The Cortisol Flooded Church: 9 signs and 8 antidotes

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects  include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.

Pulled in Too Many Directions Signs Stress Anxiety
  1. Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
  2. Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
  3. The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
  4. Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
  5. An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
  6. Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
  7. A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
  8. Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
  9. You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.

How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.

How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.

  1. Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
  2. Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
  3. Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
  4. If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
  5. Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
  6. Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
  7. Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
  8. Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.

Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?

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10 Subtle Signs You Have Hit your Stress Red Zone

The Red Zone: unsafe areas in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, a region of France decimated during WWI, the area on the field between the 20 yard line and the end zone in American football (source: wikipedia).  The term Red Zone is a fairly well understood term that designates either a problem area or a heightened sense of alertness, as in the case of football. I’m extending that meaning to the emotional place many pastors and leaders find themselves in, sometimes without there even knowing it. Consider these subtle clues that may point to your being in the stress Red Zone. Mentally check the ones true of you.

Zone rouge

10 indicators you are in the stress Red Zone

  1. You quickly walk by someone at church or at the office to avoid a conversation simply because you don’t have the energy to engage.
  2. Fun in ministry and life seems to have disappeared.
  3. When you come home your spouse says, “You look terrible.”
  4. When you come home you could go to bed, right then.
  5. You can’t shake the free floating anxiety that seems to cling to you.
  6. Small things that once didn’t bother you now set you off.
  7. You often ruminate over and rehearse negative issues in your ministry and/or life.
  8. You easily default to worse case scenario thinking.
  9. You feel anger coursing deep within.
  10. You’re not sleeping very well.

How many did you mentally check? If you checked any of these, you may be in the stress Red Zone.

Often leaders lead in such stress-filled environments that their bodies and brains are awash in the stress hormone, cortisol. When under stress, whether good or bad, our adrenal glands (located atop our kidneys) release this important hormone. Cortisol is not all bad. We need it in times of stress. However, it becomes harmful when we are perpetually under stress and our body gets overexposed to it and other stress related hormones.

Here’s what can happen to your body if it’s perpetually awash in cortisol.

  • dampened immunity: you’ll get sick more often
  • digestive problems
  • heart disease
  • anxiety
  • weight gain
  • impaired brain functioning, especially memory
  • sleep impairment

So what can you do if you realize you are in the stress Red Zone? Consider these ideas.

  1. Make sure you regularly exercise as exercise can help reduce excessive cortisol in your body.
  2. Practice mindfulness as part of your spiritual formation process. My latest book includes an entire chapter on mindfulness.
  3. Get 30 minutes more sleep each night.
  4. Take your day off…really take it off. Don’t even look at email for 24 hours straight on your day off.
  5. Talk to a friend, your spouse, or a counselor about your stress. Others can often give us a more objective sense of reality which can reduce our stress.

What has helped you manage your stress and avoid being awash in cortisol?

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Are you a Contented Leader? 3 Keys May Help

My dad loves putting jigsaw puzzles together. I don’t. And I especially dislike doing them when you get to the end and find that a piece is missing. A missing jigsaw puzzle pictures the elusive something that leaders sometimes feel that we believe if we had ‘it’ we could truly be content. For a pastor it might be a larger church. For an entrepreneur it might be that winning business idea. For the CEO or president of a company it might be reaching that next sale’s milestone. It’s different for us all. Unfortunately, we often think if we attain ‘it,’ all will be well. That’s simply not true. One of the world’s greatest leaders, the Apostle Paul, gives us us keen insight on this perplexing  issue of contentment.

contentment road sign illustration design

While awaiting trial in a prison in Rome, Paul wrote a letter to the church in the city of Phillipi. Although life was not going well, he wrote these amazing words.

10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4.10-13, NIV)

From this short passage, three insights about contentment stand out.

Insight 1. This side of heaven, perfect contentment will always elude us.

The apostle Paul had given up a cushy life as a rising Jewish leader after his dramatic conversion. After his conversion, life didn’t go well much of the time. Likewise, when we trust Christ, He does not promise us an eternal spring. Paul even points to a nagging sense of “something-just-isn’t-quite-right” in 2 Corinthians 5.1-3

 1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down—when we die and leave these bodies—we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.  2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long for the day when we will put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing.  3 For we will not be spirits without bodies, but we will put on new heavenly bodies.  4 Our dying bodies make us groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and have no bodies at all. We want to slip into our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by everlasting life. (NLT)

Because earth this is not a believer’s real home, we will groan and sigh and long for a better place. Because heaven is our home, we will never find perfect contentment here. This world cannot meet our deepest needs and longings. More money will not meet our deepest needs. Bigger and better stuff will not take all our heart longings and aches away. A a bigger church or a banner sales year won’t cut it either. This side of heaven, we will always deal with a linger sense of discontentment.

As Martin Luther said,

 “Next to faith, this is the highest art: to be content in the calling in which God has placed you. I have not learned it yet.” (“Martin Luther–The Early Years,” Christian History, no. 34.

Contentment often means we must deal with the tension of feeling content in our circumstances yet not feeling content because we long for something better. God designed us that way.

Insight 2. In the meantime, don’t waste your discontentment 

In verse 11 Paul writes that he had to learn to be content. His learning suggests three implications.

1. The measure of contentment we can experience is a choice we make.

2. Contentment doesn’t come instinctively. We don’t mysteriously drift into it.

3. Developing contentment is not a passive experience. To learn implies we must engage and direct our minds toward something.

I believe we learn to be content when circumstances bring our discontentment to the surface and then as we yield that discontentment to God, He brings us to a new state of contentment, until the next new challenge surfaces discontentment. Then we repeat the process of learning once again.

We don’t learn contentment from a book or a blog. We learn it through life’s experiences.

