5 Proven Ways to a Better Brain in 2016

God created a magnificent part of our body, the brain, as our command and control center. With 100 billion brain cells, it weighs a mere two to three pounds, yet it require 20% of our body’s energy. Since God expects us to take care of bodies (1 Corinthians 6.19-20) it naturally follows that we should take care of our brain, since it’s part of our body. How do we do that? As you think about how to make 2016 a great year, consider these 5 proven ways to a better brain in 2016.

the brain with hands and utensils in front of an empty plate

5 Proven Ways to a Better Brain in 2016

  1. Fertilize it with the brain’s Miracle-Grow.
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  2. Strengthen your brain’s muscles with mental stimulation.
    • The brain is like a muscle. The old adage, ‘use or lose it’ applies to our brains as well as to our physical muscles. And the best way to strengthen it is to challenge yourself mentally, outside your normal mental challenges. As a pastor, I read a lot of biblically based books. Although that challenges my mind, I also read in other fields, specifically neuroscience, which challenges my thinking. So to maximally exercise your brain, chose mental tasks that are novel or outside your normal mental routines.
  3. Sleep your way to a better brain.
    • Often we try to get more out of our day by skimping on sleep. But sleep is a powerful brian booster. It benefits us by improving mood, enhancing creativity, increasing our ability to pay attention, and by clearing out our brain’s toxins while we sleep. Read more about the benefits of sleep here.
  4. Stomp out excessive amounts of the brain shrinker, cortisol.
    • Cortisol is called the stress hormone and is secreted by our adrenal glands that lie atop our kidneys. We need cortisol to help us deal with challenges and crises and to help us pay attention. But when we live under constant stress, cortisol actually causes part of our brains to shrink, especially the memory center called the hippocampus. So, managing stress if vital to a healthy brain. Learn here 10 ways to manage stress.
  5. Feed it with a brain healthy diet.
    • Too much sugar and fat can actually inhibit production of BDNF (see number 1 above). However, a healthy diet that limits refined sugar and saturated can benefit your brain. While a brain healthy diet limits those two, it should also include elements of what is now called the MIND diet proven to help keep your brain healthy: lean proteins, healthy fats, beans, whole grains, and fruits and nuts. Taking a fish oil supplement can also help.

So, as you look to make 2016 a great year, why not resolve to keep a healthy brain.

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Leading in Turbulent Times: 4 Essentials

If you are a leader, you will face turbulence in your ministry or organization. Sometimes the turbulence feels so intense that leading seems impossible. If you’re currently facing turbulent times in your role, consider what one of the most revered men in history did when he faced such times.

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King David constantly faced turbulence as he led. When King Saul died, Israel faced a leadership future fraught with obstacles. I Chronicles 12 describes how many groups stepped up to help David make this transition. The Scriptures describe one particular group, called the men of Issachar, in this way.

  • (they) understood the times and knew what Israel should do — 200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command…. (v. 32)
  • All these were fighting men who volunteered to serve in the ranks. They came to Hebron fully determined to make David king over all Israel. (v. 38)

This group modeled what every leader must embody during turbulent times.

  • they understood the times: they accurately perceived reality.
  • they knew what to do: they knew the steps they must take.
  • they were fully determined to make David king: their passion compelled them forward.

From the men of Issachar’s example, we can learn four essentials necessary for good leadership in turbulent times.

  1. Clearly define reality.
  2. Shape a vision in response to the difficulty.
  3. Develop a coherent, practical strategy.
  4. Implement your strategy with passion and courage.

What has helped you lead better during turbulent times?

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Shadow Beliefs in a Leader: Clues to Yours

Kevin Cashman wrote an outstanding book on leadership called Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life. In his book he writes about conscious beliefs and shadow beliefs. He defines a shadow belief as a belief we hold deep inside, outside of our conscious awareness. He provides insight about how to discover those beliefs.

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He contends that these beliefs often hinder leaders from being their best. For example, one shadow belief might be that subtle voice inside that constantly says, “You must perform better than everybody else for people to like you.” For me, one shadow belief I discovered was this: “Everybody around me needs to be happy for me to be happy. Therefore, I must try to make everybody happy.” Years ago that belief stifled my joy and peace as I tried to lead our church.

