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Brokenness in a Pastor’s Life

Many issues can keep a church from growing and hinder a pastor’s effectiveness. They include circumstances beyond his control (demographics or a location that hinders growth), an uncooperative board (they say No to his vision), or even family issues (a chronically ill child who requires an inordinate amount of energy). These experiences can bring painful brokenness to a pastor’s heart. And, we seldom see any immediate benefit from our brokenness. But could God use it in our lives? I believe so.

broken heart

Brokenness has touched my life in the two places where it hurts the most: my family (a child chronically ill for 25 years and a child who rebelled for many years) and my ministry (many dreams not fulfilled).

Yet, I’ve taken comfort when Jesus explained that brokenness must precede fruit bearing.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12.24)

And nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard captures the essence of Jesus’ words when he wrote these words.

“God creates everything out of nothing—and everything God is to use he first reduces to nothing.”[1]

Also, Richard Foster, one of today’s most influential voices on spiritual formation, describes one of the greatest benefits from brokenness. He calls it the “crucifixion of the will” and says it brings “freedom from the everlasting burden of always having to get our own way.”[2] Always having to get our own way is the antithesis of the other-centered life Jesus modeled for us.

As I enter the sixth decade of my life and reflect over the brokenness I’ve faced as a pastor, I’m beginning to see its great value. It still hurts and I’d prefer not to face it. Yet, I’m experiencing the fruit of brokenness: inner peace, joy, and a purpose that supersedes ‘ministry success.’

How has God used brokenness in your life and ministry?

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References:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard, ed. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 245.

[2] Richard Foster, Prayer (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 55.

Pastors Afflicted with Relational Anorexia

In my research for my second book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I discovered that pastors are often the loneliest people in the church, second perhaps only to their wives. I learned some sobering insight from several sources. In this post I unpack the concept of relational anorexia for pastors.

Eraser deleting the word Anorexia

Here are some of the sobering facts about pastors and their relationships.

  • I interviewed Dr. Michael Ross, Executive Director of The Pastors Institute, who has worked with several thousand pastors in various capacities. He told me that the number one problem pastors face is isolation.
  • Gary Kinnaman author and former mega-church pastor and Alfred Ellis, author and founder-director of Leaders that Last, an organization for ministers, wrote, “Most people in full-time ministry do not have close personal friendships and consequently are alarmingly lonely and dangerously vulnerable.”[1]
  • Well known author, Steve Arterburn has observed that “the men in the church who are least likely to have friend connections are pastors.”[2]
  • Focus on the Family discovered that nearly 42% do not have any accountability partner with whom they meet.[3]
  • And the Alban Institute, an ecumenical organization that serves thousands of congregations through research and publishing, has learned that pastors tend to seek help from others only when they are in crisis, “rather than allowing these resources to sustain and nourish them consistently.”[4]

In other words, we don’t seek out safe people to help us process ongoing ministry issues until they escalate into major crises. Even then, many pastors suffer alone.

We’ve probably all preached that God created us for deep relationship with others. But just as anorexia (the word actually means “no appetite”) can cause a person literally to feel no hunger even though he is starving, relational anorexia can keep us from feeling our inner hunger for deep relationships. Henry Cloud and John’s Townsend describe in their book Safe People these indicators that we might have relational anorexia.

  • I am uncomfortable with people and relaxed when alone.
  • I don’t get “lonely,” whatever people mean by that.
  • I spend time with people out of obligation, or for functional reasons (tennis partner, commuting to work, etc.).
  • My fantasies of vacation always involve my doing something fun by myself.[5]

The authors also posed several questions that may indicate major hindrances to healthy relationships. I’ve paraphrased them here.

  • Do you tend to only be a giver in most of your relationships?
  • Do others usually approach you only when they want something from you rather than to simply spend time with you?
  • Do you find it difficult to open up to others?
  • Do you most often choose to be alone to deal with your problems?
  • Do you feel that only God really knows and loves you?
  • Are intimate, two-way conversations with others rare?[6]

So, what should we do if we suffer from relational anorexia? I recommend that every pastor have at least one safe person in his (or her) life with whom they can be honest and with whom they can process their pain.

Who’s your safe friend? In this post I list qualities to look for in a safe friend.

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references:

[1] Gary Kinnaman and Alfred Ellis, Leaders that Last (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 10.

[2] REV.org, “Steve Arterburn Interview: Open Season,” August 2007. http://rev.org/protected/Article.aspx?ID=2519.

[3] Focus on the Family, “Pastoral Ministries 2009 Survey” (of over two thousand ministers), http://www.parsonage.org/images/pdf/2009PMSurvey.pdf, 8.

[4] Michael Jinkins, The Alban Institute, Congregations, “Great Expectation, Sobering Realities: Findings From a New Study on Clergy Burnout,” Number 3, May/June 2002. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?q=printme&id=3284

[5] Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Safe People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 129.

[6] Adapted from ibid.

 

A Simple Way Leaders (or anybody) Can Reduce Stress

God created our brains to help us survive in our world. Whether it’s a real threat (a bear outside your tent on a camping trip) or a perceived one (a board member or boss who acts like a bear), a part of our nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), engages the stress response. It’s that fight-flight feeling. Essentially, the body prepares to fight or flee the source of danger by shutting down or slowing non-essential body functions to send blood and energy to vital parts of our body. In this post I explain a science-based practice that can help reduce the effects of stress on your body.

Stress Man. Businessman  suffers from a headache

A simple practice that reduces stress

The stress response also activates other body responses. It releases chemicals in your body and brain to provide extra energy and focus if you need to fight or flee, slows digestion and saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our eyes, and sends blood to our muscles.

Aside from running away from the bear or shooting it (you’d need a permit in most places), what can we do to quiet this stress response in our day-to-day experience?

Deep breathing from your diaphragm helps.

It has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, decrease lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes cramping and fatigue), and make us calmer.

From a body perspective, deep breathing activates a nerve called the vagal nerve that travels from the back of your brain to your belly, tongue, heart, lungs and intestines. It’s an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the SNS’s counterpart. In contrast to fight-flight, it’s rest-digest and controls the relaxation response.

Think of the SNS as a car’s accelerator and the PNS as a car’s brake.

When you activate your vagal nerve, it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine and dampens the stress response. So, when you’re stressed, you want your brain to release those chemicals. Here’s how deep breathing can engage your vagal nerve and dampen your stress response.

  1. Know your body. Look for signals that it’s under stress. Some people get a dry mouth. Shoulders tighten for others. For some, their hands shake. Others experience stomach problems. Some breath faster and from their chest. Listen to your body on a regular basis to ‘catch’ your stress.
  2. Remember that breathing from your diaphragm is key. It’s called belly breathing. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to experience the difference. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should move more than your upper chest, although your chest will also expand some.
  3. When you know you are under stress, get away to a quiet private place and sit down if you can. In a pinch, a bathroom stall even works. The Bible often talks about the value of stillness and quietness (see Psalm 46.10).
  4. Breathe in deeply through your nose while you count to 4.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  6. Breath out through your mouth with a whooshing sound as you count to 8.
  7. Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing 4 times. You’ll find that this takes only a minute.
  8. Practice this every day, not just when you feel stressed.

Stress does not have to control you. You can control it with this simple breathing technique. Your body and brain will be glad you did.

What has helped you deal with stress?

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