The Well Placed Question – an Often Overlooked Leadership Tool

As a pastor and a leader I guide the process to help our church set and accomplish goals, move us forward into a preferred future, and make progress. And it seems like I do a lot of telling. I wonder if we leaders sometimes miss how a well placed question can enhance our leadership. Consider these thoughts about leadership and asking questions.

illustration of 3d character with question mark on an isolated white background

The power of a well placed question:

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We craft strategies by telling.
  • We set goals by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.

Unfortunately, our fast-paced world often tempts us to give quick answers. In Mark 2 we can see a pattern in Jesus’ response to those who questioned Him. That chapter records four unique questions posed to him. Three out of four times Jesus responded with at least one question. In those responses He didn’t immediately tell them an answer to their question. Rather, He sought to make them think about what they asked by asking them a question.

When we build into our churches and ministries a culture that encourages questions, these benefits result.

  • We see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue you otherwise might have missed.
  • Innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Self-reflection. Simply telling someone an answer may stifle his need to think through the answer for himself.
  • Perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  • Focus. Questions can help a group or person focus on the real issue.

However, when we use questions as we lead we must avoid these unhealthy patterns.

  • Defensiveness: using questions as a defense mechanism, a ‘tit-for-tat’ response.
  • Aloofness: using questions to avoid answering a valid question because you think it is beneath you to answer.
  • Ignorance: not answering a valid question about which you have no knowledge in order to hide your lack of knowledge. In that case it’s best to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Controlling: using questions to put another into a corner to embarrass him or shut him down.
  • Deflecting: using questions to move a valid conversation to another subject.

Asking questions can become a potent tool in our leadership toolbox.

How have you used questions in your leadership?

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Do Pastors have Blind Spots?

Bill Hull, one of the most prolific writers on discipleship, shared a profound insight that stirred my heart. “At age 50 I found myself successful but unsatisfied. I was hooked on results, addicted to recognition, and a product of my times. I was a get-it-done leader who was ready to lead people into the rarified air of religious competition. Like so many pastors, I was addicted to what others thought of me.”[1] Sometimes I’ve found myself struggling with those same unpleasant struggles Bill described that are often blind spots. I’ve learned the concept below that has helped me ferret out what may be behind those feelings.

Basic RGB

A counselor friend helped me understand how our hidden areas influence what we think, feel, and do. He drew a diagram on the white board in my office that psychologists use to help people become more self-aware in their relationships. It’s called the Johari Window pictured here.
pastors - gain self-awareness

You can see that the blocks in the right column picture areas in our lives about which we are not aware. The ‘blind spots’ are known by others yet not by us. The ‘unknown’ is hidden both to us and to others. The lower left hand block represents those areas that we know about ourselves, yet others don’t. If we honestly and appropriately disclose our struggles (the ‘hidden’) and if we humbly seek to become more self-aware (the ‘blind spots’) we will lead and serve more effectively.

Unfortunately, we pastors don’t do so well with self-awareness and awareness of others. As an example, a 2006 Barna research report discovered that pastors believe 70% of adults in their churches “consider their personal faith in God to transcend all other priorities.”[2] A contrasting survey of church people revealed that less than one in four (23%) named their faith in God as their top priority in life,[3] a large awareness miss for pastors.

Russ Veenker, an expert in pastoral health, told me in an interview with him that lack of self-awareness tops the list of pastoral problems he has seen in the hundreds of pastors he’s counseled. He said pastors should pay more attention to the truth in Romans 12.3, Be honest in your estimate of yourselves. (New Living Translation) He also stated that those who are more self-aware become much more healthy pastors.

Another survey on body care reinforces our apparent lack of self-awareness. The vast majority of us pastors describe our health as good, very good, or excellent. Yet the data from the same body-mass index survey indicate that 78 percent of male pastors and 52 percent of female pastors are either overweight or obese.[4]

Finally, in a study by Ellison Research of 870, Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, noted the difference between how pastors see their own family health and how they see the health of other clergy families. “Ministers apparently have a much more optimistic view of their own family than they do of the families of other ministers,” Sellers stated. “When one out of every twenty ministers feels his or her own family unit is unhealthy, but one out of every seven ministers believes the family units of others in their denomination are unhealthy, there’s a disconnect.”[5]

So, blind spots are something every pastor must honestly face. What is a step you can take to discover your blind spots?

