Recently I’ve been reading a lot about how to view problems in ministry and leadership through a different lens. A concept developed in the late 50’s and 60’s by a psychologist, Murray Bowen, has shed some brilliant light on the subject for me; so brilliant, in fact, that I wish I understood this concept 25 years ago. Had I learned it and applied it then, I could have saved myself a lot of grief as a pastor and as a father as I respond to critics. The concept is called family systems. Don’t let the title fool you, though. It’s not all about your immediate family. This concept has profound implications for leadership in the church.
One of the best writers on the subject, Peter Steinke, a Christian psychologist, wrote the book How Your Church Family Works. It’s a great primer on family systems that directly applies to churches.
At the core of family systems is understanding emotional process and specifically, how we manage our anxiety, a term used for any negative emotion. In one of Steinke’s chapters he writes about those who criticize us. When I read his two paragraphs I paused and said to myself, “Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way before.”
Read it below and tell me how it hits you.
Pursuit behavior is any behavior that overfocuses on another person….
By far the most difficult form of pursuit behavior to recognize is criticism. How can those who act adversarially be said to be in pursuit? We feel alienated, not close. But the criticism is characterized by overfocus. The “stinger” and the “stung” are emotionally connected. Whenever a gnawing critic gets inside our brain cells and we can’t expunge him, we are connected, even if negatively. Whenever someone gets under our skin, we are infected with anxiety. If we are reactive to a pursuer, the pursuit behavior achieves its goal: connection. Strange as it sounds, the critic wants to be close. After all, if we can’t be close through play, ecstasy, touch, and nurture, our only option to accomplish closeness is through angry outbursts, specious charges, or harsh accusations. People feel close to us when they know we are thinking about them. What we think is not as important as that we are thinking of them. We play into the hands of the criticizer when we react to their invasion rather than define ourselves to it. (p 88 of How your Church Family Works).
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
10 Ways to Respond to the Church Critic
How to Deal with Criticism
Google is ubiquitous. As the largest search engine, it has become a common term in our vernacular as, just ‘Google it.’ A couple of years ago Google assigned a team to discover ingredients for effective teams. Five key learnings surfaced from that study. In this post I’ve summarized them with a key question for each because they apply to ministry teams as well as to workplace teams.
Key ingredients that create effective teams.
- Impact: Team members believe that their work really matters.
- Meaning: Team members view their work as personally important to them.
- Structure and Clarity: Team members understand clearly their roles, plans, and goals.
- Dependability: Team members meet Google’s high bar of excellence including on-time delivery of projects.
- Psychological safety: Team members feel safe enough with fellow team members that they are willing to risk and be vulnerable with each other.
Which one do you believe was the most important quality? If you picked psychological safety, you were right. Although all were important, feeling safe with fellow team members mattered the most.
As I thought about that, it makes sense. Psychological safety seems to be the most interpersonal ingredient. If a job only entails spending time in front of a computer all day on a project that requires not interface interaction with others, it probably wouldn’t matter as much. But interpersonal relationships profoundly affect our emotional health and our spiritual health. That’s why the Bible talks so much about healthy relationships.
Here are key questions to ask yourself about each of these qualities as it relates to the teams you lead.
- Impact: When was the last time you asked your team members if they felt their work/ministry really mattered?
- Meaning: When was the last time you communicated to a team member how important their role and ministry was?
- Structure/clarity: Does each team member have a clearly stated job description and goals for the year that you co-created with them?
- Dependability: How well do you model excellence and the attributes you hope they will emulate?
- Safety: On a scale of 1-10, how safe do you think your team feels with you? This assessment is an excellent way to discover how safe your team feels.
Next week, pick one of these qualities and take 30 minutes to evaluate what you can do to improve that area.
BFF: Shorthand for “best friends forever” Dictionary definition: “Used mostly by teen girls when texting”
You may have never used this texting shorthand, but the concept captures essential human nature. We all want a few best friends. We need them. In fact, the Scriptures speak positively about friends
- A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Prov 17.17, NIV)
- A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Prov 18.24)
- If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! (Eccl 4.10)
But considering leadership teams, should we fill our upper level teams such as deacons, elders, or key leadership staff with best friends? I share a true story below from a pastor friend, but I’ve changed the details enough to protect anonymity.
My pastor friend’s church in the south was lead by a deacon board of four men plus himself. He was considered the board’s leader and the four other members were very close. Two of the deacons had been roommates in college and stayed close friends. One of those deacons was the best friend of the third member on the board. And the fourth member of the board met each week with the third deacon in a discipleship relationship. You can see that these four were very tight in one way or another. The pastor was friends with all the deacons, but not close to any of them.
Over the years at his church conflict began to rise between he and the board. It seemed that he was the odd man out each time they discussed a new initiative or direction for the church. The other four seemed to always be in agreement with each other, usually in opposition to how the pastor viewed things. Ultimately, the tension became so great that he left the church after 10 years and began to teach at a seminary.
