Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.
- Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
- Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
- The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
- Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
- An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
- Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
- A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
- Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
- You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.
How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.
How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.
- Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
- Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
- Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
- If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
- Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
- Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
- Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
- Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.
Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?
The Red Zone: unsafe areas in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, a region of France decimated during WWI, the area on the field between the 20 yard line and the end zone in American football (source: wikipedia). The term Red Zone is a fairly well understood term that designates either a problem area or a heightened sense of alertness, as in the case of football. I’m extending that meaning to the emotional place many pastors and leaders find themselves in, sometimes without there even knowing it. Consider these subtle clues that may point to your being in the stress Red Zone. Mentally check the ones true of you.
10 indicators you are in the stress Red Zone
- You quickly walk by someone at church or at the office to avoid a conversation simply because you don’t have the energy to engage.
- Fun in ministry and life seems to have disappeared.
- When you come home your spouse says, “You look terrible.”
- When you come home you could go to bed, right then.
- You can’t shake the free floating anxiety that seems to cling to you.
- Small things that once didn’t bother you now set you off.
- You often ruminate over and rehearse negative issues in your ministry and/or life.
- You easily default to worse case scenario thinking.
- You feel anger coursing deep within.
- You’re not sleeping very well.
How many did you mentally check? If you checked any of these, you may be in the stress Red Zone.
Often leaders lead in such stress-filled environments that their bodies and brains are awash in the stress hormone, cortisol. When under stress, whether good or bad, our adrenal glands (located atop our kidneys) release this important hormone. Cortisol is not all bad. We need it in times of stress. However, it becomes harmful when we are perpetually under stress and our body gets overexposed to it and other stress related hormones.
Here’s what can happen to your body if it’s perpetually awash in cortisol.
- dampened immunity: you’ll get sick more often
- digestive problems
- heart disease
- weight gain
- impaired brain functioning, especially memory
- sleep impairment
So what can you do if you realize you are in the stress Red Zone? Consider these ideas.
- Make sure you regularly exercise as exercise can help reduce excessive cortisol in your body.
- Practice mindfulness as part of your spiritual formation process. My latest book includes an entire chapter on mindfulness.
- Get 30 minutes more sleep each night.
- Take your day off…really take it off. Don’t even look at email for 24 hours straight on your day off.
- Talk to a friend, your spouse, or a counselor about your stress. Others can often give us a more objective sense of reality which can reduce our stress.
What has helped you manage your stress and avoid being awash in cortisol?
Peter Drucker, one of the world’s greatest leadership experts, once listed what he considered the four hardest jobs in the world. Here are those four: President of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital, and a pastor. Wow, strong words from a wise man. Although I’ve not held the first three jobs, I have served as a pastor for over 35 years. It can be tough and pastors must care for their souls. Consider these 8 ways to refresh your tired soul.
- Do something totally different from ministry. Often pastors spend even their free time on ministry related pursuits and thoughts. Consider doing something totally different from the ministry vein. I once took improv classes I found very refreshing to my soul.
- Be okay with taking care of you. Pete Scazzero, most known for emotionally healthy spirituality, learned this the hard way and wrote these words.
- “The degree to which you love yourself corresponds to the degree to which you love others. Caring for ourselves was difficult for us to do without feeling guilty. We unwittingly thought that dying to ourselves for the sake of the gospel meant dying to marital intimacy and joy in life. We had died to something God had never intended we die to.” (www.christianity today.com/le/1998/winter/8l1063.html)
- Keep healthy boundaries with others. A boundary is a line that helps define those things for which we are responsible. They define who we are and who we are not; when properly managed they can bring us great freedom with others in our churches. I recommend Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s bestseller Boundaries for better understanding.
- Lighten up and laugh more often (not at others’ expense, though). Current research on how humor affects leadership has discovered that the most effective leaders use humor more often than less effective ones. (Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, Primal Leadership, 34).
- Build relationships with no ministry purpose in mind. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message Bible paraphrase said…
- “Pastors can lose touch with relational vitality when their relationships are driven by programmatic necessity. When this happens, pastors can lose the context for love, hope, faith, touch, and a kind of mutual vulnerability. In the midst of the congregation, pastors become lonely and feel isolated-and that isolation can be deadly to the pastoral life. Those are the conditions in which inappropriate intimacies flourish.” (http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=3280)
- Take care of your body through exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep.
- Master technology, don’t let it master you. I’m a techno geek. I was one of the original Mac owners and I use an iPhone and an iPad. I love electronic gadgets. I’m on Facebook. I tweet, text, e-mail, and blog. I’ve found, however, that technology can easily enslave me. It’s a battle yet when I control my technology, I’m more at peace. Interestingly, research has shown that the average worker is interrupted every eleven minutes and takes twenty-five minutes to refocus back on his job. I found that to be generally true in my life when I compulsively check e-mail.
