4 Spiritual Disciplines Pastors Often Neglect

The terms spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation have taken center stage in many churches and pastor conversations today. Essentially they refer to what we do to build healthy souls. And we all want that. They serve as means to an end, to become more like Jesus, not as ends in themselves. And the most common ones include Bible reading, fasting, and prayer. While I believe that most pastors somewhat regularly practice the main ones, I have a hunch that we may often unintentionally miss these four. As you read each one, ask yourself when you last practiced it.

  • Not having to have the last word.
    • Keith Meyer, pastor and author, tells a story about a student in one of Dallas Willard’s classes. At the end of one class a student rudely challenged him with a question. With Dallas’s keen mind he could have crushed him with an answer. Yet, he gently responded with, “Well, that’s a great question and a good time to end class.” After the class several angry and supportive students came up to him asked why he didn’t answer. He said, “I was practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”
  • Solitude for the extrovert and community for the introvert.
    • Introverts usually practice solitude easily yet may find it difficult to intentionally break their alone time to be with others. The opposite holds true for the extrovert. Silence and solitude can feel excruciating for an extrovert. Yet, often we need to do the opposite of what comes easy for the greatest impact on our souls.
  • Submission for a Type-A, high-D personality.
    • Both those descriptions reflect my personality. I like to be in charge and lead the way. It’s hard for me to take a back seat. Yet when I do so with a right heart, it counters the temptation to become prideful.
  • Confession.
    • No one likes to be wrong. Yet, when we do wrong, when we sin, Scripture tells us to confess it. It easier to confess it to God in private. It’s hard to confess it to others against whom we’ve sinned. Yet when we appropriately confess our sin to others, God gives us a deep sense of cleansing and peace in our souls.

What other disciplines do you see that pastors often miss?


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Are you a Sleep Deprived Pastor? Take this quiz and find out.

Ministry demands never seem to end. There’s always one more person to serve and reach. If you’re a pastor or work in a church in any capacity, our days often don’t end at 5 pm. Meetings and emergencies can take us into the late hours. Even if nothing specific demands our attention, in our off hours our minds often ruminate about the church. Unfortunately, this causes many pastors to be sleep deprived. In fact 1/3 of all Americans are sleep deprived. I imagine pastors exceed that percentage. Take this quiz and discover if you’re sleep deprived. Mentally check below the statements that apply to you.

Sleep deprived quiz:

  • After I get up I feel tired most of the day.
  • I often hit the snooze button in the morning.
  • I wake up a lot at night.
  • I often feel mentally sluggish during the day.
  • On weekends and vacations I sleep a lot longer than I normally do to “catch up.”
  • I tend to load up on caffeine through coffee, energy drinks, or sodas to “keep me going.”
  • Within a couple of hours before I go to bed I exercise or spend a lot of time in front of my computer monitor or my iPad.

If you checked at least three, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough sleep.

And when you don’t, your brain doesn’t work at its peak…you increase the stress hormone cortisol in your body which damages it…and you’re more likely to react and be less self controlled when under stress.

Sleep deprivation does NOT help us become more productive pastors, even though we may think that extra hour of work that we get each day from sleeping an hour less helps. This Harvard Business Review article paints a compelling tie between decreased job performance and sleep deprivation.

So why is it such a problem for pastors? I have a few hunches.

  • Perhaps we’ve over emphasized productivity. What pastor hasn’t read or memorized Proverbs 6.10.A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (NIV)
  • Perhaps we’ve too often compared ourselves with uber-successful pastors or famous leaders and have heard how they got by on little sleep.
  • Perhaps we’ve gotten used to being sleep deprived and don’t know what it’s like to get adequate sleep.

What can we do about it?

  1. If you are sleep deprived, admit it. Admitting a problem is the first step toward victory.
  2. Realize that sleep and rest is biblical. We see this in the creation account and God’s establishing Sabbath rest as a principle. We see this in Jesus telling His disciples to pull away from ministry and rest (Matt. 6.31). And we see Jesus sleeping, even in a storm (Matt 4.38).
  3. Re-adjust your schedule to get more sleep. Get an accountability partner to hold you accountable. It may not be easy.
  4. Go to bed earlier. This is a very effective way to regain that sleep.
  5. Ask your leadership to limit evening meetings.
  6. Give yourself some grace if you are in a season with a new baby. Most babies don’t respect your need for sleep. Give it time and this will pass.