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[1] Bill Hull, It’s Just Not Working, LeadershipJournal.net, 7/1/05. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2005/summer/6.26.html.

[2] The Barna Group, Survey Shows Pastors Claim Congregants are Deeply Committed to God, The Barna Update, 1/10/06. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/165-surveys-show-pastors-claim-congregants-are-deeply-committed-to-god-but-congregants-deny-it.

[3] The Barna Group.

[4] Rev. Dr. James P. Wind, The Leading Edge: A Fresh Look at American Clergy, Congregations, May/June 2002. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?q=printme&id=3290, 2.

[5] Ellison Research,  New research shows pastors may not have a realistic view of the health of their own family, July 19, 2005. http://www.ellisonresearch.com/ERPS%20II/release_17_family.htm.

Spiritual Leadership: Are you a Lion, a Lamb, or some of Both?

I love Henry Nouwen’s writings. When you read his books you realize this man walked with God and oozed wisdom. I ran across this quote that caused me to think about the qualities of my spiritual leadership. He incisively uses the metaphor of a lion and a lamb. Read this quote thoughtfully and ask yourself about your leadership.

A Lion and lamb laying together in peace

“There is within you a lamb and a lion. Spiritual maturity is the ability to let lamb and lion lie down together. Your lion is your adult, aggressive self. It is your initiative-taking and decision-making self. But there is also your fearful, vulnerable lamb, the part of you that needs affection, support, affirmation, and nurturing. When you heed only your lion, you will find yourself overextended and exhausted. When you take notice of only your lamb, you will easily become a victim of your need for other people’s attention.

The art of spiritual living is to fully claim both your lion and your lamb. Then you can act assertively without desiring your own needs. And you can ask for affection and care without betraying your talent to offer leadership. Developing your identity as a child of God in no way means giving up your responsibilities. Likewise, claiming your adult self in no way means that you cannot become increasingly a child of God. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you can feel safe as a child of God, the freer you will be to claim your mission in the world as a responsible human being. And the more you claim you have a unique task to fulfill for God, the more open you will be to letting your deepest need be met.

The Kingdom of peace that Jesus came to establish begins when your lion and your lamb can freely and fearlessly lie down together.”

-From, Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessing into One Joyful Step, ed. Michael Ford (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria press, 2005), 156.

When I read this quote, I asked myself which do I neglect, the lion or the lamb. How about you?

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When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brains

The brain fascinates me and what happens in it profoundly impacts life and leadership. I even wrote a book about it, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry and earned an executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership. In this post I briefly explain how God organized our brain and how leaders and pastors sometimes lead from their lizard brains.

Closeup view of a wild iguana in a sunnay day

Imagine a tootsie roll pop with two centers. Pretend the inner center is a sweet tart surrounded by the gooey tootsie roll that in turn is surrounded by the hard outer candy. Our brains include three parts, like our imaginary tootsie roll pop.

The inner core, called the reptilian brain regulates such functions as circulation and respiration. It’s on automatic pilot. Let’s say you’re sensitive to criticism about your preaching and in a conversation one of your leaders makes this comment. “I sure wish you’d go deeper with your Bible teaching. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are thinking about leaving because they aren’t getting fed.” I don’t think I’ve ever met a pastor who hasn’t heard a comment like that. If you’ve allowed chronic anxiety to build up inside, you might immediately react without thinking by sarcastically blurting, “I’m doing my best and if they want to leave, I’d be happy for them and me.” Such a comment threatens you and you adapt to this threat from the automatic process of the reptilian part of your brain.

