Gratitude: do leaders need it?
I’m sitting in a Panera restaurant as I write this blog (this happened a few years ago) and am stirred by two people I notice. One is an elderly gentleman who sits across from his wife. As he grips his coffee cup, his hands shake as fast as a drummer’s hands drum. He has Parkinson’s.
Just prior to seeing this man, I noticed a twenty year old flailing his arms up and down as his head rhythmicallybobbed from left to right. His mother sat to his left and gingerly wiped the drool from his face. He sat confined to a wheelchair, obviously impaired from birth or by an accident.
As I thought about these two men, I felt convicted for the how I sometimes focus on my minor problems. I’m not confined to a wheelchair. My body still is healthy. I have a full life with few impairments. The past few days have been difficult, and I often held a pity party which distracted my focus from the Lord onto my problems.
Seeing such suffering caused me to think about how important gratitude should play in the life of a leader. Whatever role God has given us, it is a privilege, an honor, and a sacred trust.
Problems come. Difficulties arise. Challenges persist. Yet, an attitude of gratitude can keep our hearts hot for Him, our focus in the right place, and our leadership most effective.Paul wrote these profound words.
1Th. 5.16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
How important do you believe gratitude should play in a leader’s life?
In August, Andy Stanley delivered a sermon that has upset many because he appeared to question biblical authority. You can hear his message, “Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,” here, read a negative critique by Albert Mohler here and read a positive one by Frank Turek here. In this post I’m not critiquing whether or not he undermined biblical authority. I will leave that to people a lot smarter than me. However, I do suggest in the post that this latest evangelical brouhaha offers a lesson to us preachers in favor of using sermon notes, or a manuscript, especially when we speak on difficult and potentially controversial topics.
First, some caveats.
- I only met Andy once when I sat next to him in a church service 25 years ago.
- I attended his dad’s church while earning my engineering degree at Ga Tech and I heard Andy speak a few times.
- He is without a doubt one of the Church’s most gifted leaders and communicators today.
- I’ve read lots of his books and have learned much from them.
- The attendance at my church would probably fit in his church’s chapel, if it has one.
- I don’t question Andy’s commitment to the Bible nor his heart for God.
- And, I believe that with recent new insights we’re learning about how the human brain works, pastors must craft their messages with those insights in mind. I believe this so strongly that I’ve earned a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership and my last book unpacks how we can learn from intersecting neuroscience with biblical truth.
So what I suggest may seem like an ant telling a lion what to do. Even so, I raise these two questions.
- Is it wise to write out a manuscript for messages that deal with sensitive topics?
- And if it is, should we stay close to script during those messages instead of speaking off the cuff?
Pardon one more caveat: When I’ve seen Andy speak I notice he doesn’t use notes. If he does, he masterfully uses them. So, I am assuming he does not use them but speaks more extemporaneously. I could be wrong. But if I am close to correct (I also assume that Andy prepares well but speaks off the cuff more than most pastors would) here are 4 reasons why using a manuscript and staying close to it is smart, especially when dealing with controversial topics.
- The human brain is wired to lean negative. Our brain has five times more circuits that look for the negative than circuits that look for the positive. 2/3 of the brain cells in an almond shaped part of the brain involved in the fight-flight response, the amygdala (there are actually two of them), are wired to be vigilant and look for the negative. The brain more easily encodes negative emotional experiences than positive ones and more quickly recalls such negative experiences.
- The implication: When we speak about volatile subjects in our sermons, we increase the chance that our listeners will attribute negative connotations to them, thus amplifying our message in ways we don’t intend. When we write out our manuscript, we can more carefully craft statements about volatile subjects and potentially lessen the chance of being misunderstood.
- Writing out a manuscript can help us avoid sloppiness in saying things that could potentially hurt others. Andy may write out his messages. Again, I’m making some assumptions. But in the last five years, I’ve changed how I craft my sermons. I now write them out as full manuscripts and I use them from my iPad when I preach, although I’m familiar enough with them to not be glued to them. Writing them out forces me to think deeply about how I need to address difficult to understand issues.
