10 Indicators You Have no Margin in your Life

In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.

He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.

  1. I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
  2. Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
  3. I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
  4. I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
  5. Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
  6. I often worry about what others think of my performance.
  7. I too easily take things personally.
  8. I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
  9. I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
  10. My devotional times with God are mostly dry.

If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.

If that’s so, what should you do?

When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.

  1. Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
  2. Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
  3. Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
  4. Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
  5. Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.

    After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.

What has helped you gain better margin?

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4 Ways to Become a More Grateful Leader

Ministry challenges can often rob our joy. Mounting problems, unhappy people, and never ending ministry demands often leave us with little emotional reserve to appreciate the good. What do we do when that happens? While not sticking our head in the sand about our problems, how can we bring joy back into our leadership? I believe becoming more grateful can help…a lot. Consider these 4 ways to become a more grateful leader.

1. Realize the practical benefits gratefulness brings.

Recent research has shown multiple benefits of gratefulness (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Benefits include these.

  • You will feel better about life in general.
  • You will be more optimistic and experience more positive emotions.
  • You will be less likely to be depressed.
  • You will physical feel better.
  • You will be more likely to help others.

2. Practice the discipline of metacognition.

Metacognition is the term for thinking about what you are thinking about. Often we are unaware that incessant chatter and mental rumination about problems replays in our minds, like a scene in a dvd that’s stuck a loop. When that happens, negative thinking can snowball so that we lose perspective and only see the negative. However, when we consciously make ourselves aware of that video playing on our mind (periodically check in on our thinking), we can stop the problem tape and ‘reinsert’ a gratitude tape.

The Apostle Paul wisely points this out in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

3. Re-frame problems as learning opportunities or as ways that God can work.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We can’t avoid problems in ministry. But we do have the choice on how we choose to perceive them. When we gratefully re-frame a problem as an opportunity for God to work, it can motivate us to focus on solutions. And creating solutions gives the brain something it loves, certainty. Creating action plans and goals to solve a problem gives us a burst of the feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps motivate us toward further action.

4. Keep a journal of blessings.

In one study (Korb, 2012) researchers asked participants to keep a daily journal of what they were grateful for. They asked another group to write about what annoyed them. The group who recorded what they were grateful for showed greater determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other group. So, journaling what you are grateful for is a proven way to increase gratefulness.

What has helped you become a more grateful leader?

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Sources:

  • Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
  • Korb,A. (2012) The Grateful Brain 

4 Obstacles Pastors Face in Setting Boundaries

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote the wildly popular book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of your Life. Dr. Cloud also wrote Boundaries for Leaders. I recommend them both. Essentially a boundary for a ministry leader or a pastor is like a property line around your yard, only in this case that yard is your soul. Healthy boundaries make for healthy souls. Unhealthy boundaries make for unhealthy souls.

In my 34 years in ministry, I’ve seen many pastors with poor boundaries. Sometimes I’ve not kept healthy ones myself. Why is that so? I suggest 4 reasons and 4 potential ways to build healthy boundaries.

First, our call and vocation is rooted in our desire to help people. And helping people takes time, and lots of it. If you are successful as a ministry leader, people with needs will keep coming your way. So, you’ll never check everything off your ministry to-do list. There will always be one more person who needs to hear the Gospel, one more person who needs prayer, one more person to counsel, one more call or email to return, one more hour you could spend polishing your sermon, etc., etc. Our vocational call places us in a position where needs will always vie for our attention.

  • Solution: Remind yourself that Jesus didn’t heal everybody and he didn’t make himself available 24/7. In fact, he often spent time along with His heavenly father away from people. If the Son of God needed healthy boundaries, it seems that we do too.

Second, our 24/7 connected world makes it hard to disconnect. I recall the first cell phone I owned. It was a Motorola flip phone that looked like a brick with one edge angled. It was novel and fun. Few other people owned cell phones at the time. And because cell phone usage was expensive, I didn’t give out my number to many people. So, I didn’t have to field many calls even though I looked cool as it hung off my belt. As cell phones evolved from ‘stupid’ phones to ‘smart’ phones they no longer served as tools for talking. Now not only can someone call us, but they can text and email us. My current phone is actually set up to send me a text when I miss a call (ugh!). We can be reached 24/7 in multiple ways which blurs boundaries.

  • Solution: Put your phone away after 6 pm. Don’t answer emails after 6. Don’t put your cell phone next to your bed even if you put it on vibrate. If it’s within reaching distance, you’re still connected.

Third, our brains are social. Neuroscientists are now learning boatloads about how our brains impact life and leadership. It’s one of my passions and why I’m pursuing a masters in the neuroscience of leadership. And next year my book Brain-Based Leadership: The Science of Significant Ministry comes out. This month Leadership Journal’s theme is called Neuro-ministry: How Brain Science Informs Discipleship. I wrote this article in that issue for LJ on neuroscience and communication.