The second part of our brains (the gooey tootsie roll part), the mammalian brain, regulates other functions such as bonding, playing, nurturing and expressions like shock, sorrow, and rejoicing. It also plays a role between pleasure and pain, flight and fight, and tension and relaxation. It serves as the seat of emotion. However, instead of maintaining balance between our reptilian brain and the third layer (the seat of rational thought), sometimes this part of the brain goes haywire. A pastor who enjoys preaching and has seen fruit from it, after enough critical comments, might face a depressive funk that his ministry is fruitless and that he should quit.

Both the reptilian and the mammalian parts of our brain compose about 15%, operate on automatic pilot, and have many connecting brain cells called neurons. However, our cerebral cortex, the outer brain, encompasses 85% of our brain. At this level God has given us the ability to think, process, gain insight, and choose. It is the seat of intentionality whereas the other two parts are the seats of instinct.

In summary, these three brain parts compose our Brain.

  • Lizard brain (reptilian): on automatic pilot that acts without thinking. Lizards eat their young. and some churches eat their pastors.
  • ‘Puppy’ brain (mammilian): the seat of emotions, also somewhat on automatic pilot.
  • Main brain (neocortex): the place where we think, analyze, choose, create, symbolize, and observe.

God gave us our entire brain, including the two lower brain levels. Those parts aren’t inferior, but limited. The neocortex can’t ignore them or else life would be rather dull. However, the neocortex allows us to “reflect on what is happening (insight) and plan for what might happen (foresight).”[1]

When anxiety overwhelms us (we lead from our lizard brains), we often react and these processes take over.

  • Impulse overwhelms intention.
  • Instinct sweeps aside imagination.
  • Reflexive behavior closes off reflective thought.
  • Defensive postures block out defined positions.
  • Emotional reactivity limits clearly determined direction.[2]

Here’s a personal example when I lead from my lizard brain.

Several years ago in an elder’s meeting at a former church one of the elders made a statement that implied I lacked a certain competency in my role, indicated by something he said I did. I didn’t even remember the specific issue, but I clearly remember my reaction. When he made that statement, I impulsively blurted, “I do not do that (whatever it was)!” He retorted, “You do it all the time.” I immediately jumped out of my chair, stomped over to the sink area behind me, and in anger said, “I never can please you. Everything I do is just not enough for you, is it?”

For the next ten minutes we went back and forth with great emotion and it took the finesse of another elder to cool us down.

What happened? I had experienced chronic anxiety toward this elder for some time. And, our elder meetings had not gone that well. When I felt attacked, my lizard brain often took over. My emotional reactivity came out as impulsive defensiveness. It happened without me even thinking.

In retrospect, I should have paused and allowed the thinking side of my brain to rule instead of my emotional side. My emotions acted faster than my thinking and I didn’t handle my feelings responsibly. I lost objectivity and civility. My unhealthy drivenness to please this leader caused an unnecessary conflict. In reality, his comment probably carried at least a grain of truth in it. Had I been more thoughtful, self-aware, and less anxiety filled that I had disappointed this leader, the conversation could have turned in a constructive direction. Fortunately, we both cooled down later and I apologized for my reacting.

When you are under stress, how does your lizard brain show up?

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[1] Peter I. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute), Kindle e-book, locations 313-325.

[2] Ibid, locations 325-334.

9 Ways Clarity Benefits Leaders

Several years ago I entered into a coaching relationship with seven other pastors through Will Mancini’s organization, Auxano. It was a great experience that helped me get clear about vision strategy. In the training and in Will’s seminal book on how to capture and lead through vision, Church Unique, he describes these 9 benefits of being clear as you lead your church.

Word "clarity" viewed from a glasses.

How clarity benefits leaders.

  1. Clarity makes uniqueness undeniable.
  2. Clarity makes direction unquestionable.
  3. Clarity makes enthusiasm transferable.
  4. Clarity makes work meaningful.
  5. Clarity makes synergy possible.
  6. Clarity makes success definable.
  7. Clarity makes focus sustainable.
  8. Clarity makes leadership credible.
  9. Clarity makes uncertainty approachable.

How would you rank your clarity in your ministry using these 9 as benchmarks?

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