4 Spiritual Disciplines Pastors Often Neglect

The terms spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation have taken center stage in many churches and pastor conversations today. Essentially they refer to what we do to build healthy souls. And we all want that. They serve as means to an end, to become more like Jesus, not as ends in themselves. And the most common ones include Bible reading, fasting, and prayer. While I believe that most pastors somewhat regularly practice the main ones, I have a hunch that we may often unintentionally miss these four. As you read each one, ask yourself when you last practiced it.

  • Not having to have the last word.
    • Keith Meyer, pastor and author, tells a story about a student in one of Dallas Willard’s classes. At the end of one class a student rudely challenged him with a question. With Dallas’s keen mind he could have crushed him with an answer. Yet, he gently responded with, “Well, that’s a great question and a good time to end class.” After the class several angry and supportive students came up to him asked why he didn’t answer. He said, “I was practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”
  • Solitude for the extrovert and community for the introvert.
    • Introverts usually practice solitude easily yet may find it difficult to intentionally break their alone time to be with others. The opposite holds true for the extrovert. Silence and solitude can feel excruciating for an extrovert. Yet, often we need to do the opposite of what comes easy for the greatest impact on our souls.
  • Submission for a Type-A, high-D personality.
    • Both those descriptions reflect my personality. I like to be in charge and lead the way. It’s hard for me to take a back seat. Yet when I do so with a right heart, it counters the temptation to become prideful.
  • Confession.
    • No one likes to be wrong. Yet, when we do wrong, when we sin, Scripture tells us to confess it. It easier to confess it to God in private. It’s hard to confess it to others against whom we’ve sinned. Yet when we appropriately confess our sin to others, God gives us a deep sense of cleansing and peace in our souls.

What other disciplines do you see that pastors often miss?


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5 Brain-friendly Tips to Enhance Your Presentations

It’s all about the brain. When you preach a sermon or make presentations and want to maximize your impact with your presentation, keep the brain in mind. More than anyone else, cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer has studied the link between learning and multimedia. In his experiments, those exposed to his learning concepts recalled details more accurately and problem solved better, what we hope happens when we preach, teach, or present. Here’s a summary of his findings with practical tips you can easily apply in your next Powerpoint or Keynote presentation.

How to enhance your presentations.

  • People learn better when you use words and pictures versus words alone.
    • Application: include applicable pictures in your slides, not just filler type pictures.
  • People learn better when you simultaneously use words and corresponding pictures rather than using them successively.
    • Application: include words AND pictures on the same slide.
  • People learn better when you place the words and pictures close to each other rather far from each other on the slide.
    • Application: make sure you keep your words and related picture close to each other on every slide.
  • People learn better when you exclude extraneous material.
    • Application: keep your slides simple, the fewer words and pictures the better.
  • People learn better when you use animation and narration rather than animation and on-screen text.
    • Application: when appropriate, sprinkle animations into your presentations to illustrate key concepts. SermonSpice is a great resource for churches.

What have you discovered that has helped make your presentations more sticky?


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Are you a Sleep Deprived Pastor? Take this quiz and find out.

Ministry demands never seem to end. There’s always one more person to serve and reach. If you’re a pastor or work in a church in any capacity, our days often don’t end at 5 pm. Meetings and emergencies can take us into the late hours. Even if nothing specific demands our attention, in our off hours our minds often ruminate about the church. Unfortunately, this causes many pastors to be sleep deprived. In fact 1/3 of all Americans are sleep deprived. I imagine pastors exceed that percentage. Take this quiz and discover if you’re sleep deprived. Mentally check below the statements that apply to you.

Sleep deprived quiz:

  • After I get up I feel tired most of the day.
  • I often hit the snooze button in the morning.
  • I wake up a lot at night.
  • I often feel mentally sluggish during the day.
  • On weekends and vacations I sleep a lot longer than I normally do to “catch up.”
  • I tend to load up on caffeine through coffee, energy drinks, or sodas to “keep me going.”
  • Within a couple of hours before I go to bed I exercise or spend a lot of time in front of my computer monitor or my iPad.

If you checked at least three, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough sleep.

