The Brain and Successful Church Change: 11 Insights you need to know

Wise leaders carefully manage church change. Healthy church management includes not just the bird’s eye view (big picture implications) but also considers the individual view, what’s going on inside the individual church member or leader when you, as the leader, present change. Neuroscience offers helpful insight about unconscious processes that go on inside our brains when people face change. Consider these insights and suggestions the next time you plan change for your church.

People appreciate certainty and autonomy because the brain craves both. David Rock, one of the leader proponents of applying neuroscience to leadership (neuroleadership) suggests an acrostic called SCARF that represents five essential brain processes that influence motivation and change management. See my blog here that explains SCARF. The ‘c’ and the ‘a’ stand for certainty and autonomy. I’ve listed 5 insights below that relate these two components to change management.

  1. People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is actually wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive. 2/3 of our brain cells in the flight-fight part of our brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on the negative.
  2. People naturally fill in knowledge gaps with fear. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear.
  3. Ambiguity creates more fear than measured risk. That is, the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear about and resistance to change. Measured risk, however, fills in some of those gaps and lessens anxiety.
  4. Undoing a wrong impression is harder than creating a good impression. It’s the old adage “you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression.” That’s not just a quaint saying. Neuroscientists have shown it to be true.
  5. People understate their ability to ride out difficult future events. Uncertainty causes us to poorly forecast how well we can face difficulty. The term is “affective forecasting.” When you present change, people will initially assume that the church will come out worse than expected, although the opposite is often true.
  6. Emotions play a very important part in decision making. Just presenting the facts is seldom enough to move people forward.

So, in light of these insights, what are some positive steps you can take to most effectively manage church change?

  1. Build in small, short-term wins along the way. These wins will give a greater sense of certainty. Remember, people (and their brains) love certainty.
  2. Fill in the knowledge gaps with truth. In other words, communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep people in the loop about your progress with the change initiative.
  3. Provide a feedback loop. Give people in your church a real, tangible way they can give feedback to you about the process. Simply knowing they have that ability to communicate to you and that you are really listening will decrease their anxiety about the future.
  4. Within reason, provide people small ways they can choose about how the change will look. Although the leadership will have decided the big picture change, providing options and opportunity for people to hone what those changes within the big change will look like increases autonomy. Remember, people love autonomy.
  5. Fill in knowledge gaps with Faith. Preach and teach on faith. Keep verses like Hebrews 11.1 often before the people.

Heb. 11.1 Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (NLT)

What have you done that has helped smooth church change?


Related Posts:

Are your Sermons Falling Flat? Is this Why?

Every week in North America, pastors preach upwards of 400,000 sermons. That excludes Bible studies taught by hundreds of thousands of Sunday school teachers and small group leaders. I’ve delivered in excess of 1,500 sermons and bible studies myself. But what difference have they made in people’s lives? Do they mostly fall flat? I suppose I won’t really know until I get to heaven. In the meantime, however, I believe I should learn everything I can to make my teaching and preaching stickier. And nothing sticks unless those who listen to us engage their brains. In this post I share insights about how brain based preaching can help us avoid the sermons falling flat issue.

Unfortunately, many pastors seldom consider how brain processes influence learning. It’s a missing link in today’s preaching and teaching. I believe it would behoove every pastor to learn how God made our brain and how it affects learning.

In the last 20 years we’ve learned amazing new insights about how God created our brain and how it’s involved in learning. With the advent of the functional MRI (fMRI), scientists can see what brain neighborhoods activate when we think certain things, pay attention, learn, and feel emotion. These new insights can pay great dividends to pastors who learn about the brain.

Sometime back I watched a webinar on making learning sticky by Dr. Grace Chang, a neuroscientist trained at U.C.L.A. She began by defining one of the two types of memory, declarative memory. Non-declarative memory is the other kind (think riding a bike, you can’t describe how you do it, you just do it).

Declarative memory, in our context, would be the kind we would want to foster when we teach. We want our listeners to be able to consciously recall the Biblical content of our sermons so that the Holy Spirit can take that truth and transform their beliefs and behavior.

