The Cortisol Flooded Church: 9 signs and 8 antidotes

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects  include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.

Pulled in Too Many Directions Signs Stress Anxiety
  1. Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
  2. Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
  3. The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
  4. Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
  5. An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
  6. Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
  7. A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
  8. Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
  9. You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.

How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.

How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.

  1. Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
  2. Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
  3. Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
  4. If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
  5. Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
  6. Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
  7. Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
  8. Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.

Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?

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10 Subtle Signs You Have Hit your Stress Red Zone

The Red Zone: unsafe areas in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, a region of France decimated during WWI, the area on the field between the 20 yard line and the end zone in American football (source: wikipedia).  The term Red Zone is a fairly well understood term that designates either a problem area or a heightened sense of alertness, as in the case of football. I’m extending that meaning to the emotional place many pastors and leaders find themselves in, sometimes without there even knowing it. Consider these subtle clues that may point to your being in the stress Red Zone. Mentally check the ones true of you.

Zone rouge

10 indicators you are in the stress Red Zone

  1. You quickly walk by someone at church or at the office to avoid a conversation simply because you don’t have the energy to engage.
  2. Fun in ministry and life seems to have disappeared.
  3. When you come home your spouse says, “You look terrible.”
  4. When you come home you could go to bed, right then.
  5. You can’t shake the free floating anxiety that seems to cling to you.
  6. Small things that once didn’t bother you now set you off.
  7. You often ruminate over and rehearse negative issues in your ministry and/or life.
  8. You easily default to worse case scenario thinking.
  9. You feel anger coursing deep within.
  10. You’re not sleeping very well.

How many did you mentally check? If you checked any of these, you may be in the stress Red Zone.

Often leaders lead in such stress-filled environments that their bodies and brains are awash in the stress hormone, cortisol. When under stress, whether good or bad, our adrenal glands (located atop our kidneys) release this important hormone. Cortisol is not all bad. We need it in times of stress. However, it becomes harmful when we are perpetually under stress and our body gets overexposed to it and other stress related hormones.

Here’s what can happen to your body if it’s perpetually awash in cortisol.

  • dampened immunity: you’ll get sick more often
  • digestive problems
  • heart disease
  • anxiety
  • weight gain
  • impaired brain functioning, especially memory
  • sleep impairment

So what can you do if you realize you are in the stress Red Zone? Consider these ideas.

  1. Make sure you regularly exercise as exercise can help reduce excessive cortisol in your body.
  2. Practice mindfulness as part of your spiritual formation process. My latest book includes an entire chapter on mindfulness.
  3. Get 30 minutes more sleep each night.
  4. Take your day off…really take it off. Don’t even look at email for 24 hours straight on your day off.
  5. Talk to a friend, your spouse, or a counselor about your stress. Others can often give us a more objective sense of reality which can reduce our stress.

What has helped you manage your stress and avoid being awash in cortisol?

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10 Ways Leaders Build Trust

If a leader wants to lead well and successfully, he or she must build trust with those around him or her. Without trust, teams won’t thrive or even survive. I believe we leaders must prioritize building trust with and among those we lead and serve. Consider these 10 ways to build trust with your teams.

