Pastors Afflicted with Relational Anorexia

In my research for my second book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I discovered that pastors are often the loneliest people in the church, second perhaps only to their wives. I learned some sobering insight from several sources. In this post I unpack the concept of relational anorexia for pastors.

Here are some of the sobering facts about pastors and their relationships.

  • I interviewed Dr. Michael Ross, Executive Director of The Pastors Institute, who has worked with several thousand pastors in various capacities. He told me that the number one problem pastors face is isolation.
  • Gary Kinnaman author and former mega-church pastor and Alfred Ellis, author and founder-director of Leaders that Last, an organization for ministers, wrote, “Most people in full-time ministry do not have close personal friendships and consequently are alarmingly lonely and dangerously vulnerable.”[1]
  • Well known author, Steve Arterburn has observed that “the men in the church who are least likely to have friend connections are pastors.”[2]
  • Focus on the Family discovered that nearly 42% do not have any accountability partner with whom they meet.[3]
  • And the Alban Institute, an ecumenical organization that serves thousands of congregations through research and publishing, has learned that pastors tend to seek help from others only when they are in crisis, “rather than allowing these resources to sustain and nourish them consistently.”[4]

In other words, we don’t seek out safe people to help us process ongoing ministry issues until they escalate into major crises. Even then, many pastors suffer alone.

We’ve probably all preached that God created us for deep relationship with others. But just as anorexia (the word actually means “no appetite”) can cause a person literally to feel no hunger even though he is starving, relational anorexia can keep us from feeling our inner hunger for deep relationships. Henry Cloud and John’s Townsend describe in their book Safe People these indicators that we might have relational anorexia.

  • I am uncomfortable with people and relaxed when alone.
  • I don’t get “lonely,” whatever people mean by that.
  • I spend time with people out of obligation, or for functional reasons (tennis partner, commuting to work, etc.).
  • My fantasies of vacation always involve my doing something fun by myself.[5]

The authors also posed several questions that may indicate major hindrances to healthy relationships. I’ve paraphrased them here.

  • Do you tend to only be a giver in most of your relationships?
  • Do others usually approach you only when they want something from you rather than to simply spend time with you?
  • Do you find it difficult to open up to others?
  • Do you most often choose to be alone to deal with your problems?
  • Do you feel that only God really knows and loves you?
  • Are intimate, two-way conversations with others rare?[6]

So, what should we do if we suffer from relational anorexia? I recommend that every pastor have at least one safe person in his (or her) life with whom they can be honest and with whom they can process their pain.

Who’s your safe friend? In this post I list qualities to look for in a safe friend.

Related posts:

references:

[1] Gary Kinnaman and Alfred Ellis, Leaders that Last (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 10.

[2] REV.org, “Steve Arterburn Interview: Open Season,” August 2007. http://rev.org/protected/Article.aspx?ID=2519.

[3] Focus on the Family, “Pastoral Ministries 2009 Survey” (of over two thousand ministers), http://www.parsonage.org/images/pdf/2009PMSurvey.pdf, 8.

[4] Michael Jinkins, The Alban Institute, Congregations, “Great Expectation, Sobering Realities: Findings From a New Study on Clergy Burnout,” Number 3, May/June 2002. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?q=printme&id=3284

[5] Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Safe People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 129.

[6] Adapted from ibid.

 

5 Questions Pastors Neglect in Sermon Prep

I just read the book Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions by Dr. Carmen Simon. It is probably THE best book on communication I’ve ever read. Every pastor and communicator should read the book. Really! Dr. Simon is uber-smart (two PhD’s), yet she writes on a practical level. I learned a boatload of insight I’m now beginning to apply in my sermon prep. From her book I gleaned these five neglected questions that most pastors seldom if ever consider during their prep. Yet, those questions can profoundly impact how well your listeners apply what you teach.

