How the Brain Stifles Church Change

If you want your church to thrive you can’t avoid church change. Yet it is seldom easy, even though we leaders see the benefits of change before others see them. One hidden reason that makes it so difficult comes from how our brains respond to change. I believe that the more we know how the brain works, the more effective change managers we’ll become. In this post I explain how brain processes in stifle change in your church.

In a prior blog about the brain’s influence on change I wrote…

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 response, rather than a toward 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 would 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.

Ambiguity about changes we propose, plus many other brain factors, influence how well people in your church will respond to your leadership. I knew of one church in the southern U.S. that was preparing for significant change by attempting to raise several million dollars for a building renovation. However, several key players and church members at that time had yet to embrace the plan. The resistance to the change rose from these core issues.

  • Fear that this fund raising effort would hinder other fundraisers that several ministries depend on.
  • Sparse information given to the church before key milestones in the process.
  • Resistance by some about going into debt.
  • Older church members who felt uncomfortable with the change.

Based on brain insights, I’ve listed five ways that this church or any church should consider to best manage such change.

  1. Leaders should first understand that two fundamental brain systems are at play in the people they seek to lead. One process, called the “X-system,” got its name from the ‘x’ from the word reflexive. This system is more emotional, reactive, habitual, impulsive, spontaneous, and fast. It’s the non-thinking, automatic process that most people live by day-to-day. It’s what prompts someone to emotionally react to a change. The other process, called the “C-system,” comes from the ‘c’ in reflective. It’s more intentional, controlled, slower, and causes us to think before we speak or act. This system prompts people to reflectively consider the change. Simply knowing how the brains of your people work can help you manage change better. If you want to learn more about these processes, read, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
  2. Recognize that change can create an away response in our brains and our emotions (see the quote above). If we feel threatened and fearful (caused by an away response), we’re less likely to embrace change. Older church members may feel especially threatened due both to the effects of age on the brain and to their long term ingrained church habits that aren’t easily changed (Williams et al., 2008). Therefore, leadership should publically acknowledge that they understand that change is difficult and scary and that it’s scary for them as leaders as well.
  3. Bring key players into the conversation. If key players believe they’ve been excluded from the process they can feel that they are in the “out” group. When they do, resistance to change will be higher because it also creates an away response in the brain (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).
  4. Over communicate using all means possible. The more information church people receive, the less ambiguity and more certainty they will feel. As a result, they will be less tempted to fill in the information gaps with worst case scenarios and will become more open to the reasons you give for the change.
  5. Finally, seek to minimize something called cognitive dissidence. This term simply describes the inner tension we feel when our belief conflicts with our behavior (i.e., I want to lose weight but I’m eating a bag of Cheetos). Cognitive dissonance creates anxiety that can make us less open to change. One way to help minimize it is to preach and teach to change people’s beliefs about the change you’re proposing. If you can help them agree that the reason for the change is Biblical (i.e., reach more people), you can help them shift their behavior to align more with the change (i.e., their willingness to sacrifice convenient parking during the renovation). Behavior change follows change in belief.

God has given us this incredible thing called the brain. The more we learn how it works, the better leaders and change agents we will become.

What insights about change have helped you in your ministry or job?


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Sources:

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

Williams, L.M., Gatt, J.M., Hatch, A., Palmer, D.M., Nagy, M., Rennie, C., Cooper, N.J., Morris, C., Grieve, S., Dobson-Stone, C., Schofield, P., Clark, C.R., Gordon, E., Arns, M. & Paul, R.H. (2008) THE INTEGRATE MODEL OF EMOTION, THINKING AND SELF REGULATION: AN APPLICATION TO THE ‘PARADOX OF AGING’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 07 (03), pp.367-404.

Hierarchy or Equality among Church Staff? This May Surprise you.