Even when Paul was in prison, he was learning contentment. In the short book of Philippeans he even used the word ‘joy’ 16 times.

Insight 3. Tend to your soul.

He mentions learn again in verse 12 but it’s a different word. The Greeks used this word to describe being instructed or initiated into a secret society. Through his learning he had been initiated into this secret of contentment. In this case the initiation rites were the lessons taught by both trial and prosperity. Through that process, he discovered by experience the secret of being content. He then writes in verse 12, I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Verse 12 doesn’t mean, for example, that I as a pastor of a church of 700 will see my church grow to 7,000 next year because “I can do everything.” Rather, He promises us that true contentment in any circumstance only comes through Himself. And as we tend to matters of our heart, our relationship with Him, He can bring a measure of contentment to us in the middle of difficult or disappointing  circumstances.

Jesus doesn’t promise never ending ministry success, every year a banner year, or freedom from difficulty. Neither does he promise cheery emotions every day. Rather He will give us what we need to face any circumstance that could keep us discontented.

So, as leaders lead, we must live in a world of discontentment and at the same time ever growing contentment.

What has helped you learn to be more contented as a leader?

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10 Ways Leaders Build Trust

If a leader wants to lead well and successfully, he or she must build trust with those around him or her. Without trust, teams won’t thrive or even survive. I believe we leaders must prioritize building trust with and among those we lead and serve. Consider these 10 ways to build trust with your teams.

trust building
  1. Speak truth, but always in love.
    • Eph. 4.15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
    • Don’t spin and don’t flatter. Tell the truth, but don’t use a bat to do it. Jim Carrey starred in a movie several years ago called Liar Liar. He always spoke the truth but with no love, consideration or respect.
    • One of the most successful ways to deplete people’s trust accounts is to send angry emails. Don’t do that. See my blog here about misusing email.
  2. Golden rule trust.
    • The golden rule says, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Matt. 7.12)
    • In other words, give trust to others and they will give it to you. If you don’t trust others, don’t expect them to trust you. Trust gets reciprocated. You want trust, you have to extend it to others
    • Biblically rooted trust does not mean blind trust. Stephen M. R.  Covey calls it smart trust. There must be some credibility and history before you give full trust. I recommend his book Smart Trust.
    • Smart trust means that you have a propensity to trust and that you extend and inspire trust in others.
  3. Risk transparency.
    • People don’t trust what they don’t see. Trust requires humility in that you give part of yourself to others so that you actually give the power to them to potentially hurt or disappoint you. Banish hidden agendas. Don’t make things appear what they are not. Be willing to admit your failures and struggles.
  4. Go the extra mile to right wrongs.
    • Don’t cover up. Don’t make excuses. Own your own failures. You will build trust in others when you admit it when you were wrong.
  5. Give credit where credit is due. 
    • Practice Matthew 18 by dealing with conflict 1-1 first. Don’t let others con you into their conflict when they aren’t willing to apply Matthew 18.
  6. Be accountable.
    • God gives more opportunity and responsibility to those who have proved themselves trustworthy.
      • “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ (Luke 19.17)
    • Hold yourself accountable and responsible. Don’t blame others when you should take responsibility.
  7. Do what say you will do.
    • Behave in ways that builds trust in others. Show up the same way every day. Don’t be mad at everybody one day and happy as the lark the next day. Be consistent.
    • … those who fear the LORD…keeps his oath even when it hurts… (Ps 15.4)
    • … show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2.10)
    • Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (1 Cor. 4.2)
  8. Practice authentic empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside the shoes of another, feel his emotions, and see life from his perspective. When you seek to truly empathize, it creates safety.
    • One of the Old Testament words for trust (batach) has a meaning of “careless.” When you trust your spouse or someone else, you feel so safe that you are careless—or free of concern—with him or her. You don’t have to hide who you are or be self-protective (from Focus on the Family).
  9. Seek understanding before being understood. In other words learn to truly listen.
    • My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…. (James 1.19)
    • The more we know each other and truly listen, the more we can understand why others do what they do.
    • Listen to understand, not build your case, not to reply, not to find loopholes in the other person’s argument or viewpoint, not to correct them, but listen to first understand.
  10. What would you add as a tenth?

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This Sermon got the Most Positive Comments ever-and it was on Tithing!

I moved to Canada about five months ago to pastor West Park Church in London, Ontario. I’m enjoying living and serving in Canada. Early on I realized that I needed to teach on generosity. So, last week I brought a message on tithing, the fourth in a series on generosity. I don’t think I’ve every delivered a message that elicited so many positive comments as did this one. So, if you teach on giving, I hope this message will help. I’ve included a short outline below as well as a link to the full text of the sermon. The manuscript doesn’t reflect perfect grammar, but I hope you find it useful.

tithe

Tithing sermon outline:

Title: Tithing..say what?

Introduction: give caveat about pastors talking about money.

Main scripture: Malachi 1, 3

Review main points of prior sermons on generosity.

Big idea: you can grow a heart of generosity by making these four choices

  1. Assess your current giving level: the 7 kinds of givers
    1. $0 givers
    2. impulse givers
    3. cash givers
    4. percentage givers
    5. tithers
    6. tithe plus givers
    7. living cap givers
  2. Understand the real meaning of tithing.
    1. Deal with the objection that tithing is Old Testament
  3. Create a realistic giving plan. (1 Cor 16.2)
    1. systematic
    2. personal
    3. proportional
  4. Start somewhere. Where you start will not be where you want to end up.
    • cautions: don’t wait until you can afford it
    • don’t wait until you are dead
    • don’t wait until you have more money
    • don’t wait until you can fully think it through.

Challenge to join next week’s tithe demo day.

Here’s the link to the pdf: tithing by Charles Stone 2014 for blog

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