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 Bogie or a Birdie Leader?

I must confess upfront that I don’t play golf. I’ve only played it once, unless you count dinosaur carpet golf our family often played while on vacation. However, several years ago my father-in-law tried to interest me in the sport. He gave me a set of nice used clubs. But, I never used them. Three years later he asked me how my game was going. Chagrined, I had to admit that I never played with them. He asked me to give them back to him (he really did). Although I don’t play the game, I know a few key terms such as birdie, bogey, and par. A golfer scores a birdie when he sinks the ball in one less stroke than par. He scores a bogie when he sinks it one stroke over par. So what do birdies and bogies have to do with leadership?

They provide a compelling visual metaphor for how some leaders miss great opportunities (birdies) because they act like bogey leaders. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed over 2.5 million putts from the top 20 golfers on the PGA tour in 2007 and made a surprising discovery.[1] Prompted by fear of a ‘bogey,’ these golfers often played it safe in tournaments. Their fear resulted in an average one-stroke loss per 72-hole tournament with a combined annual loss of $1.2 million in potential prize money. “The agony of a bogey seem(ed) to outweigh the thrill of a birdie.”[2]

This dynamic, called loss or risk aversion, occurs when fear of loss stifles our attempts at gain. As a result, that fear can cause us to miss opportunities because we lead (or golf) too conservatively. In fact, our brains seem to be wired this way. Two thirds of the cells in the fight-flight structures of our brain (the amygdala) are wired to look for potential bad news. Personal experience tells us that we tend to more easily remember bad things than good. And we more quickly form bad impressions of others than good ones. Unfortunately, some leaders give in to this tendency too easily and make leadership decisions to avoid loss instead of achieving gain.

So what can a leader do to minimize risk aversion?

I suggest what I call the 3-C approach to minimize it: counsel, certainty, and confidence.

  • Counsel: seek it. When you feel you’re about to play it safe when faced with an important decision, seek counsel from wise people. You might choose your staff, your board, a close friend, or a coach. Often input from an objective person can give us what we need to pull the trigger, or not. The writer of Proverbs encourages us to do this. Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success. (Prov 15.22, NLT)
  • Certainty: get it. Our brains love certainty.[3] We want to know what lies just around the corner. But often we have no control over the future. Every decision brings with it some uncertainty because we can’t guarantee most outcomes. In response to uncertainty, the flight-fight part of our brain secretes chemicals that prompt the fear emotion, a big de-motivator. That’s where faith must come in. Faith is essentially confidence in the One who is most certain, God Himself. To overcome this fear prompted by the uncertainty of decision-making, we must place our confidence in the one thing we can be sure of, God’s faithfulness. He’ll give us that extra boost of certainty we need to make the decision.
  • Courage: live it. Courage counters fear. It doesn’t remove it. When fear rises before a decision, perhaps it’s a sign that we’re on the right track. Mark Twain said it well when he wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. John Wayne, the venerable cowboy of cowboys offers great advice when fear prompts us to avoid a reasonable risk, “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.”

So the next time you face a leadership decision and fear attempts to derail you, consider what you could lose if you don’t move forward and saddle up anyway. Don’t bogey your decision. Birdie it instead.

How would you describe most of the leaders you know, bogie or birdie leaders?


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[1] David G Pope and Maurice E. Schweitzer, Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes (2007), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/papers/download/101009_Pope_Schweitzer_Final_with_Names_10_2009.pdf, accessed 1/8/12.

[2] Avoiding the Agony of a ‘Bogey’: Loss Aversion in Gold—and Business, Knowledge @ Wharton, (11/11/09), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2380, accessed 1/8/12.

[3] David Rock, “Managing with the Brain in Mind,Strategy+Business, 56, (2009), http://www.davidrock.net/files/ManagingWBrainInMind.pdf, accessed 1/9/12.

6 Brain Barriers to Healthy Church Change

Healthy change is necessary for any church, ministry, or business to thrive. However, leaders often run into invisible brain barriers when they attempt change. Ignoring them can slow or stonewall a change. Since neuroscientists are now rapidly learning amazing new insights about the brain, it behooves us to learn about how our brains respond to change. The next time you plan a change initiative, consider how you might lessen the effects of these brain barriers that can stifle healthy church change.