5 Neglected Questions Every Pastor should Ask During Sermon Prep

  1. What cues am I considering that could jog my listener’s memory to apply my message during the next week?
    • Dr. Simon explains that when we speak, we hope that at some point in the future a listener will act upon our message. And at that future point three mental processes occur. Cues help a listener notice something that relates to the intended new belief or behavior. The listener will search his memory for what the speaker/preacher suggested he do. And, he (hopefully) will execute on his intentions. All this happens in a fraction of a second.
    • Application: Build into your message cues that might prompt your listener to remember what you said and motivate him or her to do it. I recently handed out small red stickers shaped like a stop sign. The STOP is an acronym related to ways to process anxious moments. I hope that when people see the sticker or a STOP sign, that cue will prompt them to act.
  2. What kind of memory do I hope to engage in my listener, gist or verbatim memory? 
    • Gist memory is when we remember the general idea or sense of something in the past. Verbatim memory is word-for-word. And gist memory lasts longer than verbatim memory, although both are important.
    • Application: As you prepare your message be clear about which kind of memory you hope your listener will draw upon. Adjust your message accordingly.
  3. Have I inadvertently planned for my listener to remember the wrong point(s)?
    • Multiple factors impact how well people remember our messages. They include novelty, emotion, story, distinctiveness, social impact, and relevance. Sometimes we can inadvertently make a minor point stand out so much that the major points get lost. Clarify your most cogent points and make sure that those stand out above the minor ones.
    • Application: Evaluate the word pictures, jokes, and stories you use. Make sure they reinforce your main points. Better yet, focus them on the one or two key take-aways. Ask yourself, “If my listener only remembered 10% of my message, what 10% would I want him to remember?”
  4. Do I appreciate the fact that for my listener to really ‘get it,’ he or see has to periodically tune me out during my talk/sermon? 

    • I tend to struggle when I don’t see people pay constant attention to me when I teach. I used to assume that they were bored with what I was saying (and certainly many have been and are currently bored). However, Dr. Simon points out that people go in and out of paying attention to us every 12 to 18 seconds. When that happens, they carry out an internal dialogue with themselves by formulating meaning to what we are saying and hopefully in doing so, make personal application. When that happens, the brain provides a stronger chemical signal that helps the memory ‘stick’ better. So, you actually want your listener to periodically tune out.
    • Application: The next time you’re speaking and it looks like someone is briefly tuning out, remind yourself that they are probably consolidating a memory about what you said. Even if they are bored, this kind of thinking will help minimize the negative self talk (i.e., “Oh no! I’m boring them.)
  5. Have I considered that I want my listener to remember both in the past (what I said) and in the future (future intentions called prospective memory).
    • In the same area in our brain where we reflect over the past, we plan for the future. So, when we reminisce or plan, we’re drawing from similar kinds of information. When you prepare your talks, keep this fact in mind. You don’t want your listener to simply reminisce about what you said. You want them to act upon it in the future, to remember a future intention. If they only remember what you said and don’t connect it to a future change in belief or behavior (to become more like Christ), what you said isn’t very helpful.
    • Application: As you craft your message, think about how you can help your listeners anticipate the future. Perhaps take a minute toward the end of your talk and ask them to role play in their minds what you are asking them to apply during the coming week. For example, if your message is on conflict resolution, have them role play in their minds how they would resolve a conflict with someone.

If you communicate to groups of people in any way, Impossible to Ignore is a must-read. And, as part of her book, Dr. Simon also provides a nifty template against which you can evaluate your talks. It’s quite helpful.

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A Simple Way Leaders (or anybody) Can Reduce Stress

God created our brains to help us survive in our world. Whether it’s a real threat (a bear outside your tent on a camping trip) or a perceived one (a board member or boss who acts like a bear), a part of our nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), engages the stress response. It’s that fight-flight feeling. Essentially, the body prepares to fight or flee the source of danger by shutting down or slowing non-essential body functions to send blood and energy to vital parts of our body. In this post I explain a science-based practice that can help reduce the effects of stress on your body.

A simple practice that reduces stress

The stress response also activates other body responses. It releases chemicals in your body and brain to provide extra energy and focus if you need to fight or flee, slows digestion and saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our eyes, and sends blood to our muscles.

Aside from running away from the bear or shooting it (you’d need a permit in most places), what can we do to quiet this stress response in our day-to-day experience?

Deep breathing from your diaphragm helps.

It has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, decrease lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes cramping and fatigue), and make us calmer.

From a body perspective, deep breathing activates a nerve called the vagal nerve that travels from the back of your brain to your belly, tongue, heart, lungs and intestines. It’s an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the SNS’s counterpart. In contrast to fight-flight, it’s rest-digest and controls the relaxation response.