- The implication: The Bible actually did ‘tell us so’ long before neuroscientists told us this. Words really hurt (Death and life are in the tongue, Pv 18.21). In fact social pain registers in the same areas of the brain that physical pain registers. When someone with great influence uses words than can easily be misunderstood and potentially hurtful, those words physically and psychologically hurt. For a 6 year old girl or 65 year old saint who came to faith after hearing the song, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, and is then told those words are not true… that experience can be profoundly hurtful. Writing and using a manuscript can help us avoid this.
- The larger the platform, the more we must take care to be clear and graceful. Andy’s platform is ginormous. Whereas hundreds of thousands of people tune in, read, and follow Andy, on a good Sunday we live-stream to about 25 viewers and my total Twitter followers is probably equal to the number of views he has per Tweet. Even with my small platform, I still must be clear and graceful.
- The implication: What I or any other pastor says can instantly be re-tweeted or posted on Facebook and the entire world can know it, if it wants to. Soundbites are now ubiquitous. And, in today’s world, it seems that reality is not the issue. Perception is. Writing out and using a manuscript can help us more carefully craft our words by thinking about how they could be quoted and repeated in cyberspace. It can force us to ask, How would this soundbite be heard out of context?
- Sloppily stated statements can throw the listener’s brain off track so that the full message gets missed. When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds for a bit to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) than what it is listening to. In fact, recent research has shown that goldfish have longer attention spans than humans. When our brains are shocked and they go into reflective What did he just say? or I totally disagree with that! mode, it can cause the listener to miss what follows the shock statement, the unpacking of the statement.
- The implication: Writing out and using a manuscript can help us catch those potential shock words or phrases that can disconnect our listener from us. With a manuscript we can remind ourselves to intentionally slow the pace and pause to give the listener time to catch his mental breath before we continue, thus giving the listener time to hear the entire context.
So, this latest ruckus gives an opportunity for us communicators to put the manuscript back into our sermon toolboxes.
And the hackneyed phrase, Hindsight is 20-20 still bears repeating. Could a little old fashioned manuscript have avoided this ruckus and resulted in Andy’s message being simply another great one? We will never know.
But, if you write out or use a manuscript, how has it helped you?
Barna Research discovered that 61% of pastors are lonely and have few close friends. The loneliest people in churches are often pastors. Why is this so?
The experts say that five key factors inhibit pastors from developing close friendships.
- lack of formative modeling: in families of origin some weren’t close to their parents and/or their parents never modeling for them how to create intimate relationships.
- some pastors developed a loner tendency: they’d rather be alone.
- personality: some personalties can unintentionally push people away.
- wounds from the past can compel some to put up walls with others.
- fear of sharing loneliness with others: some pastors think that if people knew they struggled, hurt, or had problems, it might lessen the respect they would give and therefore hinder that pastor’s leadership effectiveness.
Number five can be very powerful. Certainly we shouldn’t publicly display all our dirty laundry, or we would diminish our influence. But actually I’ve found that when I have appropriately shared my struggles with others, most people endear themselves to me and respect me even more.
I’ll never forget a story I heard Bill Hybels share years ago in a conference. The specific details are hazy, but the impact on me remains.
On one of his study breaks he told about a Sunday night visit to a small church. After the sermon, the pastor stood before his flock and in tears shared a heartbreak he had experienced from his son. He said he felt like a failure and wasn’t sure what to do. He then closed the service. Spontaneously the people rushed to the front and surrounded him, hugged him, and wept with him. Bill then used a term to describe the scene: “the circle of brokenness.” As he drew thousands of us into this story, with misty eyes I realized that every pastor yearns for that kind of acceptance.
If fear of rejection, looking less like a pastor, or worry that you might diminish your influence keeps you from inviting safe people in, realize the danger in which you can put yourself. Without safe people, ministry can overwhelm us.
A psychologist friend of mine once explained that isolation can set up a pastor on a slippery slope toward sexual compromise. In isolation, Satan can exploit his vulnerability. He can then begin to compromise and live a secret sexual life that may ultimately lead to ministry and/or marriage failure. My friend reminded me that sin grows easiest in the darkness.
So, if you are a pastor, don’t minimize the importance of friends in the ministry and in your church. Push through your loneliness and find some friends.
What other factors have you seen that can create loneliness in pastors?