Dr. Chang said that three main brain processes compose declarative memory.

  1. Acquire the information (getting it in called encoding). An example would be what you do to get your sermon into the minds of your listeners (i.e., the spoken sermon itself, visuals you use, dramas to reinforce the point).
  2. Retain the information (keeping it in called storing). This happens when your listeners actually remember what you said instead of forgetting it when they walk out of the church.
  3. Retrieve the information (using it called accessing). This is simply application. You want your listeners not only to remember what you said, but to apply the truth in their daily lives as well.

Brain-based preaching is an intentional process by which you consider how people’s brains process information and learn. When we keep the brain in mind and in particular these three memory processes, I believe our sermons will become sticker and result in greater life transformation.

If you want to read a great article on brain-based learning, I recommend this one.

Next week when you finalize your sermon, take five minutes and ask yourself what you could do to incorporate each of these three brain processes in your sermon to make it sticker.

In fact, don’t wait until next week. What is one small brain-based change that immediately comes to your mind right now that could make this week’s sermon stickier?

I wrote an entire book on how insights about the brain can improve our leadership. It’s called Brain Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. You can get it here.


Related posts:

24 Words that Define a Leader’s Job

In this short post I suggest 24 words that define a leader’s job.

Vision casting

Problem solving

Giving feedback

Rewarding staff

Influencing others

Recruiting leaders

Developing people

Developing systems

Communicating well

Delegating workload

Relationship building

Establishing priorities

What would you add to this list?

What’s your strongest area?

What needs more attention?

Related post:

5 Scientifically Proven Mindfulness Skills that WILL Make you a Better Leader (and a better person)

As a pastor, I’m always looking for ways to enhance my leadership. I believe good leaders should never stop learning. In the past few years as we’ve learned more about the human mind and brain, science is affirming an ancient contemplative practice rooted in church history and scripture, mindfulness. It’s helped me so much that I’m currently writing a book on Christian mindfulness. Five basic skills comprise the essence of this practice. In this post I explain those skills that will benefit any leader.

First, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation. It’s setting aside daily time to be still before God, to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our minds, but filling our minds with thoughts of Him and His Word. And it’s not some weird new age practice. It’s a science based practice that helps us disengage from automatic and unhealthy thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions to simply be in God’s presence. It’s both a devotional practice and a way to live each moment.

Last year hundreds of studies were published that showed the benefits of mindfulness. Here are a few of them.

  • improved memory
  • less anxiety and depression
  • a healthier heart
  • better ability to cope with stress
  • enhanced relationships
  • less reactivity
  • overall improved well-being

One scientifically proven tool is called the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire based on the five skills I’ve described below. You can take this inventory here to evaluate how well you practice these skills. If you want to read more about how to develop them, I recommend the book, In this Moment: Five Steps to Transcending Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience. The authors explain the skills in depth.

Skill 1: Observing. In this skill you learn to notice what’s happening inside you and in your immediate surroundings, like zooming in with a camera lens.

Skill 2: Describing. In this skill you use your words to convey what you’re observing. This involves learning to label your emotions and describe bodily sensations.

Skill 3: Detaching. In this skill, you learn to keep your unhealthy comparisons, predictions, and evaluations about your life from sticking to your soul, akin to how  food slides off a Teflon coated frying pan.

Skill 4: Loving yourself. Loving yourself does not mean we become self-centered. Rather, we practice what Jesus told us to do when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. It means that we learn to love ourselves as we are, rather than basing our view of ourselves on other people’s approval or on our own performance.

Skill 5: Acting mindfully. This skill means that we learn to become more aware of what we are doing as we are doing it. We learn to be in the moment rather than being on autopilot or trying to get to a ‘better’ moment.

Developing these skills helps leaders be fully present for those they lead and care about.

The more present you are as a leader, the more effective your leadership.

What benefits have you read about or learned that mindfulness brings?

Related posts:

Do You Problem Solve too Much as a Leader?

Good leaders help team members solve their own problems with their own insight. Average leaders tend to solve their team members’ problems, thus truncating their opportunity to grow themselves. So, how do we help our team members learn to problem solve on their own? In this post I begin with a story and then suggest ways to problem solve in a balanced way.

