Has Your Emotional Brain Hijacked your Leadership?

Great ministry leaders keep their emotions in check. Unfortunately, when we don’t keep them in check, our emotional brain can hijack clear thinking and good leadership. Yet, when we understand how our brain and emotions work, such insight can help us manage them in God honoring ways. Below I give a quick summary about the part of our brain that affects emotions.

Many parts of the brain influence our emotions, but the part I call the Panic Alarm (the limbic system, especially the amygdala) contributes the most. The word limbic means ‘edge’ and it got its name because it lies on the edge between the outer part of the brain and other important internal structures. Its primary structures include the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. The Panic Alarm strongly influences our emotional system, sometimes called the X-system.

The amygdalae (I use the singular form amygdala) are two almond shaped structures that play a critical role in our emotions for several reasons. It’s constantly on the lookout for problems and receives sensory input from many other parts of the brain. It stores and catalogs emotional memories. And both the hippocampus and the amygdala are involved in memory, the former primarily for facts and the latter for emotions.

For example, your hippocampus helps you remember the names of your elder or deacon board members. The amygdala tells you which ones you like. Because the amygdala is so highly connected to other parts of the brain, when it gets overly activated (the Panic Alarm goes off) it can diminish clear thinking and diminish thoughtful leadership.

An external real or perceived threat (an angry board member), a memory (when we were called to appear before an emergency board meeting), imagining ourselves in a threatening situation, or ever anticipating a threat can incite our Panic Alarm. The flight-flight-freeze-appease response originates from here. It’s also vital in helping us form healthy emotional attachments, especially at an early age.

Another component of the limbic system, the hypothalamus, acts as a controller to the master hormone gland, the pituitary gland. When we’re under stress it releases the stress hormone cortisol into our blood stream and neurotransmitters into our brain. Our body reacts very quickly to the neurotransmitter release but slower to the hormonal release. And chronic stress can damage our body and even kill brain cells (neurons) in the hippocampus. However, since the hippocampus is one of the few structures that can grow neurons, called neurogenesis, when stress decreases and cortisol levels out, the brain can regrow neurons here.

Another significant part of the brain, the insula, also influences emotions, and informs the amygdala. It maps our body’s internal feelings by receiving continuous input from over 100 million neurons (Armour, 2004) that line our hollow organs like our heart and intestines. It takes this information and represents how we feel in relation to our outside environment. Intuition is affected by this so called ‘second brain’ (Hadhazy, 2010). It can give us a ‘gut’ feel, butterflies in our stomach, or a ‘heartfelt sense’ we sometimes feel about something or someone. It’s also finely tuned to feel disgust and to sense unfairness.

I believe God used my insula to help me make a difficult decision years ago. I had been leading a poorly performing staff member that I had hoped I could reform to fit our culture. I kept telling myself that I could change him. But nothing seemed to work. I thought I needed to release him but I just couldn’t seem to pull the trigger. However, one morning I woke up in the middle of the night and knew in my gut I had to release him. I believe the Holy Spirit used my insula to help me make that decision.

Although the Bible never uses the word brain, it often uses the word for bowels to refer to the deep interior of our heart, soul, and mind. Although the Biblical writers didn’t explicitly understand the inner workings of the brain, God gave them keen insight into how our bodies and brains actually worked in real life.

Has your emotional brain every hijacked your leadership? What has helped you keep your emotions in check?


“I just learned how my emotional brain can sometimes hijack my leadership.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).


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References:

Armour, J.A. (2004) Cardiac neuronal hierarchy in health and disease. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 287 (2), pp.R262-R271.

Hadhazy, A. (2010) Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being: Scientific American [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=gut-second-brain> [Accessed 28 February 2013].

3 Ways to Defeat Leadership Discouragement

Discouragement comes with the territory for ministry leaders. Unmet goals, putting out fires, staff issues, displeasing people, and general tiredness all contribute to discouragement. When it weighs us down, how can we dig out? The life of the prophet Elijah gives us hope.

I Kings 18-19 tells the story of his amazing confrontation with the prophets of Baal. The people of Israel had gathered on Mount Carmel along with 450 prophets of Asherah. They set up a sacrifice and the 450 pagan prophets summoned their gods to provide rain. Nothing happened. Then Elijah summoned the one, true God who showed His power by not only consuming the sacrifice but also ending the drought.

You’d think that after God showed up in such a powerful way, twice, that Elijah would be on a spiritual and emotional high. Not so. After these great victories, he ran for his life, thinking he was the only true prophet left. He literally wanted to die. But God did not leave him alone. I Kings 19 explains how he cared for him.

Three lessons stand out about how we can defeat leadership discouragement.

  • First, prepare for an emotional dip after spiritual success. I’ve found that discouragement often follows a spiritual high. Among other reasons, it’s the body’s response to stress. Mondays are often the most discouraging days for pastors after an intense Sunday. Prepare for this inevitability.
  • Second, physically rejuvenate. After Elijah wanted to die, God provided food for him through an angel and had him take two long naps. After a spiritual high, take care of your body to give it time to re-energize. Extra sleep, healthy food, exercise, and doing something fun can help you recover.
  • Third, still your soul to hear God’s gentle voice. After Elijah fled, God spoke to him in a “whisper.” Often Satan will attack us most after spiritual victories with condemning and tempting thoughts. When he does, turn your heart to the Lord and listen to His quiet, yet encouraging voice.

What has helped you defeat discouragement?


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5 Ways to Minimize Ministry Silos

Patrick Lencioni brought the concept of silos into the leadership conversation with this great book, Silos, Politics, and Turf WarsSilos occur in organizations and churches when leaders act like their ministry or team is the only one that matters. A silo attitude results in that leader or team only supporting, giving, or attending functions that pertain to them. It can be kill a ministry and result in many problems. In this post I suggest ways to minimize ministry silos.

First, what problems do ministry silos cause? Here are a few.

  • Unhealthy competition
  • Jealousy
  • Hurt feelings
  • Pride
  • Lack of trust
  • Fighting over limited resources
  • Foot dragging
  • Politics

So how can a leader minimize ministry silos? Below I suggest a key foundation and then 5 pillars to build on that foundation to rid your ministry of silos.

If you want to change your culture to minimize and remove silos, build from the bottom up. Build a solid foundation on the Biblical concept of unity. Teach and train your leaders often about unity remembering that unity does not mean uniformity. God gives each of us unique gifts and abilities which creates a healthy church. Keep these and other Scriptures in front of your leaders.

  • Psa. 133.1 (NIV) How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
  • Rom. 15.5 (NIV) May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus,
  • Eph. 4.3 (NIV) Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
  • 1Cor. 1.10 (NLT) I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.

Next, place these five pillars on that unity foundation.

  1. Make sure you have a clear, shared vision. Keep your church’s mission/vision/values before your leaders. If you’re fuzzy on mission/vision/values, I recommend Will Mancini’s book, Church Unique.
  2. Build trust between all your leaders. When leaders trust each other it increases the trust neurotransmitter, oxytocin, which builds camaraderie. The more people trust each other, studies show that they will co-operate more. (De Dreu, 2012).
  3. Encourage your leaders to talk to each other. Schedule consistent leadership meetings so that leaders can hear each other’s stories and needs. Start a leadership e-letter and send it to every leader. The more in common leaders share with other leaders, the more productive and motivated they’ll be.
  4. Remind leaders that it’s not all about them. Remind them that they are part of a larger purpose and that great teams look out for each other. Foster this attitude among your leaders. “How can I help my fellow leaders, even though it’s not my ministry?”
  5. Teach leaders to step inside each other’s shoes. When we see life from another’s perspective, we are more giving and more likely to help. It’s a concept called mentalizing (Waytz et al., 2012).

How have you dealt with ministry silos in your ministry?

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References:

De Dreu, C.K.W. (2012) Oxytocin modulates cooperation within and competition between groups: An integrative review and research agenda. Hormones and Behavior, 61 (3), pp.419-428.

Waytz, A., Zaki, J. & Mitchell, J.P. (2012) Response of Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Altruistic Behavior. Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (22), pp.7646-7650.

Can Something this Simple Supercharge Staff Morale?

Several months ago I began something with our staff that has been a huge hit. It’s simple. Any staff can do it, whether in a church or a business application. And it boosts staff morale and excitement when we do it. I encourage you to try it with your staff. It’s called a “Blue Sky Thinking” morning. In this post I explain what it is and how you can do it to supercharge your staff morale.

“Blue Sky Thinking” is a creative brainstorming technique to help leaders think outside the box. The origin of the phrase, although rather obscure, implies the emptiness of the sky and thus, blue sky thinking means thinking with no preconceptions (i.e., thinking outside the box).

Before I give you our steps, I’ve listed below the benefits I’ve observed in our church staff.

  1. It stirred creativity.
  2. It allowed freedom to not have to ‘produce’ something. Rather it provided space to focus on issues we tend to put off.
  3. It fostered deeper relational connection when we shared what we learned.
  4. It encouraged our staff to affirm each other.
  5. It made us more vulnerable to each other as some tears have even been shed.

So, here’s what we do.

STEP 1: I schedule the first Tuesday of each month for our blue sky day. I send an email and ask each staff person to spend at least two hours alone that morning in a place that encourages creative thinking and minimizes distraction.  They may choose a coffee house, a park, their office (with the shades drawn to block distractions), or even their home. The key is to pick a place as distraction-free as possible.

STEP 2: During their blue sky session, I encourage them to dream, pray, and think about some ministry or personal issue they need to give attention to. The sky’s the limit. I send these questions in the reminder email a few days prior to spur their thinking. They don’t answer every one, but they pick one or two to stir their creativity.

  1. What is a problem I need to solve in my job? What can I do about it?
  2. What is a process I need to improve? How can I improve it?
  3. If I could, I would (do this in ministry)….
  4. What gives me the most energy in ministry and how can I tap into that even more?
  5. What’s going really well in my role and how can I infuse what’s making it work into other parts of my job?
  6. What is God impressing on my heart?
  7. What if what I am currently doing in ministry just quit working all of a sudden. What could or would I do differently?
  8. What is God teaching me and what do I need to do in response?
  9. What is an area I’ve not thought much about, needed to, but have not scheduled think time?
  10. What is a wild and crazy idea I have? Play around with it.

STEP 3: That day in our staff meeting after we’ve finished our blue sky sessions, we each share what we did in our time. Each staff person takes about 5 minutes to share. I then give us an opportunity to ask questions or comment. Sometimes no one comments. Sometimes the comments are very profound and affirming. I take notes and always affirm each staff person for something I noticed in their blue sky session before the next person shares.

Every time we do this, our morale gets a boost and each of us leaves that staff meeting feeling affirmed and excited.

I encourage you to try this simple experience and see what it does to your staff’s morale.

What kinds of team experiences have boosted your particular staff’s morale?

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Top 10 Healthy Ways to Handle the Church Critic

One well-worn adage goes, “The two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.” I’d  suggest one more adage for those in ministry. “Two things you can’t avoid in ministry are…people late to the service and … church critics.” In this short post I suggest 10 ways to handle the church critic.

Having served in full-time ministry for 35 years, I’ve experienced my share of critics. I’ve responded well to some and not-so-well to others. When I’ve sensed a good heart from the critic, I tend to respond with more grace. And, I’ve learned to appreciate this advice from Abraham Lincoln. “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.

10 healthy ways to respond to my critics (actually 9, I’d love to hear your 10th).

  1. Give them your ear, but within reason. Don’t allow someone to destroy you with caustic criticism.
  2. Let your body language communicate that you are really trying to understand their criticism.
  3. Avoid an immediate retort such as, “Yea but,” “You’re wrong,” or some other defensive response.
  4. Breath this silent prayer, “Lord, give me grace to respond and not react.”
  5. Before responding, take a few moments to check what you’re about to say. President Lincoln suggested that we when we get angry we should count to 100 before responding. That may a bit of overkill, but counting helps us avoid reacting.
  6. Look for the proverbial ‘grain of truth’ in the criticism, and learn from it.
  7. If you see more than a grain of truth and you can’t process it alone, seek feedback from a safe person in your life. (see my post on What to Look for in a Safe Person).
  8. Ask God to keep you approachable to your critics (within reason). You probably don’t want to vacation with them.
  9. Learn from your critics on how best to deliver criticism to others. When someone delivers criticism that you received well, ask yourself what they did that made it easer to receive. For those who botched it, remember to avoid those tactics.
  10. …… what would add as a tenth?

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