And when you don’t, your brain doesn’t work at its peak…you increase the stress hormone cortisol in your body which damages it…and you’re more likely to react and be less self controlled when under stress.

Sleep deprivation does NOT help us become more productive pastors, even though we may think that extra hour of work that we get each day from sleeping an hour less helps. This Harvard Business Review article paints a compelling tie between decreased job performance and sleep deprivation.

So why is it such a problem for pastors? I have a few hunches.

  • Perhaps we’ve over emphasized productivity. What pastor hasn’t read or memorized Proverbs 6.10.A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (NIV)
  • Perhaps we’ve too often compared ourselves with uber-successful pastors or famous leaders and have heard how they got by on little sleep.
  • Perhaps we’ve gotten used to being sleep deprived and don’t know what it’s like to get adequate sleep.

What can we do about it?

  1. If you are sleep deprived, admit it. Admitting a problem is the first step toward victory.
  2. Realize that sleep and rest is biblical. We see this in the creation account and God’s establishing Sabbath rest as a principle. We see this in Jesus telling His disciples to pull away from ministry and rest (Matt. 6.31). And we see Jesus sleeping, even in a storm (Matt 4.38).
  3. Re-adjust your schedule to get more sleep. Get an accountability partner to hold you accountable. It may not be easy.
  4. Go to bed earlier. This is a very effective way to regain that sleep.
  5. Ask your leadership to limit evening meetings.
  6. Give yourself some grace if you are in a season with a new baby. Most babies don’t respect your need for sleep. Give it time and this will pass.

What has helped you get adequate sleep?


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Are you a Bogie or a Birdie Leader?

I must confess upfront that I don’t play golf. I’ve only played it once, unless you count dinosaur carpet golf our family often played while on vacation. However, several years ago my father-in-law tried to interest me in the sport. He gave me a set of nice used clubs. But, I never used them. Three years later he asked me how my game was going. Chagrined, I had to admit that I never played with them. He asked me to give them back to him (he really did). Although I don’t play the game, I know a few key terms such as birdie, bogey, and par. A golfer scores a birdie when he sinks the ball in one less stroke than par. He scores a bogie when he sinks it one stroke over par. So what do birdies and bogies have to do with leadership?

They provide a compelling visual metaphor for how some leaders miss great opportunities (birdies) because they act like bogey leaders. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed over 2.5 million putts from the top 20 golfers on the PGA tour in 2007 and made a surprising discovery.[1] Prompted by fear of a ‘bogey,’ these golfers often played it safe in tournaments. Their fear resulted in an average one-stroke loss per 72-hole tournament with a combined annual loss of $1.2 million in potential prize money. “The agony of a bogey seem(ed) to outweigh the thrill of a birdie.”[2]

This dynamic, called loss or risk aversion, occurs when fear of loss stifles our attempts at gain. As a result, that fear can cause us to miss opportunities because we lead (or golf) too conservatively. In fact, our brains seem to be wired this way. Two thirds of the cells in the fight-flight structures of our brain (the amygdala) are wired to look for potential bad news. Personal experience tells us that we tend to more easily remember bad things than good. And we more quickly form bad impressions of others than good ones. Unfortunately, some leaders give in to this tendency too easily and make leadership decisions to avoid loss instead of achieving gain.

So what can a leader do to minimize risk aversion?

I suggest what I call the 3-C approach to minimize it: counsel, certainty, and confidence.

  • Counsel: seek it. When you feel you’re about to play it safe when faced with an important decision, seek counsel from wise people. You might choose your staff, your board, a close friend, or a coach. Often input from an objective person can give us what we need to pull the trigger, or not. The writer of Proverbs encourages us to do this. Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success. (Prov 15.22, NLT)
  • Certainty: get it. Our brains love certainty.[3] We want to know what lies just around the corner. But often we have no control over the future. Every decision brings with it some uncertainty because we can’t guarantee most outcomes. In response to uncertainty, the flight-fight part of our brain secretes chemicals that prompt the fear emotion, a big de-motivator. That’s where faith must come in. Faith is essentially confidence in the One who is most certain, God Himself. To overcome this fear prompted by the uncertainty of decision-making, we must place our confidence in the one thing we can be sure of, God’s faithfulness. He’ll give us that extra boost of certainty we need to make the decision.
  • Courage: live it. Courage counters fear. It doesn’t remove it. When fear rises before a decision, perhaps it’s a sign that we’re on the right track. Mark Twain said it well when he wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. John Wayne, the venerable cowboy of cowboys offers great advice when fear prompts us to avoid a reasonable risk, “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.”