6 Brain Barriers that Stifle Healthy Church Change

  1. Brain Barrier 1: Undoing a bad impression is harder than creating a good one. It’s the “you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression” adage. Neuroscientists have found that to be true. It’s not just an old wives’ tale (Lount et al., 2008). Poorly introduced change will start your change on the wrong footing.
  2. Brain Barrier 2: People initially assume the worst. Your brain is wired to pick up the negative more than the positive. In fact, 2/3 of the brain cells in the flight-fight part of your brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on what’s wrong rather than on what’s right (Hanson, 2010). Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. People will initially latch onto potential negatives of your change rather than onto the positives.
  3. Brain Barrier 3: The brain can only handle so much change at once. Trying to create too much change too quickly increases the brain’s fear response and will hinder that change (Hemp, 2009).
  4. Brain Barrier 4: People will fill in knowledge gaps about your change with fear. Change causes uncertainty about the future which in turn breeds fear. And when the brain senses fear, it doesn’t like it. It will act out of that fear which dampens the brain’s ability to think clearly. The less information you provide about your change initiative, the more others will fill in the knowledge gaps with their negative assumptions. As a result, they’ll be more fearful and more resistant to change.
  5. Brain Barrier 5: People underestimate their ability to weather difficult future events (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). Uncertainty causes us to poorly forecast how well we can face the difficulties that changes might bring. The term is called “affective forecasting.” When you present change, others will often initially assume that life will be worse for them because of your change.
  6. Brain Barrier 6: Emotions play a significant role in decision-making and influence how well others will embrace change. Just presenting facts about your change without engaging positive and hopeful emotions about the future will seldom move it forward.

What barriers have you seen from others when you’ve introduced change?

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References:

Hanson, R. (2010) Confronting the Negativity Bias [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-wise-brain/201010/confronting-the-negativity-bias> [Accessed 31 January 2013].

Hemp, P. (2009) Death by Information Overload – Harvard Business Review [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2009/09/death-by-information-overload/ar/1> [Accessed 20 March 2013].

Lount, R.B., Zhong, C.-B., Sivanathan, N. & Murnighan, J.K. (2008) Getting Off on the Wrong Foot: The Timing of a Breach and the Restoration of Trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (12), pp.1601-1612.

Wilson, T.D. & Gilbert, D.T. (2005) Affective Forecasting. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (3), pp.131-134.

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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7 Neuroscience Keys to Effective Performance Reviews

Annually in my 35 years in ministry I spend hours preparing and delivering multiple staff performance reviews. I was shocked to learn that I may have been wasting my time. In a meta-study (a study of the studies) researchers discovered that only 30% of feedback and performance reviews actually helped (Kluger & DeNisi,1996). They discovered that 30% have no impact and 40% actually make things worse, not a very good track record. Does that mean we should drop performance reviews? No. It does mean that we can improve the performance review process by incorporating 7 neuroscience keys in our reviews.

7 Neuroscience Keys that Improve Performance Reviews

I’ve divided the 7 C’s into these two categories.

  1. The person: issues that directly relate to the person who’s receiving the review and the reviewer as well.
  2. The process: issues that directly relate to the process itself.

The Person

  • Community: Make sure that the person receiving the review feels emotionally connected to you as much as possible. Try to build a sense of community with those you review (Ibarra, 1999).
  • Coachability:Before the review, help your staff develop a coaching/learner mentality. Help them see the value of feedback and reviews. The more value they see, the more positively they will receive it (Atwater & Brett, 2005).
  • Connected: Help the staff person connect the feedback she receives to how she sees herself in the future (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996) and to her larger goals (Ashford et al., 2003).

The Process

  • Credible: Make sure you as the supervisor are unbiased and fully informed about the staff person’s job and performance before the review (Waldman et al., 1998).
  • Coupled: This is key. You must couple the review to follow up, ideally through a coaching process. Build into the process action steps to address areas that need improvement, all with a developmental rather than a punitive tone. Also, couple the process to a teaching session before the review to help staff understand the review process and how to get the best from it.
  • Consistent: Make sure that the process elicits consistent feedback from all sources giving input to reviews (Ashford et al., 2003).
  • Collaborative: The more collaborative the process, the more effective it will be. If possible, include in the process peers, direct reports, and supervisors. (London & Smither, 1995).

Try applying some of these ideas the next time you do a staff review and see how it helps.

If you’d like to get a copy of a self-evaluation tool I’ve used, email me here. I give it to the staff person I’m to review first and ask them to fill it out before our actual review session. After they complete it and I’ve reviewed it, then we meet for the review.

What have you discovered that has helped your reviews improve performance?

In my most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, I give many more leadership insights we learn from recent neuroscience findings.

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