Leaders, Stop Taking Your Brains for Granted

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

“Pastors often talk about spiritual formation in incomplete ways. We can forget that formation includes the body as well as the soul. The more we integrate them, the more effective we will be in helping people be formed in the faith. Yes, we have a soul that goes beyond our brain function, no question. But that gap isn’t wide. We don’t live the Christian life separately from our bodies—and that includes the brain.

“Many writers in the brain field come back to ‘mindfulness’—being fully present in the moment—as a powerful way to integrate this. It does amazing things for health and well-being, for productivity, for creativity. I’ve added it to my personal spiritual disciplines, and it’s helped me so much. Now, I bring those values into my leadership and ministry—particularly during stressful times. Every morning I spend time doing breath exercises. They encourage me to begin my day with mindfulness.”

Stone tells me about an app on his computer that slowly blacks the screen out at pre-determined intervals as a prompt to close his eyes and check in with himself. “It sounds like a high-tech version of monastery chimes,” I respond. “A regular call to contemplation.”

He gets excited—“Exactly. The contemplative Christian traditions practice this kind of mindfulness all the time. I may have my differences with Catholicism or Orthodox theology, but they have centuries of practice that brain science confirms as powerful. Now when some scientists limit the human experience—saying that our spirituality is limited to our cognitive functions—I completely disagree. But we can’t ignore that our brains are inescapably connected to our spiritual experiences and ministry. And when we see the ways that neuroscience and faith connect, amazing things begin to happen. We begin to add brain health to the list of ways that we can bring our whole person to love and serve God and his people. We can learn from the practices of antiquity. We can learn from modern science. They complement our work.

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“And that work spreads. Neuroscience shows ‘emotional contagion’—the idea that we ‘catch’ somebody else’s emotions. We’ve all felt this in a church. Stress breeds stress. Joy spreads too. Our internal worlds spill out. Our emotional and spiritual life directly affects those we lead. My own emotional or mental weakness spreads. And the good news is that the reverse is true: Steps toward my well-being directly impact my staff and our whole church culture.”

Stewarding our own brains helps others steward theirs.

Stewards of the Mind

I gently pull the electrodes from my head, and look at Josh.

“Your brain is fine,” Josh said, “but there is something going on we can’t see yet. If it was someone else, I’d assume that you’d experienced trauma.” He knows me, knows my story—I have no history of abuse or other obvious factors for trauma. “All I can say definitely is that it’s as if your brain is a computer running a script. Part of the computing power is used up, working on something that’s not resolved.” He laughs.

“The scary thing is thinking about what you’d be able to do with that computing energy freed up!” I laugh too, and we joke, tongue in cheek, about telekinesis and my untapped genius. I thank him, and leave. I didn’t take any answers, but I took new appreciation. Driving away, I had never felt so in awe of the mystery of my own brain.

Months later, after my call with Stone, some inner neural pathway fires. Humans have always taken the brain for granted. We have always needed a call to prayer, as it were, some reminder and rhythm of mindfulness that recalls us from the urgent to reclaim our hold on the important.

Science is the newcomer, not Christianity. The fMRI may be new—but we have known for millennia the power of rest and contemplation, the sharpness of a well-trained mind, the depth of holistic spirituality. It has always been here, like bells calling monks to pause their direct mode to unite mind, soul and body for God. We have developed entire Christian orders around the power of “brain training,” patterned into structure of monasteries, convents, missions outposts, universities, homes.

But it is also in the quiet. Our disciplines of daily prayer and Scripture reading, of singing and fellowship—all have benefit to brain and body. “Examen” is metacognition, practiced for centuries by Christians. “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together …” the author of Hebrews says, and what is that admonition if not a call to bring your brain, and the life it empowers, into the regular oxytocin-releasing community that intimately bonds us to the body of Christ? “Emotional contagion”? We were preaching it 2,000 years ago. “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus … .”

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We cannot escape the pounds of precious gray flesh in the secret places of our craniums, maps unfolding without a horizon, leading us through life. Nor should we try to. This neural maze, with all its secrets is part of God’s own “very good.” It is a gift.

The path of the well-trained brain is the Christian path. We are stewards of the mind, with rich language and encouragement for health and well-being, language that goes limitlessly beyond the confines of science, into the rich eternity of life lived with our Creator. Our heritage is a meaningful knowledge of what shapes us, soul and body. Stewarding our brains is one part of a glorious whole.

We know this! my own brain cries.

So why don’t we practice what we preach?

Paul J. Pastor is author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit, and a contributing writer to Outreach magazine.