trust building
  1. Speak truth, but always in love.
    • Eph. 4.15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
    • Don’t spin and don’t flatter. Tell the truth, but don’t use a bat to do it. Jim Carrey starred in a movie several years ago called Liar Liar. He always spoke the truth but with no love, consideration or respect.
    • One of the most successful ways to deplete people’s trust accounts is to send angry emails. Don’t do that. See my blog here about misusing email.
  2. Golden rule trust.
    • The golden rule says, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Matt. 7.12)
    • In other words, give trust to others and they will give it to you. If you don’t trust others, don’t expect them to trust you. Trust gets reciprocated. You want trust, you have to extend it to others
    • Biblically rooted trust does not mean blind trust. Stephen M. R.  Covey calls it smart trust. There must be some credibility and history before you give full trust. I recommend his book Smart Trust.
    • Smart trust means that you have a propensity to trust and that you extend and inspire trust in others.
  3. Risk transparency.
    • People don’t trust what they don’t see. Trust requires humility in that you give part of yourself to others so that you actually give the power to them to potentially hurt or disappoint you. Banish hidden agendas. Don’t make things appear what they are not. Be willing to admit your failures and struggles.
  4. Go the extra mile to right wrongs.
    • Don’t cover up. Don’t make excuses. Own your own failures. You will build trust in others when you admit it when you were wrong.
  5. Give credit where credit is due. 
    • Practice Matthew 18 by dealing with conflict 1-1 first. Don’t let others con you into their conflict when they aren’t willing to apply Matthew 18.
  6. Be accountable.
    • God gives more opportunity and responsibility to those who have proved themselves trustworthy.
      • “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ (Luke 19.17)
    • Hold yourself accountable and responsible. Don’t blame others when you should take responsibility.
  7. Do what say you will do.
    • Behave in ways that builds trust in others. Show up the same way every day. Don’t be mad at everybody one day and happy as the lark the next day. Be consistent.
    • … those who fear the LORD…keeps his oath even when it hurts… (Ps 15.4)
    • … show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2.10)
    • Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (1 Cor. 4.2)
  8. Practice authentic empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside the shoes of another, feel his emotions, and see life from his perspective. When you seek to truly empathize, it creates safety.
    • One of the Old Testament words for trust (batach) has a meaning of “careless.” When you trust your spouse or someone else, you feel so safe that you are careless—or free of concern—with him or her. You don’t have to hide who you are or be self-protective (from Focus on the Family).
  9. Seek understanding before being understood. In other words learn to truly listen.
    • My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…. (James 1.19)
    • The more we know each other and truly listen, the more we can understand why others do what they do.
    • Listen to understand, not build your case, not to reply, not to find loopholes in the other person’s argument or viewpoint, not to correct them, but listen to first understand.
  10. What would you add as a tenth?

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Leaders who Last: Is This the Reason Why?

Some leaders last. Some don’t. Why? Did God endow certain leaders with extra leadership moxie? Did they inherit the leadership gene? Were they in the right place at the right time? Was their ability to last due to good parents? Perhaps all these factors do play a part. However, I believe that one factor in particular determines how well leaders last. Perhaps you will agree. (adapted with permission from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership).

Compass

I believe the key for prevailing leaders lies in clarity of and commitment to their core values.

Do this exercise right now. Quickly, without thinking much, answer this question.

  • What core values and convictions guide your life and ministry? If you haven’t memorized them, go to the document on your computer or in a file where you’ve listed them. 

Were you able to easily recall them? Were they fuzzy or hard to locate? Or was this the first time you’ve even considered what they were? When I say values, I don’t mean the essential values every follower of Jesus should embrace, like keeping the Ten Commandments, obeying the Golden Rule or living out Jesus’ great command and Great Commission.

Rather I’m speaking about more nuanced ones that capture the essence of the real you.

Such values so infuse our soul that nothing external can cause us to compromise them. Granted, they might be aspirational, ones not yet fully developed. Nevertheless, they describe the authentic, Christ-honoring you to which you aspire.

It’s like the difference between a compass and a gyrocompass. A compass points to true north because it relies on magnetic north—unless, that is, you bring a magnet close to it. Even a small magnet can cause a compass to give wrong directions. A magnet external to it affects the north arrow so that it gives a false reading. Metaphorically, the magnet makes it compromise. For some so-called values, all it takes is criticism or the oppositional voice of a significant board member (an external force) to cause a leader to compromise. However, a gyrocompass is a device used on ships that is a compass “plus” so that a magnet can’t cause it to give a false reading.

Samson was a leader with simple “compass” values. As a Nazarite, he had made a vow (swore to a list of “values”) to avoid certain behaviors. Usually in that day a person’s joy and a desire to set himself apart for God prompted such a vow. In his case, however, it was prophesied that he would be a Nazarite from birth (Judg 13: 5). But from the very beginning Samson found it difficult to live up to those values. He became involved with three different Philistine women, one ultimately leading to his downfall.

Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima write,

“Samson had a deep need to please others. It was very hard for him to disappoint anyone. In fact it was nearly impossible for him to say ‘No’ even when saying yes was in his best interest and ultimately was self-destructive.” (McIntosh and Samuel Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of LeadershipGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, Kindle ebook, loc. 1176.

When something (or someone) exerted pressure on his values, his compass didn’t keep him fixed on his true north.

Our true inner values, our gyrocompass values, play a very significant role in how well we last in our leadership.

Do you agree? Why or why not?

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From People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership (Kindle Locations 1278-1297). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition by Dr. Charles Stone

Does Your Emotional Force Field Attract or Push Others Away?

