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?

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6 Tips to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

Every January millions make new year’s resolutions. The top ones include lose weight, quit smoking, use money more wisely, and spend more time with friends. Unfortunately, 50% never keep their resolution for more than 6 months and only 10% make it through the year. So, should we avoid setting resolutions (goals) for the new year because we might fail? I don’t think so. As the new year begins, it is a great time to evaluate your life and look ahead. Here’s what I suggest.

6 tips to help you keep your resolutions.

  1. Specifically state what you want to do (ie, read through the bible in a year).
  2. Really want it. Is it in your gut? Have you decided that you just can’t continue down the same path any longer? Are you really serious?
  3. Believe God wants it for you. He wants you to move forward in your faith and in your life. He is on your side. He is on your team. 2 Peter 1.3 tells us, By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. (NLT)
  4. Put real effort into keeping your resolution/goal. God wants you to partner with him and put your heart into God prompted resolutions. New birth does not rule out human activity. 2 Peter 1.5 says, … make every effort to respond to God’s promises. (NLT)
  5. Break down your goal into small, bite-sized pieces.
  6. Enlist help. Ask a  trusted friend to periodically check on your progress.

If you apply these simple steps, keeping a new year’s resolution won’t seem so daunting.

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Hymns in a Contemporary Church: Bury them or Resurrect them?

Several years ago I attended an old fashioned Gospel sing at a church near our home. It was out of my comfort zone because the last 30 plus years I’ve served in churches that primarily used contemporary worship music in their services. Yet, from toddler age through college I attended churches that primarily used hymns. When the seeker movement became widespread, I and many other like-minded pastors classified traditional hymns as barriers to church growth. As a result, I seldom used them in the churches I served except for the occasional Amazing Grace. Here’s what I learned that night about hymns and their influence on my spiritual formation.

As I sat through the Gospel sing, something stirred deep within me. Had I neglected an important part of my Christian heritage by not incorporating them in the churh services? Should I reconsider them going into the future?

The Gospel sing worked like this. The song leader invited those who attended (a couple hundred) to pick a hymn from the hymn book. They then raised their hands and he’d pick someone. They’d call out the hymnal page number. We’d turn to that page. The pianist would start playing. We’d sing. After 30 minutes of suggestions and singing, probably 20 songs, we’d take a short break from singing. The pianist then played a medley of hymns and a duet sung a couple hymns. Then we sung another 30 minute, prayed, and dismissed for ice cream sundaes in the gym.

I thought I’d be bored and planned to surreptitiously follow NFL games on ESPN’s Gametracker on my iPhone. Was I surprised. Here are several lessons I learned that night.

  1. The majority who attended were clearly over 65, many in their 70’s and 80’s. As I watched these seniors sing, their faces glowed with a deep love for Jesus. God reminded me that preferred music styles don’t indicate a person’s love for Him. The builder generation, which is quickly declining, has shown incredible commitment and sacrifice to the cause of Christ the last several decades. Just because they prefer a different music style than my preference doesn’t mean I’m any closer to Jesus than they.
  2. I was surprised at how well I recalled these songs that I hadn’t sung in over 20 years. I seldom even needed to look at the hymnal for the words. I realized how grateful I was to my parents for the rich Christian heritage they gave me. Those many years they took me to Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services and to revivals and vacation bible schools. Those experiences had left an indelible imprint on my soul. Hymns had deeply imbedded the truth of God’s Word into my heart that I’d never forgotten.
  3. I marveled at the magnificence of how God created our brains. Music increases our ability to recall truth because it enhances long-term memory. Even after decades of not reading the words or singing the hymns, my mind easily recalled them. This thought reminded me how important music should play in our services to imbed theology into the hearts of believers.
  4. I felt sad as I watched my youngest daughter who sat next to me. As my wife and I sang, she followed along as best as she could, yet she hardly knew a single hymn. Either my naivety or my pride (or both) had caused me to neglect this powerful medium to teach the essence of the Faith. My kids had become the losers.
  5. Finally, I resolved to bring hymns back into the churches I serve. While updating their tempo and style a bit, I want those young and old in the faith to encounter the living Christ through the power of God’s word hitched to the medium of hymn music.

That experience was a profound one for me that I will never forget.

