Feeling Overwhelmed in Ministry or Life? Try this.

Ministry burnout, overload, and destructive stress lead to an abysmal survival rate for pastors today.  For 20 years a friend of mine followed 105 pastors and discovered that only half remained in ministry. Many other statistics bear witness to the high fallout rate for pastors. Burnout, moral collapse, and the weight of ministry has shattered many dreams for Kingdom impact. No pastor ever begins ministry with a goal to end up as a casualty of it. Unfortunately, unless some make systemic changes to their hearts and ministry pace, they too will end up a statistic. But, if you feel yourself on the road to burnout and overwhelmed you can change your trajectory through this simple yet life-transforming exercise.

I’ve used a tool that many coaches use to help people regain balance from feeling overwhelmed. It’s called a “Life Balance Wheel.”

It had its origins in the Middle Ages when few could read. Etched on many cathedrals, it visually represented the cycle of daily life: happiness, loss, suffering, and hope. For most people life offered little hope and the carved images instructed the common person about the inevitable change process in life.

Today we use the life balance wheel in a more positive way. It takes many forms, but this example captures its essence. Each piece of the pie represents an area of life. Within that area the scale rates your satisfaction with that part of your life.

Here’s how to use it to help regain balance and deal with life’s pressures in a more intentional way.

  • Google “Life Balance Wheel” and you’ll find many free printable templates.
  • After you print it out, mark your level of satisfaction within in each area of your life.
  • Connect the dots to see how balanced or imbalanced you have described your life.
  • Pick one or two areas in which you feel least satisfied.
  • Describe what life would look like if your satisfaction in those areas increased to an “8”
  • List five specific steps you could take in each area that could help you move to an “8”
  • Give each step a specific date when you will take the step.
  • Make yourself accountable to someone to help you regain balance. A good coach trained in the life balance wheel would be a good investment.

This simple tool could have profound implications for your future, your family, and your ministry. Right now schedule an hour this week to complete the exercise and see how God could use it in your life.

If you’ve used the life balance wheel before, what have you found helpful?

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Your Brain’s Leadership X-factor

X-Factor: A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.

X-Factor: a tv show by Simon Cowell that didn’t do so well.

The term X-factor usually carries a positive mystique, a quality not readily identified except by its impact. We’ll say…

  • The singer has the X-factor that makes her great.
  • The business leader has the X-factor that makes her successful.
  • The pastor has the X-factor that makes him engaging.

But what about the brain’s X-factor? Is it a good quality?

Neuroscience has recently discovered important concepts that can enhance a leader’s leadership impact. Essentially our brain uses two processing systems through which we lead, interact with people, and control our emotional and behavioral responses.

Daniel Kahneman, a Noble prize winner, explains these systems in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow  as system 1 and system 2. Matthew Lieberman, a professor at UCLA describes the systems as reflexive and reflective. These two words capture the essence of each process.

  • reflexive, the X-system (the X-factor): that part of our brain that if overstimulated reacts and acts impulsively. It’s spontaneous and acts automatically.
  • reflective, the C-system: that part of our brain that acts with intention and thinks before acting. It regulates emotionally reactivity.

In my 35 years in ministry I’ve been taught and have taught that practicing various spiritual disciplines will yield a controlled, Spirit-filled life. But how many of us leaders, although we practice those disciplines, can react with anger to a staff person, become defensive at a lay leader’s comment, or simply act like a jerk in the heat of the moment?

We’re all guilty. I know I am. So what’s missing?

I believe that Christian leadership teaching has failed to incorporate what neuroscience has discovered about how our brain functions. I’m now on a quest to evangelize Christian leaders to learn how our God-given brain can serve us well.

The two systems I mentioned above, when in balance, work in tandem to help us lead well. However, when the X-system gets overloaded, the X-factor hinders effective leadership.

When we experience stress, the X-factor strengthens as hormones (primarily epinephrine and cortisol) surge into our brains and bodies and exacerbate these problems.

