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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The Bible says a lot about gratefulness. Answer these six questions to rank how grateful you are.
- Do you say “thank you” less than once a day or 2-3 times a day?
- Do you often spend time wishing/dreaming that things would be different or do you often thank God even in difficult circumstances?
- Do you often find fault with others or do you express a resilient, forgiving spirit, and grace filled spirit?
- Are most of the words that come out of your mouth critical/negative or positive/affirming?
- Do you have a demanding spirit, more often looking to others to meet your needs or do you look for ways to meet other’s needs?
- Do you blame others for your problems or do you easily take ownership of your problems?
The Psalmist often speaks about a thankful heart. We as leaders must do our best to model a attitude of gratitude for those we serve.
Psalm 69:30, “I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving.”
Psalm 95:2, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.”
Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”
What has helped you develop a thankful spirit?
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Several years ago I took improv classes in downtown Chicago to help develop my right-brain skills. I left mid-day to miss the traffic and then catch up on my task list at a table at Chipolte. One week, with my ear buds snug in my ears to block out noise, I focused on my “important” projects. I was busy, maybe too busy. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a dark haired sixty-ish women sitting at the table to my left. As she held a courtesy cup I watched her use a spoon to crush a few lemon slices in water. What happened next surprised me.
Something prompted me to ask her if she had anything to eat. In broken English she said that she hadn’t eaten all day. After we talked for a few moments I learned that she was Muslim, had immigrated from Turkey 5 years earlier, and had been homeless for 4 years.
As I heard her story God prompted me to say, “I want to buy you dinner.” At first she refused, but then with thankful tears she acquiesced. I bought her a chicken salad and a soft drink.
For the next 45 minutes I set aside my “important” tasks and simply listened to her stories, often as she gently cried. I learned her name, Sabria. I learned that a problem had occurred with her immigration papers that had led to her homelessness. Also, her husband had divorced her in Turkey decades prior, her parents were dead, and she never had children yet two sisters and a brother were still living. She told me that she refused to beg on the street and would not become a “dirty girl” which I understood to mean she refused to become a prostitute.
I told her that the meal (and some money I later gave her) was from Jesus and that I was a Christian. She responded with, “I like Jesus too.”
As my class time neared I asked if I could pray for her. Wide-eyed she said, “Ok.” After I prayed I left her my name and told her I’d be there every Wednesday at 5. I had an inkling that I might see her again (I did a few times).
Here’s what this “God encounter” with Sabria taught me.
- Too often I let tasks trump relationships.
- God brings opportunities to serve the “least of these” at inconvenient times.
- I can’t ignore the tasks that ministry requires, but when I am in task mode I must keep my spiritual “peripheral vision” active, looking for those “God moments” with the Sabrias of the world.
- God values everybody and so should I.
- True love always costs me something, my time, my money, my listening ear, my ….
Has God every encountered you in this way by interrupting your plans with His? What have you learned when He did?
Today, be on the lookout for your Sabria to whom God wants you to love.
Defensiveness: excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings (Dictionary.com). Every leader at times has probably reacted defensively to another. I have and I regret every single time I did. Leaders naturally face situations that can easily provoke a defensive reaction. But seldom does defensiveness move our churches and organizations forward. So how can we avoid defensiveness? I suggest 5 proactive ways.
- Realize the negative effects defensiveness breeds.
- When we react defensively to a co-worker, an employee, a board member, or a church member, seldom does good come from it. We can shut down the other person or we may incite defensiveness in them which can further escalate a conflict. We can lose the benefit of another’s insight. We can damage a relationship. If we often act defensively, we can create a reputation that can drive others away from us and from important information we need to hear. We can even lose our jobs.
- Keep your stress level low.
- If stress stays at a high level for any length of time, our brain’s fight-flight mechanism gets stuck on hypersensitivity and makes us more prone to defensiveness. Prolonged stress even atrophies some parts of our brain, especially the area involved in memory. But if we manage our stress, the thinking part of our brain stays more engaged and our emotional part less sensitive. Sufficient sleep, time off, good friends, exercise, and fun hobbies can keep our stress low. In this post I suggest specific steps to lessen stress.
- Understand where emotions come from in your body and brain.
- We get defensive when we feel threatened by someone and a domino effect begins in our bodies and brains. Simply knowing how this happens can help us pause before we react. Here’s how the process works.
- Defensiveness starts with a stimulus: someone says something that makes us feel threatened.
- Next, an emotion begins at an unconscious level. Chemicals course through our nervous system and hormones flow into our blood stream prompted by a brain structure called the amygdala. This happens within 1/5 of a second, without our conscious awareness.
- Then we become conscious of an unpleasant sensation (the feeling) within ½ of a second. We feel angry, anxious, or fearful without even choosing the emotion.
- Next, the thinking part of our brain comes online: we pay attention, we assess the situation, we interpret it, and we decide what to do.
- THE SPACE (see number 4 below)
- Finally we respond with some action in response to the feeling and our assessment of the situation. In our case, we get defensive.
- Recognize THE SPACE between stimulus and response.
- THE SPACE is the moment in time between a stimulus (what someone said which resulted in an unpleasant feeling…anger, fear, etc.) and our response (defensiveness). That brief slice of time precedes EVERY choice we make. THE SPACE always gives us time to choose how we will respond. We are not captives to our feelings. We always choose what we do in response to circumstances and our feelings.
So, when I get defensive, I can’t blame my wife, my kids, lack of sleep, the board, or Obama. It is my choice. However, we can lengthen that space with my suggestion in number 5.
- Create more space between stimulus and response by leaning into the resources the Lord provides.
- Number 2 above, lower your stress level, is crucial to helping us create more space between stimulus and response. However, our ultimate source of strength lies in a growing and abiding faith in Christ. When the Egyptians were hot on the trail of Moses and the Israelites, the people started to freak out. But Moses wisely said in Exodus 14.14, The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. God’s supernatural resources, when we draw upon them, gives us the ability to refuse to react and resist defensiveness.
So, the next time you feel tempted to get defensive, consider these thoughts and look to the example of Jesus when he hung on the cross.
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2.23, NIV)
What has helped you avoid defensiveness?
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.
- What pastors should look for in safe people
- 6 Ways to Build Community in your Team