Disapproval in the Church: What a Pastor can Do

Serving as a pastor brings many joys as well as headaches and hurts. One of the biggest hurts comes when others disapprove of us. Neuroscientists have discovered that a disapproving look from a person physically hurts. A disapproving facial expression stirs up the flight-fight part of our brain and heightens anxiety, even more than an angry facial expression does. I’ve experienced those disapproving looks and have learned how to cope with disapproval.

When the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) takes over, we lose the ability to think clearly and lead well. When that happens, these behaviors surface.

  • We react and act impulsively
  • We assume the worst
  • We get defensive
  • We lose our creative ability to solve problems
  • We grieve the Holy Spirit
  • We lose perspective
  • We can’t truly listen
  • We can’t think as clearly

These kinds of behaviors show their ugly selves when the emotional brain takes over. Constant disapproval, especially from significant people in your church, can evoke these behaviors.

In a previous church several years ago, the most influential lay leader there was once my number one supporter. His words, body language, and facial expression would almost always encourage me. I could count on him to lift my spirits when I was down. However, something happened in our relationship and his demeanor took a 180-degree shift. He now became my greatest disapprover.

His view of me carried significant weight because he held a very high status in the church. When our paths crossed at church and I saw his disapproval, my anxiety level shot up. When I saw those disapproving looks, a brain dynamic kicked in in the flight-fight part of my brain that dampened my ability to think most clearly so I could preach at my best and compassionately relate to others on Sundays. Essentially, I stifled the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Initially I was not consciously aware of this dynamic.

However, as I began to learn how my brain worked when I saw a disapproving expression, I started to make these choices that helped me cope with disapproval, especially his.

  1. I consciously took notice when his physical presence evoked anxiety in me. Instead of stuffing the emotion, I named it. I would breath a prayer under my breath, “Lord, I feel anxious right now after I saw _________. Please help me cope with this tension in my heart.”
  2. I sought out a coach/counselor to help me reappraise the situation quicker. Taking a different perspective helps calm the fight-flight part of our brain. Often we need an objective person to help us see the situation clearly.
  3. When I would preach, I would look for approving faces instead of his. I purposefully did not lock eyes with him in a sermon because I knew the toll it might take on my focus while preaching.
  4. I finally met with him for breakfast, shared my concerns, and asked him how I could regain his confidence. Essentially, his view of me as a leader had changed and I could not change it back. At least I cleared the air with him. However, through this experience the Lord helped me more consistently moderate the painful distraction I often felt when I saw his disapproval.

As painful as this experience was, it became a great learning experience. Now that I know what happens in my brain when I see disapproval in someone’s face, I’ve become quicker to more proactively moderate its negative effects.

How have you managed those who disapprove of you?

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Source: Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activate to disapproving facial expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, pp.238-253.

3 Ways Stress is Actually Good for You

I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.

pastors under stress

First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.

On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.

At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.

Here are the three benefits.

  1. It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40  minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
  2. It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
  3. It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.

So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)

What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?

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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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