The  brain’s executive center we need for creativity and planning gets tired and becomes ineffective. It’s like a girl drawing a picture with an etch-a-sketch and her brother repeatedly grabbing it and shaking it, thus erasing her uncompleted picture. Similarly, when the X-factor kicks in, we can’t keep those critical creative thoughts in our minds long enough to make them stick.

  • Emotional accelerators diminish the impulse braking centers in our brain.
  • The reactive parts of our brain take over and we can become defensive.
  • Objectivity diminishes.
  • We don’t listen well to others because our brains can’t concentrate on other’s viewpoints without prematurely framing our own responses.
  • We default to easy, mindless activities such as excessively checking emails rather than focusing on important tasks.

God has given us our brains to be used for His glory. The more we understand them and integrate biblical principles with good neuroscience, the better leaders we will become.

Stay tuned for more blogs on this subject.

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7 Keys to Help Church People Remember your Sermon Better

As a pastor I’ve been trained how to create a sermon so that it’s theologically sound (good hermeneutics) and applicable to the listener (good homiletics). However, seminary never taught me how I might help church people listen better and retain what they hear in a sermon. In the last few decades neuroscientists have learned much about how the brain learns and retains information. In this post I suggest several ideas you can share with the people in your church to help them retain more of what you teach and preach. Recently I gave an entire message to our church on these ideas. So, consider these insights and how you might share them with your church.

Insights to help church people retain more of what you teach and preach.

1. Learning occurs in three phases.

Phase 1 is called encoding, when people actually listen to a message. When we hear a message, our brain initially places that information into short term memory called working memory. The part of the brain called the hippocampus is highly involved here.

Phase 2 is called consolidation. This occurs when recently learned information is pushed throughout your brain into long term storage. When that happens, our brain connects the information to what we already know which strengthens the memory traces related to what we heard.

Phase 3 is called retrieval when we hope our listeners remember what we said and apply it at a later time. And the more effort it takes to retrieve it, the better they will learn it.

2. The more you know about the subject/scripture passage, the better new stuff gets learned.

All learning is based on prior learning. We only learn when we can connect information to something we already know. So, the more familiar your listener is with the passage you’re teaching, the more they will retain. I will often print the upcoming passage in each week’s sermon notes and encourage people to read it a few times before the next Sunday.

3. A good night’s sleep on Saturday and Sunday profoundly impacts learning.

A good night’s sleep on Saturday night rests the brain for more efficient listening and improved attention. And a good night’s sleep on Sunday helps with the second stage of learning mentioned in point one above, consolidation. When we sleep memories get diffused into multiple parts of the brain which cements our learning. Learn more here about how sleep benefits our brains.

4. Only what gets paid attention to gets learned.

The better your listener pays attention to what you say, the more they will retain what you say. The responsibility for increasing attention goes both ways. We must deliver our messages in interesting and compelling ways AND the listener must pay attention as well. In Acts 17. 11 Luke notes this about the people in the town of Berea. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. They exemplified intense attention, eager to hear what Paul taught.

When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) that what we are listening to. When we zone out because we are reflecting over what we just heard, the brain creates a stronger chemical signal resulting in a more lasting memory. So, making your listener think deeply about what you say will enhance learning.

5. The more you personally apply what you hear, the more it sticks.

This is called self-referential learning. Find ways throughout your sermon to interject ways your listener can apply what you teach. Don’t wait until the end of your message before you suggest applications.

6. Review and reflection the week following enhances learning.

When your listener reviews and reflects over your sermon, it requires them have to not only retrieve information from their memory banks but elaborate on it as well. Elaboration strengthens the neural pathways related to the topic of your message.

7. Coffee, coffee, coffee.

Caffeine increases attention which in turn increases learning. So, offer coffee before your service. In this post I suggest how caffeine may make you a better leader.