When I say our brains are social I mean that human interaction stir ups biological processes within our brains. When we say, ‘No’ to someone (we attempt to establish a boundary) and feel disapproval from them, it actual hurts. Even mild forms of rejection light up the same parts of our brains that register physical pain. Since it actually feels bad, we often acquiesce to a request and say, ‘Yes’ to avoid that uncomfortable feeling that rejection brings. In doing so, we again blur our boundaries.

  • Solution: Expect to feel an uncomfortable emotional tinge when you try to establish a boundary and feel disapproval from another. Remind yourself that feeling that way is normal. Give yourself an hour and the feeling will fade, as long as you don’t feed it by ruminating on what the other person is thinking after you said, ‘No.’

Fourth, we want to feel needed. God gave us a desire to feel needed, that we matter, that what we do counts. And when we help others, preach a good sermon, or lead a meeting well, it feeds our souls and feels good. However, sometimes we can get hooked on feeling good. Dopamine, one of the feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) moves into our brain’s pleasure centers when we accomplish a goal (preach a good sermon, etc.). Serotonin is another one we feel when we get an ‘atta-boy’ from another. Just as some people get addicted to alcohol and drugs because it feels good (they affect neurotransmitter production), we can can addicted to the jolt we get when we serve another well or check off something on our to-do list. Addiction to affirmation and accomplishment can subtly overtake our motivations and blur our boundaries. In this post I discuss how to leverage four key brain chemicals.

  • Solution: Ask yourself if you may be addicted to feeling good. Can you take your day off and turn off ‘productivity’ and ‘helping others?’ If you can’t, I’d read Cloud’s two books on boundaries.

How do you keep healthy boundaries?

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Jesus-rest

3 Simple Brain Boosts for a Healthy Brain

Pastors and leaders need healthy brains to lead well. A healthy brain helps us become more resilient, be more present for those we lead, think more clearly, and, well, lead better. Neuroscientists can peer into our brains and are learning what makes them tick and how we can take better care of them. Here are 3 simple brain boosts anybody can practice.

3 Simple Brain Boosts for a Healthy Brain.

  1. Fertilize your brain with your brain’s Miracle-Gro. The brain’s Miracle-Gro chemical, BDNF, short for brain derived neurotrophic factor, literally fertilizes your brain. It promotes growth of brain cells and strengthens their connections. One of the best ways to boost this chemical is by exercising. So, get on your bike or put on your running shoes and walk, jog, or bike three to four times a week. Your brain will love it. More here and here about exercise and the brain.
  2. Improve your memory by getting some extra sleep. We live in a sleep deprived world. The latest figures say indicate that 35% of the population gets 7 hours of sleep or less. And we actually need more like eight. In fact, Dr. Daniel Gartenberg, one of the world’s most renowned sleep expert says that 8.5 hours is now the new 8 hours. A good night’s sleep helps the brain discard unneeded information and solidify those memories we need to store, a process called consolidation. So, start going to bed 30 minutes earlier. Your brain will love that too. Take this quiz to find out if you are sleep deprived.
  3. Calm your emotions with mindful breaks throughout the day. Ancient monks practiced something called statio. It was a mini-pause between one task and the next. It served as a transition to leave what they were doing and mentally and spiritually prepare for the next task. Today it’s called mindfulness, a practice that helps us be fully present in the moment and calm our anxious emotions. My next book comes out in March and it deals with mindfulness from a Christian perspective. More about that in the months ahead. You can learn more about mindfulness here. Again, your brain will love it.

So, pick one of these and try it out next week.

 

10 Ways Pastors can Escape the Ministry Stress Zombie Zone

In a previous post I discussed how ministry stress can sometimes make pastors feel like zombies: listless, unmotivated, and mentally distracted. Many of you took the Zombie Zone Quiz to find out if you were in that zombie zone. If ministry stress is draining you, this post offers some practical guidance.

pastors under stress

purchased from Deposit Photos

If you currently feel like a zombie pastor, what can you do to renew your passion, energy, and zest for ministry? Consider these 10 simple steps that can help you regain your joy and step into God’s healthy zone.

  1. Admit that something is out of kilter in your life. Simply naming the problem is your first step to solving it.
  2. Share with a safe friend that you feel like a zombie and ask him or her for prayer and support.
  3. Take an honest look at your average week. Does it include a full day of rest when you disconnect from all things ministry?
  4. Start getting 30 more minutes of sleep each night.
  5. Schedule time each day when you email or do social networking. Don’t get sucked into them every hour.
  6. Ask the Lord to renew your strength.
    • But those who wait upon GOD get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind. (Is. 40.31)
  7. Do something fun that you enjoy doing. Make a date with yourself each week and do it. Don’t feel guilty that you are taking time for yourself.
  8. If it’s serious, find a coach or counselor who can help you dig out. Even if it’s not serious, periodically see a coach or counselor to help give you perspective.
  9. Ask your closest friends and family to tell you when they sense you are mentally preoccupied. When they tell you, write down what was on your mind. Learn how to catch yourself when you become preoccupied with those thoughts so you can change them and become more present with others.
  10. Practice silence and solitude. See the related posts below for insight on this important spiritual practice.

How do you keep yourself emotionally and spiritually healthy so that you don’t become a zombie pastor?

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