Although other issues were certainly at play, groupthink seemed to influence the four members of the board. The BFF’s appeared blind to any other perspective except to the views of their four friends on the board.
So, based on this scenario and your experiences, what have been the pros and cons you’ve seen in boards or key leadership teams when most of those in those groups were BFF’s? Did the friendships help or hinder decision making? Did groupthink result or did the Holy Spirit simply use their kinship (like David and Jonathon in the Bible) to help them make good decisions?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Wise leaders and pastors understand that lasting change requires individuals to change first before an organization will change. Your change won’t last or will disrupt your church unless those in your teams personally embrace the change first, at least at some level. So it behooves us to first understand why most people initially resist change. Brain insight helps us understand hidden processes around which we can design our change initiatives. Awareness of how people’s brains work in response to change can help you craft more lasting changes. Here are eight reasons why change is hard.
- People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive. Two-thirds of the brain cells in the flight-fight part of our brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on the negative (Hanson, 2010). Most people’s initial response to change comes from these emotional centers rather than from their thinking centers.
- People usually fill in knowledge gaps with fear instead of faith. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear. The less information and the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear and resistance to change.
- We don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. That’s not simply a quaint saying. Neuroscientists have shown it to be true (Lount et al., 2008). Poorly introduced change will always start your change on the wrong footing.
- Emotions influence receptivity to change. Just presenting facts without engaging positive and hopeful emotions will seldom move your team forward. Although we may prefer it not to be so, most people make decisions based on emotion.
- The brain can only handle so much change at once. Trying to create too much change too quickly can engage the brain’s fear center and cause people to resist, thus hindering change (Hemp, 2009).
- Old habits die hard. The older we get we more easily default to what we know. It’s like a river that for many years has cut a deep gorge in the earth. It would be hard to change its course. It simply becomes harder to think about other options. Our brain’s habit centers more easily kick in as we age. It’s like a tug-of-war between the familiar and easy (what we are used to, our habits) and the unfamiliar and difficult (the change).
- Resistance to change often increases the closer you get to the change. People’s response to change changes over time. Let’s say you introduce a change that will take place a year from now (you plan to add an early service on Sundays). Initially your staff easily sees benefits that an early service can provide such as more space and more service options. The negatives such as more work, recruiting more volunteers, and a longer day loom very large at that point. Neuroscientists have discovered that when the change is far away, the positives usually outweigh the negatives (Lw et al., 2008). However, the closer we get to the change we get more fearful as we think about the implications and the personal cost (i.e., “Now I have to arrive at church two hours earlier each Sunday). The cost becomes more concrete whereas further away from the change the positives stood out more. So the closer you get to beginning the new service, the more it can feel like a threat to your staff. Uninformed optimism gives way to informed pessimism.
- The brain often interprets change as a threat which in turn creates resistance. The brain is organized around a fundamental principle: Minimize threat-maximize reward that results in either resistance or openness. Change seems like a threat which often breeds resistance from others. Change brings uncertainty and the brain doesn’t like uncertainty.
So, the next time you begin to think about change, keep these brain insights in mind when you craft your plan.
What else have you seen in others that makes them averse to change?
“I just learned 8 brain-based insights that create resistance to change from others.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).
Hanson, R. (2010) Confronting the Negativity Bias [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 31 January 2013].
Hemp, P. (2009) Death by Information Overload – Harvard Business Review [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 20 March 2013].
Lount, R.B., Zhong, C.-B., Sivanathan, N. & Murnighan, J.K. (2008) Getting Off on the Wrong Foot: The Timing of a Breach and the Restoration of Trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (12), pp.1601-1612.
Lw, A., Lang, P.J., Smith, J.C. & Bradley, M.M. (2008) Both predator and prey: emotional arousal in threat and reward. Psychological Science, 19 (9), pp.865-873.
Some time ago I read Andy Stanley’s book Deep and Wide. It’s a must-read for every ministry leader. In one chapter he poses 5 questions that are deeply telling about a church’s direction and impact. At your next staff meeting, pose these five questions and give your staff the freedom to answer honestly. Better yet, email them a few days prior to the meeting and ask each staffer to record his or her answers. Then, bring the answers to your meeting.
Below I’ve slightly modified each since you don’t have the context where they appeared unless you’ve read the book.
- As a church are we moving Kingdom priorities forward or are we simply meeting?
- Are we making a measurable difference in our local community or simply conducting services?
- Are we organized around a mission or are we organized around an antiquated ministry model inherited from a previous generation?
- Are we allocating resources as if Jesus is the hope of the world or are the squeaky wheels of church culture driving our budget decisions?
- If we ceased to exist as a church, would the community miss us (my question)?
What other key questions do you think we should regularly ask about our ministry’s effectiveness?
“I just learned 5 probing questions to ask key leaders in my church.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)