Ultimately the Holy Spirit transforms people’s hearts, values, and character. But genuine transformation requires effortful learning by your listener. It’s not a passive process. Share these insights with your church and trust the Lord to use them to enhance learning.

What has helped you improve what people in your church remember about your messages?

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A Simple Exercise that will Infuse Life into your Staff

Recently our church staff held our annual in-house evaluation retreat when we reviewed the prior year’s goals and plans. God had given us a good year and we wanted not only to discuss how we could improve, but rejoice in His blessings. After we prayed, we did a simple exercise that infused life into each of us. Here’s what we did that I guarantee will infuse life into your staff, whether they are paid or volunteer.

This will infuse life into your staff.

We have nine on our ministry staff and eight were present that day. I asked everyone to write down the names of each staff member sitting around the table. I then asked them to write down one quality about each person that they most appreciated. That was the easy part. The uncomfortable, yet life-giving part came next.

I then asked each person to look at one individual and tell him or her what they appreciated most about that person. We went around the table while each of us stayed on the ‘hot seat’ (maybe there is a better term for it). Then, one by one, we each looked directly at that staff person and told him or her what we most appreciated about them.

It was an incredibly life affirming experience.

Tears were shed.

We become vulnerable.

Each of us got blessed.

Our retreat took on an incredibly open and affirming tone.

It was amazing.

Gratefulness expressed to others is not only biblical, but it brings with it many practical personal benefits as well. Science is now telling us what the Bible has for centuries: showing gratitude, saying thanks, and affirming others is really good. Here’s what we’re learning about gratefulness.

  1. Gratefulness stimulates Christ-honoring behavior, called pro-social behavior by psychologists.
  2. Gratefulness can actually make us happier.
  3. Gratefulness can help decrease the power of materialism.
  4. Gratefulness can help us learn to forgive more consistently.
  5. Gratefulness can help us sleep better.
  6. Gratefulness can make us feel better physically because it evokes the production of two neurotransmitters in our brains, dopamine and serotonin, involved in reward and well-being, respectively.

So, when we experience and show gratefulness to others or in our hearts, many benefits result.

Two great Scriptures remind us how important gratefulness is.

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalms 9:1).

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Try this with your staff (or even with your family) and experience how life giving it can be.

What are some other life-giving exercises have you used with your staff?

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Leaders and their Listening: at which of the 4 Levels do you listen?

One of the greatest skills a pastor or leader can develop is to learn to listen well. We pay others a high compliment when we listen. We affirm others’ God-given value when we listen. We develop our own heart when we listen. The father of the field of listening, Ralph Nichols, captures the essence of listening in these words. The most basic of all human needs is the need to be understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them. Listening occurs at several levels. I describe four fundamental levels here.

As you read the four levels below, ask yourself at which level you usually listen.

Level 1-Listening TO…Internal Listening. At this level when we listen to others we mostly listen to our inner dialogue, thoughts, feelings, and what we plan to say once the other person has finished speaking. We focus on ourselves, our conclusions, our thoughts about the person/subject of conversation, and what the subject means to me. Unfortunately most listening happens at this level where it tends to be all about us.

Level 2-Listening FOR…Focused Listening. At this level we begin to authentically listen as we focus on what the other person is saying. We lock onto their dialogue and suppress our temptation to correct, give our opinion, give advice, or offer another perspective as soon as they finish. We become truly present and give the other person the gift of being understood.

Level 3-Listening WITH… Intuitive Listening. At this level we pay attention to what is not being said through these cues:  inflection, pauses, changes in tone and energy, the eyes, and body language. We listen with our gut and allow intuition to speak to our soul.

Level 4-Listening to the Holy Spirit. This is the deepest level where we intersect what the person is saying/not saying with an openness to what the Spirit of God is saying to us. This level requires great discipline and focus, yet provides pastors and ministry leaders a way to become conduits of God’s grace to others.

After reading those levels, at which level do you usually listen? What tips have you discovered that help you listen at levels 2-4?

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