Cashman says, however, that we must bring those shadow beliefs into the light so that we can become our best as leaders. He gives seven clues that can bring these shadow beliefs to light.

  1. If other people often give us feedback inconsistent with how we see ourselves, a shadow is present.
  2. When we feel stuck or blocked with a real loss as to what to do next, a shadow is holding us back.
  3. As strengths become counterproductive, some hidden dynamics need to surface.
  4. When are are not open to new information, new learning, or other people’s views, a shadow is limiting us.
  5. If we react to circumstances with emotional responses disproportionate to the situation, we are right over the target of a shadow belief.
  6. When we find ourselves forcefully reacting to the limitations of others in a critical, judgmental way, we are often projecting our shadow onto others.
  7. If we often experience pain, trauma, or discomfort in our body, a shadow belief may be attempting to rise to the surface to seek reconciliation.

As I’ve faced my shadow beliefs, I’ve experienced greater peace in my life and become a more productive leader.

How about you? Are any shadow beliefs dogging your leadership?

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The iPhone App that Improved my Ability to Concentrate

One of the most precious commodities a pastor has is time. Ministry always beckons us to do more than time permits. I once heard a researcher state that most people have 35 hours of unfinished work ahead of them. However, if we use the time we have most effectively, we’ll become more fruitful for the Kingdom. This app has helps me concentrate better which has improved my time management.

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Preparing sermons, at least for senior pastors, is one of the most time consuming Kingdom commitments. Although I don’t preach every week, I still must prepare over 40 original messages each year. Each week I study 15-20 hours to prepare one sermon. That’s a good chunk of my week which requires concentration.

Some time back I purchased a $2.99 iPhone app that has proved invaluable to help me concentrate when I study. When I fully concentrate, I make much more progress than when my mind gets distracted.

That app, Ambiance, is a simple collection of natural (and man-made) sounds that I play on my iPhone through my headphones. They call it an “environment enhancer.” In case you are wondering, I don’t make money on the sale of this app and I’m not connected in any way to the company.

The standard iPhone earbuds work ok, but I purchased a pair of noise canceling headphones (Audio Technica) that block out most ambient noise. You can purchase more expensive ones, but this set works great for me. This would make a great Christmas present. They’re not Bose, but a third the price.

So when I study, I plug in, play a repetitive waterfall or beach sound, and become totally oblivious to the people and sounds around me. My ability to concentrate skyrockets. Science confirms that white noise helps us concentrate.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in Ephesians 5.16, … make every minute count. (CEV)

This simple $2.99 purchase has helped me put that command into practice.

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How to Deal with Ministry Pain

We all carry baggage not only from our family of origin, but also from our previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. How can we deal with this pain so that it doesn’t affect our families, ourselves, and our ministries? Consider these insights.

young desperate man suffering with hands on head in deep depression, pain , emotional disorder, grief and desperation concept isolated on black background with grunge studio lighting in black and white

First, recognize that these factors influence how heavy your baggage feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If it’s not good, you’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influence by your genetic makeup. Some people are more genetically pre-disposed toward anxiety and depression than others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. 
  • Your previous ministry setting.

Second, look to Jesus.

If dealing with your pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research indicates that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted 14 years earlier.

Third, admit that some leftover baggage from your prior ministry may still be weighing you down.

These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially derail your new start.

  1. With whom did you experience the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  2. How did you deal with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  3. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise to your awareness? Or are the emotions more like mild disappointment or sadness?
  4. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  5. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  6. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve this pain?

 Fourth, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage.

When I’ve faced ministry pain, I’ve sought professional help though psychologists and hired coaches who have helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. 

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in your prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

Years ago I heard a sermon that dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to two leaders who had hurt me in a prior church. I included a nice note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although sometimes I can still feel a tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God has used my pain to teach me much. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage you to inventory your life and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain and process it. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possible derail you and your ministry.

What has helped you process your ministry pain?

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[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.