Archimedes was a brilliant Greek scientist. He lived 250 years before Christ and is best known for inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the Greek king, King Hiero II. The king was concerned, however, that the goldsmith has substituted the cheaper metal silver for some of the gold. He asked Archimedes to find the truth without melting the crown.

This stumped Archimedes until a flash of insight hit him. One day as he took a bath he noticed the water level rise as he stepped into the tub. Suddenly he realized that by making a few mathematical calculations he could use water volume displacement from the crown to determine if it were made of pure gold. In his excitement, so the story goes, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.”

Thus, we use the word “eureka”  for personal insight. Through this insight he discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold, a not-so-good discovery for the goldsmith.

Leaders tend to be tellers.

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We communicate goals and strategies by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.
  • We teach by telling.
  • And we tend to solve our team’s problems by telling.

When a team member comes to us with a problem, it’s often expedient to give a quick answer if we see the solution. We tend to be more experienced so it can be easy to see the solution. But when we solve their problems too quickly, we can create other problems.

  1. We can inadvertently foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation to follow through because people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas.
  2. We can rob them from learning how to problem solve, an important leadership quality.
  3. We can diminish opportunities for them to experience the joy of those ‘eureka’ moments.

I believe this is the key to helping your team learn to solve their own problems: ask questions.

Jesus often asked questions when he wanted to teach important concepts. The Gospels include 135 questions Jesus asked. He asked questions to create readiness to learn and to get his listeners to think for themselves.

Consider five compelling reasons to ask your team more questions.

  1. Questions help your team see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue about their problem they are trying to solve that they otherwise might have missed.
  2. They help foster innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  3. They help your team self reflect. Telling someone an answer may stifle her need to thoroughly think through the answer for herself.
  4. They provide perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  5. They help your team focus on the real issue.

Asking good questions can become a potent team development tool to put into your leadership toolbox. 

An interesting brain process occurs when we get a eureka insight.

Several different brain waves course through our brains every day. During sleep, your brain produces delta and theta waves. When we’re awake and our brains are at rest (i.e., during daydreaming), alpha waves occur. When we are awake, alert, and focused on something, the beta wave is most prominent. But the fastest wave is called a gamma wave that sweeps through our entire brains over 40 times per second through a process called synchrony. Similar to what happens to an orchestra when a conductor raises his baton and brings the whole orchestra to attention, the gamma wave sweeps through our brains and brings it to attention when we experience a eureka insight. Several benefits occur from the gamma wave.

  • New brain maps get formed in the eureka moment.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere which processes information intuitively and holistically increases its activity by making subtle connections. This fosters insight by connecting disparate bits of information which otherwise may have seemed inconsequential.
  • The brain produces the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. As a result, a eureka insight actually feels good which makes us want more insight experiences.
  • The solution to the problem, the eureka insight, gets stamped deeper into our brains creating greater ownership to the solution and more motivation to follow through on it.

So what can you do to ask more and better questions to foster eureka insights in your team. Consider three suggestions.

  1. Practice the art of the W.A.I.T.
    • WAIT is an acronym for this question. “Why Am I Talking?” In meetings and conversations with others when you sense you may be dominating, mentally ask yourself this question. It has helped me listen more carefully and talk less.
  1. Ask the question, “What do you think?”
    • This handy question helps when you sense a team member wants you to solve his problem. You may immediately know the answer, but if you answer it too quickly you may foster unhealthy dependency on you that you want to avoid. So when a team member asks you to solve his problem, first respond with, “What do you think?” Remember, self generated insights create better buy-in than quick answers.
  1. Use the AWE question.
    • Michael Stanier suggests this question in his great book, The Coaching Habit. AWE stands for, “And What Else?” He suggests we use this question 3-5 times in a coaching or problem solving conversation. He calls it the best coaching question in the world. It helps pull out insight from a team member that might be missed if you end the conversation too soon.

Try one or more of these suggestions when a team member wants you to solve his or her problem.

What kinds of questions have helped you develop your team?

Related posts: