Are you Leading Well? 13 Questions to Ask Yourself

A year ago I began a new adventure…leading a new church in a new country. I accepted the lead pastor role at a great church in Canada, West Park Church in London, Ontario. This church is filled with great people committed to God and the cause of Christ. I’m loving my time here and although I’ve faced some challenges this first year, overall it has been a great year. Before I even started, I spent three weeks preparing for my new ministry and I learned these 4 keys necessary to start well and sustain healthy ministry. I’ve also included 13 questions that help us determine how well we are leading.

Leadership

I use the acronym PALM to illustrate these 4 simple keys. It describes four practices that not only make a new transition go smoother, but represent leadership priorities I recommend every good leader embrace whether or not he or she is new to a ministry role. I’ll briefly explain them and then pose some questions to help you evaluate how well you are embodying these principles.

Prioritize family and self care. This concept simply means that to lead well, we must lead ourselves and our families well. I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that a healthy ministry flows out of a healthy marriage.

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. How would your spouse or kids say you are doing in keeping family a priority?
  2. How often do you take a day off when you truly disconnect from your leadership role?
  3. Are you getting enough sleep and exercise?
  4. Are you saying ‘no’ enough to demands people try to place on your time that you know if you said ‘yes’ would not further your mission?

Avidly over-communicate. This concept implies that leaders must intentionally use multiple means to keep theirs churches and teams informed of what’s happening.

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. Do you have an intentional process you use to communicate to others progress in achieving your goals and key initiatives?
  2. How many tools do you use to communicate? Or, do you count on one method and hope it’s successful?
  3. How often do you repeat your church’s overall purpose and objectives?

Listen and learn. This idea embodies the principle that good leaders are learners and learning happens when we assume a listening posture. 

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. In meetings how much talking do you do? Are you mostly telling or asking questions and listening?
  2. When you meet new people, do you ask about their lives or do you talk about yourself?
  3. When others are talking to you, how often do you mentally check out as you prepare your response?

Manage change wisely. For any church or ministry to make a Kingdom difference it requires that we effect change. But change for change’s sake seldom moves us forward. However, wisely managed and needed change will make a Kingdom difference.

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. How often do you include in the conversation about a potential change those who would be affected by such a change?
  2. When you bring change, how often do you evaluate after the change to learn how well it went?
  3. What changes need to be made now in your setting and what are you doing to prepare your church or team for the change?

 Leadership brings leaders great fulfillment, especially when we lead well. Consider how you might apply these 4 keys in the PALM acrostic to your leadership setting.

What other keys have you discovered that make for successful leadership?

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6 Ways Leaders can Keep their Brains Sharp

This December I will hit the big “6-0.” Yep, that’s 60 years old. And I’ve been a pastor over half of those years. Some restaurants now even offer senior discounts since they consider me a “senior.” I can’t take them. I still pay full price. I’m not yet ready to be called a “senior.” Getting a “senior discount” on coffee at McDonalds is one thing. Keeping your brain mentally sharp is another. As our bodies age, so do our brains. Are we doomed to irreplaceable cognitive decline? Or, can we make some choices to keep mentally sharp? Fortunately, we don’t have to let our brains atrophy as we age. Here are some choices we can make to help keep them sharp.

Brain Aging

First, a few facts about the brain and aging.

  1. After age forty we lose about 5% of our brain mass each decade.
  2. The insulation around the axon or tail of a neuron (a brain cell) is called myelin and as we age it gets thinner. The thicker the myelin, the faster we process things. And the opposite also holds true. The thinner the myelin, the slower we process things.
  3. Dendrites, the little tentacles at the ends of our neurons that allow cells to talk to each other decline as we age. Think of a rose bush that gets pruned for winter. Although not as severe as a pruned rose bush, aging thins those tentacles.

Given these facts, how can we keep our brains sharp? Neuroscientists are now learning that we can stay cognitively healthy well into our later years. The term for our mind’s protecting our brains from decline is called cognitive reserve. The more we practice these habits now, the more cognitive reserve we take into our later years.

  1. Exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has proven to slow cognitive decline.
  2. Learn something new. Mentally stimulate your brain. Stay curious. When we stimulate our brains and learn new things, we increase blood flow which helps keep our brains healthy.
  3. Keep healthy relationships. God created us to be in community with each other. Close, healthy relationships are not only good for the soul, but for the brain as well.
  4. Maintain a strong devotional life. At the end of our chromosomes lie protective caps called telomeres that are linked to longevity. Apparently the longer your telomeres, all else being equal, the longer you live. Long-term stress shortens them and devotional practices such as meditation apparently helps lengthen them.
  5. Don’t veg in front of the TV. Scientists are now learning that too much TV watching can accelerate our mental decline. So, go easy on the TV.
  6.  Eat your spinach. Studies show that older people who eat lots of fruits and veggies, especially the dark green leafy kinds keep their brains healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., fish oil) also helps.

I’m encouraged by Peter Drucker, the father of modern day management. He wrote 39 books during his lifetime. He wrote 29 of them after he turned 60. He kept his brain sharp and it paid off.

What do you do to keep your brain healthy?

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The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Range of Emotions - Mad to Happy

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

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Are you in an Unhealthy Relationship Triangle?

Relationship triangles are the essential building blocks relationship systems are built upon. And I don’t mean them in the sense of a love triangle. We can’t avoid triangles. If you spend any time with people, relationship triangles will form. They aren’t intrinsically good or bad, they just are. A triangle provide a visual way to describe the dynamics between two people and an issue/group or the dynamics between three people. They picture how strained relationships between two people cause them to intentionally or unintentionally avoid issues, dump burdens, shift pain, and pass relationship angst to a third person. Often we leaders get triangled in which can diminish our effectiveness. So how do we avoid unhealthy triangles? Consider these suggestions.

Hands holding rope forming triangle isolated on white

1. Think in threes.

Play a grown up version of Where’s Waldo by looking for triangles in your relationships. As you relate to others, always keep in mind that we naturally tend to handle our anxiety through triangles. They come in many forms. Keep an open eye to their pervasiveness. Here are some examples.

  • Husband-wife-child
  • Husband-wife-job
  • Pastor-wife-church
  • Boyfriend-girlfriend-dad
  • Husband-wife-inlaw (or outlaw)
  • Boss-employee-employee
  • President-board-customers
  • Brother-sister-parent
  • Pastor-elder-elder
  • Pastor-board-church vision
  • Brother-sister-inheritance
  • Student-teacher-parent
  • Student-student-teacher

2. Don’t try to fix the problems of the other two in a triangle.

Imagine a triangle and a each point place a different person, ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C,’ with ‘A’ being you. If ‘B’ and ‘C’ are at odds with each other and you are the third point in the triangle, avoid the temptation to force change in ‘B’s’ relationship with ‘C.’ I tried for years in a previous church to get a leader to see another person in the church in a positive light. Even after many attempts, I never heard him say, “Charles, you are right. I don’t know why after all these years I saw ____ like I did. He’s a great guy.”

In fact, the opposite occurred. The harder I tried to make the relationship get better, the worse it got. It wore me out because I was taking on their relationship tension. And for all my efforts, their relationship never improved.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discourage healthy dialogue between two people in conflict. We should often coach others toward healthy dialogue. But when we try to push a relationship to get better, it seldom will. People resist such efforts.

When Martha tried to triangle in Jesus to force Mary help her in the kitchen (Luke 10.38-42), He did let himself get sucked in. He pointed back to Martha’s heart condition rather than trying to ‘fix’ Mary.

3. Don’t bail or distance yourself from those in your triangles.

We naturally tend to shy away from relationships in conflict. We don’t want to deal with the emotionality they bring. However, distancing or bailing out often makes the relationship worse. And when we distance ourselves, we actually keep people in the dark. The result? The relationship often gets worse. So, keep a reasonable connection to each person in the triangle.

4. Expect triangles to intensify in times of change or stress.

When you face more stress in your family, at work, or in your relationships, the tendency to get triangled in will increase as will your tendency to triangle somebody else in. Be more vigilant and aware during those times. Remember to take responsibility only for the relationships you are in, ‘A’ to ‘B,’ and ‘A’ to ‘C.’ Refuse to take unhealthy responsibility for the other two in the triangle, ‘B’ to ‘C.’ Encourage healthy dialogue between the two and focus on your relationship with each person. Often when you do that, the tension between the other two in the triangle will lessen.

5. Focus on issues, not personalities.

When we get triangled, we’re tempted to take sides. The solution to the relationship problem may be obvious to us and to the offending party. However, keeping emotionally neutral can keep you from getting over involved. When you sense someone is trying to suck you and trying to get some commitment out of you to take sides, a good response is, “Let me think about that.”[1] 

6. Know the signs when someone’s trying to triangle you in.

Here are some potential signs that someone is trying to draw you into an unhealthy triangle.

  • When someone obsesses about somebody else not doing his or her job.
  • When someone takes an unhealthy interest in the problems of others.
  • When someone tries to rescue another.
  • When you get an uncomfortable feeling that someone wants to get unnecessarily close to you.
  • When someone over-focuses on you in a negative way (i.e., criticism) or he over-focuses on you a positive way (i.e., extreme flattery).
  • When someone’s reaction to you exceeds what the situation would normally dictate.

7. Map your own triangles.

Think about the unhealthy triangles you may be in now. Draw those triangles on a sheet of paper. Put names on them. Take a learner’s stance and ask yourself these questions.

  • How are you responding to those in your triangles? Is it healthy or unhealthy?
  • What patterns do you see? Are they healthy or unhealthy?
  • Is the same person constantly trying to triangle you in?

When we discover and become more aware of our relational and emotional triangles, we can keep a more objective stance to the unhealthy ones, which in turn helps us lead better.

What are some negative results you’ve seen in your life when you’ve been sucked into unhealthy triangles?

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[1] Margaret J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (New York, NY: Seabury Books, 2009), Kindle e-book loc. 582.

 

The Dumbest Mistake I Ever Made as a Pastor

On the whole, I believe pastors are a pretty smart bunch. We earn advanced degrees, study biblical languages, go to conferences to learn, and constantly challenge our brains when we prepare messages and talks. I’ve earned two theology degrees and consider myself a relatively smart guy. But, brain smarts won’t guarantee ministry fruitfulness. Our walk with Christ fundamentally matters. And how we manage relationships probably ranks second in influence. As I look back over my 34 years in ministry, I realize I repeatedly made this one really dumb mistake in the relationship area.

Smart Vs Dumb - Choose Intelligence Over Ignorance

I hid out.

I don’t mean that I intentionally hid from people. But I isolated myself too much from staff and people in the church. I didn’t make myself visible enough.

  • In one church my office was the furtherest away from everybody else. And I stayed in it way too long during work hours. I seldom came out of the office.
  • In that same church I didn’t emerge from my office until three minutes before the Sunday service.
  • In another church as a low level associate, I would never meet with anyone unless they made an appointment several days in advance. This practice certainly may be necessary for the lead pastor of a large church, but not for my role at the time, my first full time position.

Since those early years, I think I’ve grown up and become much wiser. Most church people (and staff) recognize that lead pastors are busy. Yet, they want to feel they have some connection to him or her. They don’t want to feel we are always in a rush to be somewhere else.

I now recognize that my visible presence matters greatly. And I don’t mean that we should make ourselves 24/7 accessible. We, too, must keep healthy margins. But, church people and staff need relational touches. Even small ones matter.

Here are changes I’ve made to help me be less of a ‘hider.’

  1. When I’m not preaching on a Sunday, I visit the kid’s areas, poke my head in each classroom, and thank the leaders. I don’t just sit in my office and read (which I enjoy doing).
  2. Before each Sunday service I intentionally finish my prayer time with an elder 10-15 minutes prior to the service start time so I can shake people’s hands and chat.
  3. I ask an elder to close out each service in prayer and just prior to that as I share some final comments, I explain that I will be at the welcome center after the service and would like to meet new people.
  4. I more often manage staff using the MBWA technique, Management By Walking Around. Although I still keep my door closed to minimize interruptions, I intentionally break throughout the day and wander around to touch base with staff.
  5. When I talk to a staff person during the week or a church person on Sundays, I try to give them my full presence through eye contact and genuine listening. Even a minute or two ‘fully present’ interaction can make a positive deposit into the souls of others.

I’m much wiser now and hope that going forward I won’t make as many dumb mistakes as I did when I was younger.

What’s the dumbest mistake you’ve every made as a pastor?

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