What has helped you get adequate sleep?


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How to Keep Your Brain Sharp

Weighing a mere 2-3% of our body weight, yet requiring 20% of our body’s energy, the brain is a masterpiece of God’s creation. It grows rapidly from birth until the mid-twenties. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. Even though you can’t avoid getting older, you can take some simple steps to keep your brain sharp. In this post I suggest 6 simple ways to stay mentally sharp well past your twenties.

Neuroscientists have coined a phrase, cognitive reserve, to explain our brain’s resistance to its normal decline. It’s the way the brain builds resilience against the natural loss of cognitive abilities due to aging.

When one neighborhood of our brain slows down, cognitive reserve helps another neighborhood take over to compensate for the loss.

As we age, though, certain brain process inevitably occur.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

So, what can we do to build our cognitive reserve and minimize cognitive loss, especially since you will probably live longer than your parents will or did?

These five “use it our lose it” brain hygiene steps have been scientifically shown to build cognitive reserve.

  1. Learn, learn, learn. Researchers have discovered a relationship between years of education and greater cognitive reserve. You don’t need to go back to school for a PhD, though. Just be curious. Challenge your brain. Learn new things. Read challenging books, magazines, and blog posts. Although I’m 62 and have 4 degrees, I’m planning on getting another degree for the sheer pleasure of learning (and to keep my brain sharp). Check out adult education courses community colleges offer, usually at a good price. Also, many colleges (even Harvard) offer free courses online, the same ones you’d pay for.
  2. Prioritize friendships. The Bible often speaks to the value of healthy community with others. Building healthy relationships helps us deepen our walk with God, but also provides a brain benefit. Friendships keep your brain sharp, partly because when we interact with others we learn new things and see different perspectives which stretches our thinking. So, don’t be a hermit.
  3. Exercise your brain with brain games. Although a recent lawsuit against one of the brain game companies has given brain games a black eye, a recent metastudy (a study of studies) has shown significant cross-over value in some of these games. That is, playing them doesn’t just make you better at playing them, but playing them actually boosts brain power and cognitive reserve. I use BrainHQ (I don’t work for them) five days a week and these games challenge my brain in a way that nothing else does. This company was rated highest from the study I cited above.
  4. Get adequate sleep. Lots of good stuff happens when you sleep. Scientists are discovering more and more benefits from getting a good night’s sleep. So, don’t skimp on your sleep. In this post I explain three important brain benefits from sleep. One important function of sleep is that it clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. Learn a foreign language. Learning a new language helps make more efficient use of our brains and encourages something called neuroplasticity, the ability the brain has to change itself. At one time scientists believed the brain was more like porcelain – once we reached a certain age we were stuck with what we had. However, they’ve discovered that the brain is malleable, like putty. What we do with our lives and what we put into our minds can change our brain. I’m now learning Spanish. I use a free, nifty iPhone app called Duolingo. It’s easy and lots of fun. I try to practice on our Spanish language pastor at church. I think he gets lots of laughs.
  6. Keep you devotional life strong. At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistently have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time can help keep your brain sharp.

If we take care of our brain, it will serve us well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, check out my most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

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When Leaders Get Hooked on Being Right

You’ve been wrestling with a ministry challenge and you believe you’ve found the right answer. At the next board meeting you share your idea and one board member begins to voice opposition. Because you feel so strongly that you’re right you begin to raise your voice, talk faster, and talk over others who want to engage in the conversation. Tension escalates. Anger rises. You think, “How dare they think I’m wrong. I know I’m right.” What happens in those types of meetings? Why do they tend to go south? And what’s a leader to do when this happens more often than not? What do you do when you are hooked on being right?

hooked

If this has ever happened to you, a small almond shaped structure called the amygdala has hijacked your brain. Located deep inside our brains, it (there are actually two of them) causes our fight-fight-freeze-appease response to danger.

So when you felt threatened from a board member’s pushback, your emotional side takes over. And when that happens, the part of our brain that helps you think clearly, respond wisely, and listen carefully, the prefrontal cortex right behind your forehead, gets shut down. You react emotionally rather than thoughtfully. And when you get too pushy, you probably put the other people’s brains in the same fight-fight-freeze-appease mode which increases their resistance to your idea.