In Miss Pickens’s third-grade class at Glen Oaks Elementary School in Fairfield, Alabama, I performed the first of many science experiments. As a full-fledged geek, I looked forward to those experiment days. One day Miss Pickens gave each of us a small, rectangular magnet about the size of a stick of gum, a sheet of white paper and a small container filled with metal filings. She told us to place the magnet on our wooden desks and then place the paper over it. Then she instructed us to slowly pour the metal filings on the paper. Magically, the metal filings clumped into semi-circular shapes at each end of the magnet. She then explained that those filings aligned themselves with the unseen magnetic force fields radiating from each end of the magnet. Thus I learned about the concept of force fields. In the same way every leader and pastor carries with him or her their own emotional force fields.

Iron filings around a magnet

You’ve probably met people that carry around a magnetic, attracting one. My wife does. She loves people, and people immediately sense that. They feel drawn to her because her personality and caring persona invite interaction. One the other hand, I’ve known people that carry around an emotional field that pushes people away. It doesn’t take much interaction for me to feel uncomfortable or even repelled by such people.

Neuroscience describes a process called theory of mind that enables us, to some extent, to intuit the emotional and mental state of somebody else. When we notice someone’s body language and eye movements, we subconsciously can sense his emotional state and whether he is for or against us. Although not foolproof, this ability helps us pick up on subtle cues from others and “read” their emotional force field, whether it draws us to them or pushes us away.

An episode in the book of Ruth illustrates the idea of force fields.

When the women in Bethlehem first saw Naomi years after she had left with her husband, they were shocked at what they sensed in her. Her name, which meant “pleasant,” no longer described her countenance. Instead, her losses in the previous decade had led left their mark, and the women immediately sensed it. No longer “pleasant,” she asked them to call her Mara, which means “bitter­­ness” (Ruth 1: 19-20).

In a similar fashion, I would often sense the mode of a leader in a former church (I’ll call him Jake), simply by looking at him. He would sometimes come into a meeting with an emotional field that screamed, “I’m in a bad mood, and I’m going to resist everything you say.” His entire persona telegraphed his adversarial mood.

In contrast, I recall another leader in a former church that always carried an emotional field that said, “Charles, I am for you and with you. I support you.”

When we step into another’s emotional field, it does affect us. We often function in unhealthy ways in response to these fields. When I sensed the adversarial leader’s mood (Jake), I would often subconsciously tense up. My anxiety level would rise, and I would put myself on guard for fear of being hurt in some way. As a result, I could not think as clearly and would easily become defensive.

On the other hand, when I sensed the other leader’s affirmative mood, I felt safe. I could be myself, listen and be fully present for her.

This experience parallels how the poles of magnets either repel or attract each other. Difficult church conditions often give rise to repelling emotional fields that can cause conflict, personality clashes and distance. When we find ourselves in these adversarial fields, we must draw deeply from our spiritual resources, as Nehemiah did that we see in the book named after him.

Instead of disconnecting, powering up or reacting, we must stay calmly connected to that person. Our responses significantly affect the emotional fields of others in a positive or a negative way. When we keep our cool in the face of conflict, we think more clearly and can actually moderate the person’s or the group’s overall anxiety.

Consider Canada geese, for example. When I lived in Chicago, I’d often jog in the fall near a field packed with resting geese. When I ran near them, inevitably one would crane its neck, look at me and stand up, which caused the rest of the flock to do the same in a ripple effect. The one goose’s “anxiety” fed the others’. But after I ran by (unless for fun I ran at them), that initial goose would lower its neck and sit down, which cued the rest of the flock to follow. Its anxiety, or lack of it, affected the entire flock.

That’s how it works in churches and organizations. It travels from person to person in groups. If a pastor or leader brings his anxiety into a staff meeting (or a church service), it likely causes everybody else’s anxiety to rise as well. Likewise, if he relates to others with calm instead of anxious­ness, they mirror his calmness. As Margaret Marcuson writes,

“When a leader is clear, calm, and confident, people find their own confidence increased, and they are more likely to follow.”  (Leaders Who Last, Kindle loc. 815)

Calmly connecting does not mean we never get emotional or show passion. Nor does it imply we should become best friends with our critics. Roberta Gilbert explains it this way:

“If the leader can make a more frequent contact with difficult people (notwithstanding the fact that we all want to distance from them) they will often settle down. These contacts don’t have to be large amounts of time, they simply need to take place. And, sometimes, they don’t need to be about issues. Contact simply needs to be made.” (Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems Make a Difference, Falls Church, VA: Leading Systems Press, 2009, p. 136)

So managing our emotional force fields is key to leading well.

How has your emotional force field, whether positive or negative, affected those you lead?

Taken by permission from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 2003-2029). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.