Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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How to Foster ‘Aha’ Moments in your Team

Wise leaders encourage their teams to solve their problems with their own insight rather than with the leader’s insight. When an staff person or a volunteer brings a problem to us, it’s often easier and less time consuming to give them advice and solve their problem. Yet in the long run such a response can foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation simply because the solution isn’t theirs. And, people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas anyway. So how can we replace ‘answer giving’ with self generated insight?

Insight is a solution to a problem that recombines what we know in a new and fresh way that often leads to creativity. Rather than solving a problem analytically, when we focus our attention outwardly on the problem, insight occurs when we turn our attention inward and becomes less focused. This inward focus can help us experience a sudden ‘aha’ solution. This historical illustration about insight describes the ‘aha’ process well.

We use the word ‘eureka,’ attributed to Archimedes (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC), to describe an ‘aha’ moment, a flash of insight we sometimes get. As a brilliant scientist in antiquity, Archimedes is perhaps known for a story about his inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the then king, King Hiero II. He 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 appeared to him.

One day as he took a bath, he noticed the water level rise as he stepped in. Suddenly he realized that by making few mathematical calculations, he could use water volume displacement of the crown to determine if it was indeed made of pure gold. In his excitement, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.” Thus, the word ‘eureka’ we use for insight. Through this insight he then discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold.

Archimedes had discovered an insight in a moment when he wasn’t even thinking about the problem. When we get a ‘eureka’ or an ‘aha’ insight, we just know the answer without actually knowing how we got it. The insight doesn’t come piece by piece, but usually all at once.

Researchers who study insight use a word game called Compound Remote Associate (CRA) problems. Study participants try to create three two-word phrases from three words that could share a common word. For example, consider these three words: barrel, root, and belly. What two-word phrases can you create that share a common word? Participants often use the word beer to create beer barrel, root beer, and beer belly. After they solve the problem they press a button to indicate how they solved it, either logically or with an ‘aha’ insight. Using both EEG and fMRI, neuroscientists then examine their brain functioning (Jung-Beeman et al., 2008) to learn what happens during insight.

Through these studies they’ve discovered a process that occurs in our brain when it receives an insight. First, our brain is at rest in what is called the default mode. We may be daydreaming or our minds may be wandering. MRI studies show that at this stage, the alpha wave (the wave active when the brain idles during daydreaming and relaxation) spikes. This indicates that our brain is visually gating (Sandkühler & Bhattacharya, 2008), reducing the visual input it’s processing to reduce distractions.

This is in contrast to the brain’s dominant wave, the beta wave, active during visual focus and alertness. The alpha wave shows that the part of our brain behind our eyebrows is more active prior to an insight. This part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, lights up when it senses conflict. This makes us more aware of competing alternatives and enhances our predisposition to switch between difference solutions (Beeman, n.d.), potentially creating an insight. That is, if one solution doesn’t work, the brain will try another. This part of our brain helps orchestrate attention since it is so highly connected to the rest of the brain.

Finally, at the moment an insight occurs the gamma wave spikes (Kounios et al., 2006). A gamma wave, the fastest brain wave, sweeps across the entire brain 40 times per second to bring our brain to attention, much like how a conductor synchronizes an orchestra when he raises his baton. The gamma band activity indicates new brain maps are being formed, the insight. And when that happens it literally feels good because neurotransmitters are released. As the insight occurs at the point of gamma synchrony, right hemisphere activity also increases to help us make connections with subtle associations we might have otherwise missed. The brain’s right hemisphere, which process information more intuitively and holistically, apparently drives the insight process.

I envision a setting ripe for an insight akin to a guy drinking lemonade while sunning in a lounge chair at the beach. Then, as he reads a fishing magazine, the solution to a nagging work problem suddenly pops into his mind. That image contrasts to his intense mental state a week prior at work when he tried to solve the problem, much like how Rodin’s famous sculpture ‘The Thinker’ pictures. So, insights are more apt to come when are brains are less focused and rested.

Consider these tips to help your team learn to develop insight.