- Periodically take a solo retreat. Occasionally I’ve taken a night and a day at a local retreat center. I’m usually the only one there. When I go, I think, pray, plan, write, and study. Those periodic getaways refresh my soul and help break me from the rigors of ministry, resetting my focus to respond appropriately to the stresses ministry brings.
What has helped add life to your soul as a pastor?
Four years ago I began serving a great church, West Park Church in London, Ontario, as their lead pastor. In retrospect realized I could not keep the pace I had initially set. I lacked what Dr. Richard A. Swenson, author of Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, calls margin. He defines margin as the “space between ourselves and our limits.” I had read the book years before, but had failed to heed its advice. Here’s what was happening in my leadership life.
- I left no white space in my Outlook calendar. I had packed every minute of my workday with some task or meeting, leaving no margin or white space for unexpected time demands.
- I was getting home late every day. I had planned to leave the office at 5.30 several days of the week to get home in time to exercise and then have dinner with my family at 6.30. I found myself working until 6.30 or later on many of my non-meeting nights (Wednesday is the night I reserved for meetings).
- I felt exhausted when I got up each day, even after 8 hours of sleep.
- I found myself wishing I didn’t have to go into work some mornings, although I thoroughly enjoy my work.
- I could not even stay awake to watch an entire episode of Criminal Minds, one of my favorite TV programs. After dinner I usually watch TV to wind down but I was so tired I couldn’t even make it half way through one episode.
- I began to experience mental exhaustion during my Sunday sermons, even after getting a full-night’s rest.
When I began to experience these symptoms, I knew that my leadership would soon suffer, if it hadn’t already. So what did I do to bring myself back into balance? I began to work on these seven behaviors.
- I first had to admit that I was wrong and that what I was doing bordered on sin.
- I shared my struggle with our board.
- I readjusted my schedule to include white space into at least two afternoons each week for unexpected issues.
- The elders asked me to take one full day at my home office for study, so as to minimize interruptions to my study at the office. This increased my study efficiency.
- I had to give away some responsibilities. We were currently short-staffed so more ‘stuff’ fell on my plate. I shared some of these projects with the elders and they graciously consented to deal with those issues.
- I increased the time I spend each morning in activities that make deposits in my soul, my quiet time and reading. I scheduled one hour each morning for this.
- I watched this short video where Bill Hybles explained how he replenishes his soul. He motivated me to become more serious about personal replenishment.
I still work a solid week every week in the ministry and love the work, but I believe I set myself on a sustainable path early on in my new role.
What has helped you keep healthy margins?
Addiction. Usually the word connotes a physical compulsion to drink or eat too heavily, use illicit drugs, or satisfy our sexual passions in sinful ways. Although some may, most pastors don’t get sucked into such destructive behavior. We are called to serve God with our whole hearts and we mostly stay clear of these issues. But, there is one thing that I’d guess many pastors are addicted to, yet don’t realize it. We can blame our brain on it.
The addiction? Dopamine. Dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters in our brain. It’s what we feel when we put the final touches on a sermon. It’s what we feel when we see an uptick in our blog followers on google analytics. It’s what we feel when we accomplish a goal or drink an energy drink.
Dopamine gives us a nice feel good kick. It’s involved in developing the more destructive addictions I mentioned above causing us to want a greater and greater ‘hit’ to feel good. The chemical is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure prompting us to seek out experiences that invoke it. We not only want it (the motivation) but we like it (the reward it brings).
All the above and more behaviors elicit dopamine which is released in the pleasure center of our brains called the nucleus accumbens. This structure lies just behind the front part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex.
It simply feels good to get things done. And when we feel good, our brains want to repeat the process so in turn, dopamine helps us form habits, whether good or bad.
So how do I know if I’m addicted to dopamine? Consider these possible indicators.
- I constantly check email. I might get a nice email from someone and when I do, it gives me a tiny shot of dopamine.
- I constantly need something new and novel to feel ‘right.’
- I constantly check Facebook to see if I got more ‘likes.’
- I feel jittery if I can’t look at email for a day or so.
- I have become compulsive about some things, like having to pick up every call that comes to my cell phone or home phone.
- I find that I’m more easily distracted than I once was.
- I can’t get through a day without caffeine or sugar (caffeine and sugar also gives us a nice dopamine fix).
- I’m often mentally exhausted even though I’ve not done mentally taxing tasks.
Fundamentally, when we get addicted to dopamine, we are seeking shots of it while often not doing anything truly productive (like constantly checking email).
So, what can we do if we think we are addicted to dopamine. Consider these ideas.
- Acknowledge that you have a problem.
- Turn off automatic email and social media notifications on your cell phone or computer.
- Take a day off each week when you don’t interact with email or social media.
- Make sure you spend time each day alone with God.
- Check out this entire website dedicate to dopamine addiction.
- Purposely don’t pick up a call when you hear the buzz on your cell phone. Do this for several days to convince yourself that you don’t have to.
What has helped you keep from being addicted to this subtle addiction?