Many businesses, and churches as well, are minimizing overt hierarchy arrangements in favor of more equal staff relationships. Open space offices have also become popular while at the same time org charts seem to have largely disappeared. I believe I understand one reason why: trust in institutions and leaders has dramatically dropped. As a result, leaders have created open space office arrangements, focused more on teamwork through groupthink, and deemphasized staff pecking order. I know one mega-church where nobody has a private office and a team collaboratively develops every sermon. I know of another church that changed a senior pastor led leadership model to a model where three pastors co-lead: a teaching pastor, a ‘lead’ pastor, and an executive pastor. But has creating more open space settings, focusing more on ‘we’ versus ‘I’ in productivity, and downplaying reporting relationships by eliminating tools like org charts actually hindered progress? Recent research may indicate that might be the case.

First, some interesting trends. Susan Cain in her excellent book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Talks too Much notes these facts.[1]

  • 70% of today’s employees work in an open office plan.
  • Office space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.
  • The amount of student cooperative learning (students learning from each other in small groups) versus traditional teacher directed learning is rapidly growing and is preferred by a majority of teachers.
  • The growth of collaboration has been seen in such diverse areas as Linux, the open-source operating system, and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created by whomever wants to contribute

What has happened from this move toward more open space and collaboration? It might surprise you. Cain provides several facts that indicate the result has not always been positive. [2]

  • Reduced productivity.
  • Higher staff turnover.
  • Higher stress levels among workers.
  • Fewer personal and private conversations among colleagues.

And what about minimizing hierarchical relationships? Recently two Stanford School of Business professors studied whether people favor hierarchical relationships over equal (egalitarian) ones.[3] They performed five separate experiments to gain insight into how prevalent and useful hierarchies are in social relationships.They discovered these insights about hierarchies.

  • They are easier to remember than equal ones.
  • People actually liked them more because they could remember them.
  • Attempting to make relationships equal often resulted in those relationships not making sense at all.
  • Outsiders had a more positive view of a company with a more pronounced hierarchy.

So, should we re-introduce rigid chains of command in our churches and ministries? Should we give everybody a private office? Probably not. But the proverbial “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” would certainly apply here. I’ve made a few suggestions below.

  1. If you lead a team with an open space format, be sure to provide alone time and private space. Allowing staff to periodically work outside their offices.
  2. If you’ve removed the org chart from employee training and manuals, ask your team if re-introducing it for clarity might be helpful.
  3. Make sure roles and relationships are clear. Ask your team if they believe they are. Make changes if not.
  4. When you use team brainstorming, start by giving your team members alone time to do their private brainstorming before convening as a group. Group brainstorming is not as effective as we think.[4]

What has your church or ministry done with org charts and open space offices?


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[1] Susan Cain, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that talks too much (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), pp. 75-77.

[2] Ibid, p. 84.

[3] Larissa Z. Tiedens and Emily M Zitek, Building Organizations that Work, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/research/Building-Organizations-That-Work.html, accessed 1/12/12

[4] Cain, pp. 87-88.

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.

Introverts Don’t Make Good Pastors

Or, maybe they do.

  • I’m a pastor and an introvert.
  • I get energy from being alone.
  • Being with people for long periods of time drains me, although I  have strong people skills.
  • I love to read.
  • I go on silent retreats.
  • After church every Sunday I need to spend time without high people interaction.
  • Did I say I am an introvert?

Am I automatically disadvantaged as a pastor?

Do only the gregarious, back slapping pastors lead big churches?

Some  years ago I learned that my introversion offended a church leader where I once served. We held an overnight leadership retreat at a local retreat center. After the last session ended around nine, we provided snacks and games. At about ten, I went to bed as was my habit. Most of the other leaders stayed up past midnight. Had I stayed up with them, I would have been toast for the sessions to follow the next morning.

I learned months later that my leaving the group to go to bed offended him. He brought it up more than once. He was an extrovert and did not like me yielding to my introversion.

Should I have stayed up to “work the crowd?” Perhaps. But that incident illustrates the challenges introverts often face when they serve in ministry.

As I’ve pondered this issue more deeply, I read the book Quiet, the Power of Introverts that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a great read. As an introvert, Susan presents a compelling case for the the power of introverts. If you are an introvert, you will feel affirmed if you read it.

Here’s a good article on introverts here.

If you are an introvert, what challenges have you experienced in ministry?

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