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders get stuck in this unhealthy mode. They are driven to be right, avoid appearing wrong, or even appease others. As a result, too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, courses through their bodies and brains and puts them in a state of chronic stress. Too much cortisol over long periods of time harms our hearts, decreases our creativity and memory, and actually kills brain cells.

When that happens, what can we do?

  • Evaluate whether or not you are under chronic stress. If you often feel anxious, react easily, people-please too much, or have difficulty concentrating, your amygdala may be controlling you instead of the Holy Spirit. Your body may be telling you that you need a cortisol break. Ask a close friend or a counselor to help you determine if you’re under chronic stress. Even better, ask them if they feels like you always need to be right. Of course, you may not even need anyone to tell you that. You may already know it. A good dose of self-honesty will go a long way toward healing. If you are under chronic stress, create a plan to lessen your stress.
  • Remind yourself that God is in control. When the brain experiences uncertainty, (i.e., Will the board approve my idea?) it feels threatened. When we feel threatened, our emotional side driven by the amygdala tends to take over. Yet, God is the most certain Reality in the universe and He tells us to have faith in Him. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb. 11.1, NIV) Even with the uncertainty that comes with leadership, we can rely on God’s steadfastness certainty and His Spirit can override our human tendency to become fearful when things seem uncertain.
  • Learn to listen more empathetically (i.e., when you present your idea to your board). Empathy, being able to step inside another’s shoes, is a key competency for successful pastors and leaders. One study even showed that empathetic doctors got sued less than non-empathetic ones (Ambady, 2002). It doesn’t mean that you don’t hold to your convictions. It does mean, however, that you try to listen with your heart. Empathy, kindness, and caring can actually help activate the trust hormone, oxytocin. When that happens, when others feel that you care and that you really listen, they will endear themselves more to you and to your leadership.

So, if you have to get hooked on something, don’t get hooked on being right about your ideas, but about being right with others and with the Lord.

What behaviors have you seen in leaders who are hooked on being right?

Here’s another great blog posting on the subject by Judith Glasser.

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References:

Ambady, N. (2002) Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2013].

The Lonely Pastor: 6 Ways to Dig Out

Loneliness is a deep ache in our soul and it doesn’t necessarily imply that we are physically alone. Some of the loneliest people in the world are surrounded by people. Even so, their deep ache of loneliness persists. If you’re a lonely pastor (or anyone from that matter) take heart from these thoughts.

Loneliness can make us feel…

  • isolated
  • sad
  • exhausted
  • unmotivated
  • unloved
  • even useless.

Pastors are no exception. Although our “job” is people and we’re around them all the time, we can be some of the loneliest people in the church. I once read that the man with the fewest male friends in the church is often the senior pastor.

So what can we do when loneliness overwhelms our soul? I don’t offer a neat prescription, but I’ve learned a few things that that have helped me.

  1. Admit it. When you feel lonely, tell somebody. First tell yourself. Then tell the Lord. And when appropriate, tell somebody else. Neuroscientists have discovered that admitting our negative emotions (labeling them) can actually lessen the strength of those emotions.
  2. Guard against ruminating over it. It’s natural to feel lonely sometimes. But if we mull over it for long periods of time the Enemy can turn it into depression, self-loathing, and self-pity. Rumination over negative experiences more deeply activates the emotional centers of our brains exacerbating the emotion and causing us to lose objectivity.
  3. However, the Lord may want to teach you something. Ask Him what lesson He wants you to learn through your loneliness.
  4. Read uplifting Scriptures and listen to uplifting music.
  5. Go and do something productive. Serve someone that won’t benefit your ministry. Smile at everyone you meet. Compliment the cashier at the grocery store. Take your son or daughter on a date. Invite someone in the church to lunch with you. When we do something productive the neurotransmitter dopamine increases in our brain and dopamine increases motivation and improves mood.
  6. Don’t do anything dumb. If you are married be careful about close relationships with someone of the opposite sex. Sharing your pain with someone of the opposite sex can lessen your inhibitions and unintentionally draw you into sexual activity that you will regret.

What has helped you move through loneliness?


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