So the next time you face a leadership decision and fear attempts to derail you, consider what you could lose if you don’t move forward and saddle up anyway. Don’t bogey your decision. Birdie it instead.

How would you describe most of the leaders you know, bogie or birdie leaders?


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[1] David G Pope and Maurice E. Schweitzer, Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes (2007), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/papers/download/101009_Pope_Schweitzer_Final_with_Names_10_2009.pdf, accessed 1/8/12.

[2] Avoiding the Agony of a ‘Bogey’: Loss Aversion in Gold—and Business, Knowledge @ Wharton, (11/11/09), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2380, accessed 1/8/12.

[3] David Rock, “Managing with the Brain in Mind,Strategy+Business, 56, (2009), http://www.davidrock.net/files/ManagingWBrainInMind.pdf, accessed 1/9/12.

How to Keep Your Brain Sharp

Weighing a mere 2-3% of our body weight, yet requiring 20% of our body’s energy, the brain is a masterpiece of God’s creation. It grows rapidly from birth until the mid-twenties. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. Even though you can’t avoid getting older, you can take some simple steps to keep your brain sharp. In this post I suggest 6 simple ways to stay mentally sharp well past your twenties.

Neuroscientists have coined a phrase, cognitive reserve, to explain our brain’s resistance to its normal decline. It’s the way the brain builds resilience against the natural loss of cognitive abilities due to aging.

When one neighborhood of our brain slows down, cognitive reserve helps another neighborhood take over to compensate for the loss.

As we age, though, certain brain process inevitably occur.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

So, what can we do to build our cognitive reserve and minimize cognitive loss, especially since you will probably live longer than your parents will or did?

These five “use it our lose it” brain hygiene steps have been scientifically shown to build cognitive reserve.

  1. Learn, learn, learn. Researchers have discovered a relationship between years of education and greater cognitive reserve. You don’t need to go back to school for a PhD, though. Just be curious. Challenge your brain. Learn new things. Read challenging books, magazines, and blog posts. Although I’m 62 and have 4 degrees, I’m planning on getting another degree for the sheer pleasure of learning (and to keep my brain sharp). Check out adult education courses community colleges offer, usually at a good price. Also, many colleges (even Harvard) offer free courses online, the same ones you’d pay for.
  2. Prioritize friendships. The Bible often speaks to the value of healthy community with others. Building healthy relationships helps us deepen our walk with God, but also provides a brain benefit. Friendships keep your brain sharp, partly because when we interact with others we learn new things and see different perspectives which stretches our thinking. So, don’t be a hermit.
  3. Exercise your brain with brain games. Although a recent lawsuit against one of the brain game companies has given brain games a black eye, a recent metastudy (a study of studies) has shown significant cross-over value in some of these games. That is, playing them doesn’t just make you better at playing them, but playing them actually boosts brain power and cognitive reserve. I use BrainHQ (I don’t work for them) five days a week and these games challenge my brain in a way that nothing else does. This company was rated highest from the study I cited above.
  4. Get adequate sleep. Lots of good stuff happens when you sleep. Scientists are discovering more and more benefits from getting a good night’s sleep. So, don’t skimp on your sleep. In this post I explain three important brain benefits from sleep. One important function of sleep is that it clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. Learn a foreign language. Learning a new language helps make more efficient use of our brains and encourages something called neuroplasticity, the ability the brain has to change itself. At one time scientists believed the brain was more like porcelain – once we reached a certain age we were stuck with what we had. However, they’ve discovered that the brain is malleable, like putty. What we do with our lives and what we put into our minds can change our brain. I’m now learning Spanish. I use a free, nifty iPhone app called Duolingo. It’s easy and lots of fun. I try to practice on our Spanish language pastor at church. I think he gets lots of laughs.
  6. Keep you devotional life strong. At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistently have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time can help keep your brain sharp.

If we take care of our brain, it will serve us well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, check out my most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

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