Think of the SNS as a car’s accelerator and the PNS as a car’s brake.

When you activate your vagal nerve, it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine and dampens the stress response. So, when you’re stressed, you want your brain to release those chemicals. Here’s how deep breathing can engage your vagal nerve and dampen your stress response.

  1. Know your body. Look for signals that it’s under stress. Some people get a dry mouth. Shoulders tighten for others. For some, their hands shake. Others experience stomach problems. Some breath faster and from their chest. Listen to your body on a regular basis to ‘catch’ your stress.
  2. Remember that breathing from your diaphragm is key. It’s called belly breathing. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to experience the difference. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should move more than your upper chest, although your chest will also expand some.
  3. When you know you are under stress, get away to a quiet private place and sit down if you can. In a pinch, a bathroom stall even works. The Bible often talks about the value of stillness and quietness (see Psalm 46.10).
  4. Breathe in deeply through your nose while you count to 4.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  6. Breath out through your mouth with a whooshing sound as you count to 8.
  7. Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing 4 times. You’ll find that this takes only a minute.
  8. Practice this every day, not just when you feel stressed.

Stress does not have to control you. You can control it with this simple breathing technique. Your body and brain will be glad you did.

What has helped you deal with stress?

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Three Kinds of People that Fill Every Church

In Judson Edwards book, The Leadership Labyrinth, he describes 21 paradoxes in ministry. He defines the ‘relationship paradox’ in this way: the people who like you most will be the ones you try least to please. He writes that three kinds of people fill every church. Would you agree with assessment?

The three kinds of people in every church.

  • The energizers: their presence makes us feel better, buoys our spirits, and fills our tanks.
  • The regular folksthey may not buoy our spirits, but they don’t demoralize us either. They make up the largest group.
  • The drainers: they sap our joy and can ruin our day.

The main difference between the energizers and the drainers are their expectations of us. The energizers don’t place great expectations on us. The drainers do.

We don’t measure up to the drainers expectations. Either our preaching or counseling or leading or availability is not enough. These subtle unmet expectations may not be overt, but when we’re around these people, we feel their unspoken disapproval.

Edwards pens these profound words.

“When our credo becomes ‘I am as you desire me,’ we have lost the very thing that will enable us to minister effectively: our authenticity.”

Edwards rounds out his thoughts with three insights into how Jesus responded to his drainers.

  • First, Jesus retreated from his drainers to refresh himself and seek God. He regularly sought renewal.
  • Second, Jesus balanced his drainers with his energizers.
  • Third, Jesus didn’t allow the drainers to deter him from his plan and purpose.

Although Jesus practiced a rhythm of renewal and time away from his drainers, he never got rid of them. He still had to contend with them, just as we pastors must do in our churches.

Not everyone liked Jesus. Not everyone will like us. But God’s grace gives us what we need to serve even the most draining drainers.

For an in-depth look at people pleasing in the church, consider my third book: People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership.

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Why Smart Pastors Fail

Sometimes really smart pastors fail. I think I know some reasons why they do. Recently I read You’re in Charge–Now What by Thomas Neff and James Citrin. The book targets leaders moving into new positions. Whether or not you’re moving into a new ministry role, read this book. It’s a great read. The last chapter is worth the price. The authors give 10 traps for new leaders by playing off the book Why Smart Executives Fail by Sydney Finkelstein whose authors list several destructive behaviors leaders in failing companies show. Below, I’ve tweaked those 10 to make them applicable for ministry leaders.

A smart pastor can can fail if he…

  1. Sets expectations too high (by never meeting them) or too low (and thus disappointing high performing leaders in the church).
  2. Makes rash decisions or suffers from analysis paralysis.
  3. Appears to have all the answers.
  4. Ties his or her identity too closely to ministry success.
  5. Fails to see reality (remember the fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes”).
  6. Squashes dissenting opinions.
  7. Doesn’t keep his role in context (remember, we are not saviors, Jesus is).
  8. Misses who really holds the power (just because power roles are written down somewhere does not mean they reflect who really holds the power).
  9. Tries to win every battle.
  10. Bad-mouths the previous pastor or ministry leader.

What would you add to this list?

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