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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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.

Pastor, are you addicted to THIS?

Addictions. Usually the word connotes a physical compulsion to drink or eat too heavily, use illicit drugs, or satisfy our sexual passions in sinful ways. Although some may, most pastors don’t get sucked into such destructive behavior. We are called to serve God with our whole hearts and we mostly stay clear of these issues. But, there is one thing that I’d guess many pastors are addicted to, yet don’t realize it. We can blame our brain on it.

Throw addiction

The addiction? Dopamine. Dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters in our brain. It’s what we feel when we put the final touches on a sermon. It’s what we feel when we see an uptick in our blog followers on google analytics. It’s what we feel when we accomplish a goal or drink an energy drink.

Dopamine gives us a nice feel good kick. It’s involved in developing the more destructive addictions I mentioned above  causing us to want a greater and greater ‘hit’ to feel good. The chemical is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure prompting us to seek out experiences that invoke it. We not only want it (the motivation) but we like it (the reward it brings).

All the above and more behaviors elicit dopamine which is released in the pleasure center of our brains called the nucleus accumbens. This structure lies just behind the front part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex.

It simply feels good to get things done. And when we feel good, our brains want to repeat the process so in turn, dopamine helps us form habits, whether good or bad.

So how do I know if I’m addicted to dopamine?  Consider these possible indicators.

  1. I constantly check email. I might get a nice email from someone and when I do, it gives me a tiny shot of dopamine.
  2. I constantly need something new and novel to feel ‘right.’
  3. I constantly check Facebook to see if I got more ‘likes.’
  4. I feel jittery if I can’t look at email for a day or so.
  5. I have become compulsive about some things, like having to pick up every call that comes to my cell phone or home phone.
  6. I find that I’m more easily distracted than I once was.
  7. I can’t get through a day without caffeine or sugar (caffeine and sugar also gives us a nice dopamine fix).
  8. I’m often mentally exhausted even though I’ve not done mentally taxing tasks.

Fundamentally, when we get addicted to dopamine, we are seeking shots of it while often not doing anything truly productive (like constantly checking email).

So, what can we do if we think we are addicted to dopamine. Consider these ideas.

  1. Acknowledge that you have a problem.
  2. Turn off automatic email and social media notifications on your cell phone or computer.
  3. Take a day off each week when you don’t interact with email or social media.
  4. Make sure you spend time each day alone with God.
  5. Check out this entire website dedicate to dopamine addiction.
  6. Purposely don’t pick up a call when you hear the buzz on your cell phone. Do this for several days to convince yourself that you don’t have to.

What has helped you keep from being addicted to this subtle addiction?

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12 Brainstorming Ideas that WILL Improve Team Creativity

Brainstorming can often improve creativity when you need many possible ideas. Consider these 12 suggestions the next time your team needs to generate solutions to a problem.

brainstorming concept
  1. Encourage debate, dissent, and healthy criticism of ideas. Healthy debate has shown to produce more ideas than the traditional, “don’t criticize any idea” mentality (Nemeth et al., 2004).  Set these rules beforehand, though, to keep the debate healthy and the ideas coming.
    • Don’t personally attack people.
    • Use such phrases like, “I have a different view,” “I see things differently,” or “What about this?”
    • Reiterate the other’s person’s viewpoint before offering your own.
    • Clarify the other person’s viewpoint first.
  2. Keep your creative teams diverse. Include new people and women and men.
  3. Make sure the brainstorming leader is affirming and not overbearing and that he doesn’t unintentionally drive his personal agenda.
  4. Create spaces in your office area that encourage frequent and spontaneous interactions.
  5. Don’t allow one person to dominate brainstorming sessions. Sometimes a ‘know-it-all’ can shut down creativity.
  6. Be observant of something called ‘social loafing,’ our tendency to feel less responsible for a project in a group than when doing a project alone. Some on your team may sit back and let the rest of the team generate the ideas. Guard against that. Studies with a rope tug-of-war showed that blindfolded people who believed they were pulling a rope alone pulled 18% harder than those who thought they were on a team (Karau & Hart, 1998). However, the more cohesive the group, the less social loafing.
  7. When beginning a creative session, the leader should acknowledge that everyone is on equal footing and that she wants everyone to feel that they can contribute.
  8. Before your brainstorming session, ask the team members to generate ideas on their own and to submit them in writing before the session.
  9. Be wary of too much group harmony in creative sessions. Artificial harmony that fosters a ‘too nice’ atmosphere can stifle appraisal of alternatives.
  10. When trying to solve a problem in a brainstorming session, challenge the group to present counterintuitive solutions (i.e., what’s obviously not the solution to the problem). This approach can foster even more creativity.
  11. Provide an incubation period to let ideas simmer. If you give the team a brain break and encourage daydreaming, when they come back to the problem, solutions often arise (Sio & Ormerod, 2009). Sometimes ideas come to us while doing something moderately taxing and daydreaming at the same time (i.e., taking a shower or walking on a treadmill). It’s called unconscious thought theory, UTT, (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006) that proposes that solutions to complex problems often come when we are intentionally not trying to solve them.
  12. When trying to solve problems, encourage your team to imagine themselves a year from now instead of imagining themselves tomorrow. Studies show that this time perspective fosters more creativity (Förster et al., 2004).

