6 Reasons Pastors and Leaders Need Adequate Sleep

For many years scientists and philosophers have pondered why we need sleep besides to not be sleepy. Of course we all intuitively know how important sleep is to our bodies, relationships, and walk with God. But as neuroscientists are learning more about the brain, they are discovering many positive brain benefits from sleep. This list below includes some of those benefits.

  1. Sleep improves mood. And people catch a leader’s mood. It’s called emotional contagion. If we regularly don’t get enough sleep, it can make us grumpy and negative. If we carry a bad mood to church, it rubs off on others. The reverse holds true as well. A good mood rubs off on others.
  2. Sleep enhances memory. When we sleep our brain turns short term memory into long-term memory. It’s called memory consolidation. Without adequate sleep, consolidation suffers.
  3. Sleep improves decision making. When we don’t get adequate sleep we can become more rigid in our thinking and less adaptable. Rigid thinking impairs good decision making.
  4. Sleep improves creativity. Studies have shown that sleep facilitates insight because the brain is still active while we sleep. Among other things, it uncovers novel connections between seemingly disparate ideas. The old adage “sleep on it” really is true.
  5. Sleep improves our ability to pay attention. Great leaders listen well to others and have the ability to maintain attention to important tasks. Lack of sleep degrades our brain’s ability to pay attention.
  6. Sleep clears out the brain’s ‘trash’ to make it more effective. Neuroscientists have discovered that during waking hours toxins collect in our brains while sleep literally cleans them out.

If you regularly don’t get enough sleep, your leadership may be suffering. The writer of Ecclesiates writes, The sleep of a laborer is sweet. (Ecc 5.12, NIV)

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My 7 Do-Overs after 39 Years in Ministry

In my 39 years in ministry I’ve served as a singles pastor, discipleship pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and as a lead pastor where I currently serve. I’ve served in the deep south (the land of grits), the southwest (the land of Mexican buffets), the far west (the land of fish tacos), the mid-west (the land of Chicago hot-dawgs), and now in Canada (the land of poutine; I wondered what that was too. Google it.). Three kids, two grandkids, and five books later, each experience has made me a more rounded leader. Yet, as I look back, I think I’d have done a few things differently. Here’s a list of my do-overs.

  1. I wouldn’t have been so much a people pleaser.
  2. I would have carved out more time to think and reflect.
  3. I would have more consistently disconnected one day each week.
  4. I would have spent more time building closer friendships with other pastors.
  5. I would have turned off my smart phone and computer more often.
  6. I would have read twice as many books as I actually did.
  7. I would have listened more and talked less.

As I enter not my life’s ‘half-time’ but more like my life’s ‘3/5’s-time, I hope to apply some of these lessons better going forward.

What would be your biggest do-over?

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4 Subtle Signs of Stress

For years doctors have warned us that prolonged stress can hurt our bodies such as causing high blood pressure and stomach problems. But as neuroscientists learn more about our brains, they’re discovering that stress can diminish brain functioning which in turn shows up in subtle ways in our bodies. Take the quick self evaluation below and ask yourself if any of these are true of you.

  1. I seem a bit more forgetful. Prolonged stress actually diminishes our memory because it can shrink a key memory center called the hippocampus. 
  2.  I don’t feel as motivated as I usually do. A key brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called norepinephrine helps us stay alert and focused in the right amounts. However prolonged stress decreases it which can lessen our motivation. 
  3. Things I once enjoyed seem less enjoyable now. Dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, activates our pleasure centers so that things such as finishing a task and eating actually feel good. Stress dampens this important chemical which can result in less pleasure from what we normally enjoy. 
  4. I feel more ‘blue’ than I usually do. Again, another neurotransmitter is at play here, serotonin, which regulates mood. As you might expect, stress dampens its availability in the brain. Most depression medicines aim to regulate serotonin in the brain. 

So prolonged stress clearly impacts our brains which negatively affects our daily lives. It behooves us to wisely manage it. In a future post I’ll suggest some simple ways to deal with stress.

How many of these indicators were true of you?

What other indicators of stress have you seen in yourself or others?

Have have you effectively dealt with stress?

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9 Ways to Boost Brain Power

God gave each of us a two-pound dynamo called the human brain. It’s truly the most amazing physical object in the universe. Yet, many people (and leaders) don’t take care of their brains and later in life they pay the price. However, we can keep boost our brain power and keep our brains healthy and humming along with 9 simple choices.

First, some sobering facts about the brain.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) also begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

These brain changes lead to memory loss, decreased attention, slowed mental processing, and lessens our ability to learn. However, even with these sobering facts, we can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and keep our brains healthy by applying these 9 choices

9 Ways to Boost Brain Power

  1. Get moving.
    • Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. When we exercise, a chemical called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) is released and it keeps our neurons healthy. Some call it the brain’s Miracle Grow.
  2. Use it our lose it.
    • Think of your brain as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. The more we use our brain, the more we create something called cognitive reserve, the brain’s savings account. As we age, the more cognitive reserve we have developed, the more capacity the brain has to reallocate functions to other regions of the brain from regions that may not be working as well.
  3. Make lots of friends. 
    • Staying connected to others in community helps keep your brain fresh.
  4. Volunteer/serve others.
    • People who volunteer have a much less chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease and have less stress. Prolonged stress on the body can actually shrink our brain, especially in our memory center.
  5. Keep you devotional life strong.
    • At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistenly have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time may help you live longer.
  6. Don’t veg in front of the TV.
    • In some sobering new research, scientists have discovered that watching too much TV can alter the brain structure of children in areas related to verbal intelligence. So, monitor the amount of TV you watch.
  7. Eat your spinach.
    • A healthy diet is crucial for brain health. Foods such as dark leafy veggies, blueberries, green tea, and those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (the brain’s building blocks) bodes well for a healthy brain. Some supplements such MCT oil, vitamins E and B, and CoQ10 may also boost brain power. Learn more here about some of the best brain supplements.
  8. Learn something new.
    • The brain loves novelty. When we learn something new (learn a new skill or develop a new hobby), we actually encourage growth of new brain cells.
  9. Get adequate sleep.
    • When we sleep the brain is quite active. It consolidates what we learned that day into long-term memory and helps grow new neurons in our memory center (the hippocampus). Sleep also clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in Alzheimer’s disease.

Take care of your brain and it will serve you well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, check out my last book , Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

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Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor and person faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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