What are your thoughts on hymns? Do you believe we have neglected them? If so, how have you incorporated them into your services.

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Generosity and the Brain

I believe my leadership calling is to bring insight about the incredible gift from God called the brain into conversations about Christian leadership. So, many of my blog posts reflect this bent from my current learning. Since we’re to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6.20) and the brain is part of our body, we need to honor God with our brains. In this post I explain two significant processes in our brains that influence generosity: the sense of reward we personally experience when we give and the empathy we feel toward the recipient of our gifts.

I grew up in the church and I tithed even before I was a Christian. I go beyond a tithe because the bible says I’m supposed to be generous. We certainly must preach and teach about generosity, but we also must recognize how people make decisions. Emotions are a vital part of our decision making. In fact, neuroscientists are discovering that people whose emotional centers of their brains are damaged (called lesions) can’t make wise decisions. Often they lack discretion because they can’t emotionally connect that a decision could bring a bad outcome. So, it makes sense that we pastors have some sense of how the brain works.

I’d like to think that Christians give solely from obedience, not on the basis of a reward they will get. They don’t. People give partially because it makes them feel good and gives them a sense of satisfaction. I believe that in many cases, such giving is biblically justified because the bible often speaks about serving God for reward. In fact, when people give, it increases a neurotransmitter in their brains, dopamine, that makes them feel good.

Secondly, neuroscientists have discovered that a key component that increases giving lies in the degree the giver empathizes with the recipient of the gift. If their hearts are touched and they feel empathetically drawn to the need, they usually give more frequently and more generously.

So, in light of what we know about the brain and generosity, I suggest four simple ideas to incorporate into your stewardship plans.

  1. Put a tangible face on giving to increase empathy. Certainly provide budgets, but translate those dollar figures into tangible, heartfelt needs. For example, I’ve sometimes explained that giving helps us do even the small things like buying pampers for the nursery.
  2. Tell stories to connect with people’s hearts (empathy). When I’ve promoted giving we’ve often told stories how their giving has changed someone’s life.
  3. Regularly report financial status to build trust. Trust builds favor and connects with the brain’s sense of fairness. Use clear, concise, and frequent reporting to keep people in the know.
  4. Appeal to personal satisfaction to connect with the reward motivation. Share biblical stories that model how when bible characters gave sacrificially, they experienced personal pleasure and the pleasure of God.

God gave us the incredible gift of our brains. He’s also given us smart people who sit around in laboratories peering into people’s brains with brain scanners to explain how they work. We need to stay teachable and to learn more about his magnificent creation called the brain. If you are a geek, you can read the report I’ve referenced below.

How about you? What insights have you learned that have encouraged people to give more generously?


Hare, T., Camerer, C., Knoepfle, D., O’Doherty, J. & Rangel, A. (2012) Value Computations in Ventral Medial PFC during Charitable Decision Making Incorporate Input from Regions Involved in Social Cognition. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (2), pp.583-590.


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Not Motivated? Try a Simple Pleasure.

Every day we need something called motivation to accomplish what we need to do that day. Some tasks come with built-in motivation. I don’t need much motivation to eat thin-crust Canadian bacon pizza or watch Hawaii Five-O (I admit I’m hooked). But many tasks feel daunting and don’t look enticing, like doing your taxes, answering a bazillion emails after vacation, or fixing the toilet leak (I hate handyman chores). Yet those tasks need to be done. I’ve found it’s easy to get distracted and waste time when I’m faced with one of those tasks. So, how can we get motivated?

Simple: get your brain working for you. Deep in our brain lie some structures called the basal ganglia. Within those structures is our pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens. When we do something that feels pleasurable, our brain gives a shot of a feel good neurotransmitter called dopamine. So whether you eat a candy bar or check off an important ‘to-do’ for the day, this brain chemical gives you a pleasant feeling. When that happens, we become a bit more motivated for the next task.

So the next time you find yourself unmotivated and procrastinating to avoid an unpleasant task, take 5 minutes to do something that brings you pleasure such as one of these.

  • Listen to some good music.
  • Eat a candy bar (or better yet, eat a handful of blueberries).
  • Read a few jokes and laugh.
  • Take a brisk walk.
  • Call a friend.
  • Read an uplifting Psalm form Scripture.

What are some ideas you have about getting motivated?

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