Several years ago at a physical therapy appointment I was getting some kinks worked out of my back. As the therapist torqued my left leg into a pretzel, she told me about a friend who recently got news about a life threatening medical condition. As my therapist shared, she felt unsure about what to say to her friend facing such sadness. Even though I’ve been in ministry over 35 years, the right thing to say to a person in pain still eludes me. What should we say to someone like her friend? Or better yet, what should we not say?
Since our youngest was diagnosed with a brain tumor 28 years ago (and is now doing well), what people have said to us through the years has run the gamut from perfect to really bad. Most people really want to encourage when we hurt, but often they say exactly what you don’t need to hear.
Here’s a few statements to NEVER say to someone in pain, no matter what kind of pain.
- Every thing will be all right. God’s in control. (Yes, God is control, but everything may not turn out all right.)
- Just have more faith and you will be fine. (Platitude.)
- God told me that you’d be healed/your problem will go away. (Why did he tell you and not me?)
- Could there possibly be some sin in your life? (Sounds like one of Job’s friends.)
- My (aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc.) faced the same thing and they were healed. (I’m not your aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc.)
- Well, I’m facing such and such…and then this person prattles on and on about himself or herself, seemingly oblivious to our pain. (You really didn’t hear me, did you?)
- Just let us know what we can do. (Often this really means nothing or else they would have gotten specific on the spot.)
Words carry great power. The book of Proverbs tells us they have the power of life or death and that a well-placed word is very valuable. This verse is a great one.
Prov. 25.11 The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver.
I’d love to hear words that you’ve heard or said that were like gold in times of pain.
I received a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership last year and had a blast. Christian leaders and pastors can learn much from the latest neuroscience discoveries about the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain profoundly impacts leadership, emotional regulation, motivating others, navigating change, team building, and effective communication. If you spend much time preaching or teaching, you’ll find these 6 ideas helpful for your sermons.
All pastors want themselves and others to become more like Jesus. For that to happen, thinking, behavior, and habits must change. Those changes don’t occur in a void. Rather, God takes what we learn about the bible, character, and God honoring behavior to transform us. A major input to this new way of living comes through preaching and teaching.
But for lasting change to occur, our brains must imbed new information into our long-term memory instead of our short-term memory. Think of the difference between cramming for a test in geography the night before the test (we soon forget the facts) and learning a new language (if we continue to use it, the language gets imbedded deep within our memories). Neuroscientists call this embedding process consolidation. The name itself pictures the process. Although initial information comes into our minds through our five senses, it passes through a part of the brain called the hippocampus. However, if we want the new information (i.e. our sermons) to stick, the memories must be spread to other parts of the brain to consolidate them into long term memory.
So if you want to increase the chance that life transformation happens through your preaching and teaching, consider these practical steps to help imbed your teaching into long term memory thus making your sermons more “sticky.”
- Increase focused attention by engaging more senses than just sight and sound. Creatively use taste, smell and touch. When people pay more attention to your sermons, they engage the hippocampus more. And unless it is engaged, people won’t remember what you say.
- Deliver your sermon in an organized way. Use a visual metaphor or picture at the beginning to tie the talk together. This is called pre-encoding which organizes the brain to remember better. If you deliver your sermon in a random way, however, memory decreases.
- Break up the message into two parts and place a different element between each (ie. video or music). In the second part creatively review the content you presented in the first part. The following week again review the previous week’s main points. Neuroscientists have discovered that spacing between learning something and practicing it increases memory retention.
- Use a power point flashcard at the end of the talk by asking the people to fill in the blanks of your sermon’s key points. When someone self-generates information it sticks much better than when they are simply told information.
- Ask the people to personally apply one aspect of the message to their own lives. This concept called self-relevant processing deepens memory more than almost anything else. It relates to helping them emotionally connect to what you want them to learn. Emotional stamping is a powerful memory enhancer.
- Ask the people to imagine themselves not only doing the application but also to imagine the context (where) in which they will do it. Again, neuroscience has discovered that people recall memories better when they imagine the context in which they learned or practiced something new.
Run the upcoming bible study or sermon you plan to give through this grid and see what improvements you can make to make your talk more sticky.