  • Daydreaming: Insight often comes when we daydream and allow our minds to wander (Christoff et al., 2009). Teach your team how daydreaming can help them solve problems. Encourage your team to schedule times to daydream and to allow their minds to wander rather than always actively trying to solve problems. Help them realize that thinking less about a problem may actually bring the solution. In fact, some companies such as Google, Intuit, and Twitter expect their employees to take time for daydreaming about projects other that than those they’re working on (Waytz & Mason, 2013).
  • Mood: When we are in a positive mood, problem solving often comes more easily (Subramaniam et al., 2008). Yet when we’re anxious, we solve fewer problems because the anxiety uses up brain resources. So if you’re facing a dilemma in your organization, it might help if the team watched a funny movie to stir the creative juices.
  • Location: Encourage your team to discover the kinds of activities that help put them into an insight state. Two settings have helped me generate insight. Ideas pop into my mind when I read and walk at a reasonable pace on my treadmill. Insight also comes more readily when our family leaves for vacation while it’s still dark. I’m the driver and I’m usually the only one awake that early in the morning. With little roadside distraction, my brain has generated many good ideas during those three or four hours of solitude.
  • Application: Although insight gives us a nice dopamine rush (the neurotransmitter involved in attention and reward), we all know that the feeling eventually wears off. Remind your team to record their insights in an easy to remember location so that they won’t forget them. Even if your team member can’t immediately act on an insight, getting him to commit to acting on it at a later time can help translate the insight into action (Rock, 2007, p. 108).
  • Speed: If you’re working with a team member who is trying to find a solution to a problem, don’t rush the process. Give him time to engage his brain. Allow space in conversations and encourage him to carve out some down time to give his brain a break.

The above is a brief excerpt from of my newest book to be released next April entitled Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

How have you helped foster ‘aha’ moments among your team members?

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Sources:

Beeman, M. Insight in the Brain. Available from: <http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/mbeeman/PLoS_Supp.htm>.

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719–8724.

Jung-Beeman, M., Collier, A. & Kounios, J. (2008) How insight happens: learning from the brain. Neuroleadership Journal, (1), pp.20–25.

Kounios, J., Frymiare, J.L., Bowden, E.M., Fleck, J.I., Subramaniam, K., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2006) The prepared mind: neural activity prior to problem presentation predicts subsequent solution by sudden insight. Psychological Science, 17 (10), pp.882–890.

Rock, D. (2007) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Reprint. HarperBusiness.

Sandkühler, S. & Bhattacharya, J. (2008) Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving. PLoS ONE, 3 (1), p.e1459.

Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008) A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21 (3), pp.415–432.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013) Your Brain at Work [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2013/07/your-brain-at-work/ar/1> [Accessed 26 June 2013].

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.

  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.

Starting a New Ministry Project? Then Put these 5 Pillars in Place First

I began as Lead Pastor at my current church, West Park Church in London, Ontario four years ago. When I started I faced a steep learning curve. I not only needed to understand a new church culture, but a new country culture as well. So, I developed what I called my six month on-boarding plan to best discern what needed to be done early on. If you are starting a new ministry role or are simply starting a new ministry project, if you’ll put in place these 5 essentials as you begin, your chances of success will increase. In this post I state those 5 essentials.

planning tools

A book that’s helped me create my plan and one that I recommend for pastors transitioning to a new church is, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins. He also has an iPhone app as well. The book is a must read. He suggests that before you implement a change, you must make sure you have these five supporting pillars in place.

  • Awareness. A critical mass of people aware of the need for change.
  • Diagnosis. You know what needs to be changed and why.
  • Vision. You have a compelling vision and a solid strategy.
  • Plan. You have the expertise to put together a detailed plan.
  • Support. You have developed a sufficiently strong group of supporters to implement your plan.

So the next time you plan a new ministry initiate, consider these 5 pillars.

What other pillars would you add?

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Reference: Watkins, Michael D. (2013-04-23). The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter (Kindle Locations 1711-1715). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition

5 Telling Questions to Ask at Your Next Staff Meeting

Some time ago I read Andy Stanley’s book Deep and Wide. It’s a must-read for every ministry leader. In one chapter he poses 5 questions that are deeply telling about a church’s direction and impact. At your next staff meeting, pose these five questions and give your staff the freedom to answer honestly. Better yet, email them a few days prior to the meeting and ask each staffer to record his or her answers. Then, bring the answers to your meeting.

Below I’ve slightly modified each since you don’t have the context where they appeared unless you’ve read the book.

  1. As a church are we moving Kingdom priorities forward or are we simply meeting?
  2. Are we making a measurable difference in our local community or simply conducting services?
  3. Are we organized around a mission or are we organized around an antiquated ministry model inherited from a previous generation?
  4. Are we allocating resources as if Jesus is the hope of the world or are the squeaky wheels of church culture driving our budget decisions?
  5. If we ceased to exist as a church, would the community miss us (my question)?

What other key questions do you think we should regularly ask about our ministry’s effectiveness?


“I just learned 5 probing questions to ask key leaders in my church.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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