Leaders, Stop Taking Your Brains for Granted

“We can’t ignore that our brains are inescapably connected to our spiritual experiences and ministry.”

Besides personal health, a minister’s mental well-being directly impacts those they serve. Chronic stress depresses the brain’s ability to release oxytocin—what one Christian counselor has called “shalom packed into a chemical.” Oxytocin’s role is to connect humans. It releases during potent bonding moments like sex, childbirth and breast-feeding—but it also is present during many simple interactions of contact and connection. On a chemical level, it helps us experience the depth and benefit of life in community. It’s in the hug at the men’s breakfast, held hands in prayer at the women’s retreat, shrieks and splashing at the middle school carwash. It rewards us for being with others, and bonds us to them. Besides drawing us together, oxytocin is shown to promote faithful monogamy, increase social skills and generosity, regulate the heart and even aid digestion.

This means that the stress of ministry not only harms a leader’s body, shortens a leader’s lifespan and diminishes a leader’s happiness, it also depresses their ability for healthy and intimate human connection—from sexual health, to engaging in real friendships, to shaking hands at the end of a sermon. Without balance, the stress of ministry undoes the purpose of ministry. And like nerves, this all leads back to the brain.

We are brain-entitled until something happens to shake it out of us. Most of us have spent far more time thinking about our hair than the marvel of creation that quietly works beneath it. We forget it, to our loss.

It’s time we learn how to steward our body’s most precious gift.

Minding the Gap

Few have integrated brain research with Christian life and ministry more effectively than Charles Stone, author of Brain Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry (Abingdon, 2015). In his writing and speaking, Stone combines the dual roles of self-described “brain geek” and seasoned pastor.

The union has personal roots. After manifesting disturbing symptoms on Christmas Day, 1987, Stone’s 1-year-old daughter, Tiffany, was diagnosed with an “irregularity” in her brain—a lesion that blotched white across a CT scan. Stone recalls the doctor mustering his courage to deliver the bottom line: “A brain tumor.”

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With those words, life became a neurological education earned the hardest way. Stone witnessed his daughter’s experiences of six brain surgeries (one performed by one-time presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson), therapy and medical analysis, learning the terminology and function of the organ firsthand.

Tiffany is 26 today, seizure-free and studying for hospital chaplaincy. But the past 25 years were a deeply personal introduction for her father into the intricacies and trials of the brain. Along the way, he began seeing fascinating connections with ministry, bridging the apparent gap between faith leadership and neurology.

On a gray afternoon, I walk to the woods behind our house and call Charles. I want to talk brain stewardship. He’s affable on the phone, with a light Southern twang.

“We don’t hear pastors talk about the brain that much,” Stone begins. “We take it for granted, sometimes even feeling nervous about engaging something that can seem antithetical to faith. But if we embrace the great contributions of brain science to understand ourselves, we discover great resources for our ministry.

“On an individual level we take the brain completely for granted, too. We don’t think about it until we get a series of bad headaches, or become forgetful, or our doctor orders an MRI. But we shouldn’t wait for a breakdown. We have so many opportunities for awareness.

“It all comes down to ‘metacognition’—thinking about our thinking.” Stone pauses. “It’s easy to do, but hard to remember to do. All people, all Christians, all leaders, get caught up in an automatic mode of living. We rarely halt long enough to examine ourselves. Brain science shows that everyone has a “direct mode,” focusing on particular goals. We also have a “gestalt mode,” a narrative mode that happens when we daydream, for example. It helps us contextualize, make sense of things. One of the negative effects of the busy living of most pastors is that our brains never drop out of direct mode. There’s no space for gestalt. The brain can’t place our daily experiences into the perspective of our larger story. Unconsciously, that exhausts us.”

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He continues. “Paul, there are so many links between our bodies and our brains. Say my stress levels are high—boosting my cortisol levels for two or three months. God created the stress response chemicals to provide energy and focus when we need to fight or flee. They slow digestion, increase our heart rate, dilate our eyes. This can be lifesaving when we need it. But chronically triggered? It hammers our brain and body, hurting our health and effectiveness. The effects are far ranging. Stress actually shrinks your neurons.

“What an ‘Aha!’ moment, when we realize that we can be doing all the right things spiritually, but miss the brain’s basic role in our well-being and productivity. We may not link stressors directly to their impact on us. But in fact, they’re dampening creativity, hindering problem solving, holding back sharp thinking, decision making—and those are just the cognitive impacts.”

“How has this influenced your thoughts on spiritual formation?” I ask.

“It added a new dimension,” Stone replies. “I think of formation more holistically now. There are huge implications here for Christians—opportunities for us to grow in experiencing God’s peace, or an explanation for why we’re struggling so much with a particular relationship. These kinds of realizations have revolutionized my ministry.