What has helped your brainstorming sessions be more productive?

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Reference notes

  • Nemeth, C.J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. & Goncalo, J.A. (2004) The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34 (4), pp.365–374.
  • Karau, S.J. & Hart, J.W. (1998) Group cohesiveness and social loafing: Effects of a social interaction manipulation on individual motivation within groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2 (3), pp.185–191.
  • Sio, U.N. & Ormerod, T.C. (2009) Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135 (1), pp.94–120.
  • Dijksterhuis, A. & Nordgren, L.F. (2006) A Theory of Unconscious Thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1 (2), pp.95–109.
  • Förster, J., Friedman, R.S. & Liberman, N. (2004) Temporal Construal Effects on Abstract and Concrete Thinking: Consequences for Insight and Creative Cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87 (2), pp.177–189.

Are you a Thinking Leader? Take this Quiz to Find Out

One of the greatest leaders who ever lived was the Old Testament character Nehemiah. God gave him a burden to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem in around 400 B.C. Even though he faced incredible odds, criticism, discouragement within the people, the haves exploiting the have nots, hunger among the people, and threats of violence from his enemies, he prevailed. A deciding factor, apart from his faith in God, was his ability to think clearly in the midst of crisis and difficulty. I believe a deciding factor in a leader’s ability to lead is clear thinking as well. Nehemiah’s responses point to 6 statements every leader should consider about about how his or her thinking affects leadership.

Think - Man in Word

From a brain standpoint, two parts of our brain often vie for attention and energy: our thinking part (the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind our forehead) and our emotional center (the limbic system, located deep in then brain). When our emotional centers control, clear thinking degrades. When our thinking centers control, we can dampen the emotional center’s power and lead more effectively. Here’s what we learn about Nehemiah’s thinking.

  • Before he left for Jerusalem, four months passed (Neh. 2.1). During that time he was thinking about the problem (Jerusalem was in shambles) and waiting for the right time to approach the king.
  • When he finally arrived, he waited three days before he surveyed the situation (Neh. 2.11). He was probably thinking about how to fine tune his immediate plan before he inspected the walls.
  • When his critics criticized him, he refused to get drawn into arguments with them. Rather, he immediately prayed and then kept moving forward with the task at hand, rebuilding the wall (Neh. 4.4)
  • When he discovered that some wealthy Jews were exploiting the poor Jews, he didn’t emotionally react although he was very angry. Rather, Nehemiah 5.7 said he, “pondered.”

Nehemiah had learned to submit the thinking part of his brain to God which helped him lead most effectively.

Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these statement in the THINKING LEADERS QUIZ.

  1. I often shoot from the hip without thinking, especially when I feel threatened by another’s actions or comments.
  2. I easily let my emotions control my response (internal or verbal) when someone criticizes me.
  3. Sometimes I can’t concentrate because I’m so angry about something that happened.
  4. I tend to be a fire-aim rather than a ready-aim-fire leader.
  5. I seldom pause long enough to think about what I am thinking about.
  6. I seldom carve out time simply to think.

How did you do? If you answered yes to two or more statements, you’re probably not thinking as effectively as you should. As a result, you may not be leading at your best.

So, how can we become better thinkers? Consider this post on how to handle reactivity and this one on how our hormones can sometimes hijack our leadership.

What has helped you lead more effectively from your thinking?