Emotional Contagion

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Ever noticed how contagious yawns can be? Recently, a church singer told me he accidentally yawned on stage and subsequently counted 23 congregants yawning immediately afterward!

No surprise, perhaps, that emotions spread from person to person just as easily. That’s exactly why you and I tend to avoid those negative, continuously depressed family members. They bring us down!

It’s also the reason everyone loves to be around energetic and optimistic people: they pump us up!

There’s even a body of research devoted to the phenomenon which is called “emotional contagion.”

Here’s why I believe this reality matters to you as a pastor. People pick up on and are influenced by your emotional state - energy, optimism, pessimism, excitement, depression - whether you intend for them to or not. Your emotions influence others.

That’s exactly you and I as leaders should monitor and master our emotional thermostat. Otherwise, we will not affect others the way we want.

I’m not talking about stifling or suppressing emotions. Fact is, try to do that and your real emotions “leak out” anyway.

I am saying we have the power to regulate our emotional state in concrete ways: release resentments, examine and correct our self-talk, encourage ourselves in the Lord, take our discouragements to God in prayer.

Romans 12:15 seems to imply something similar: love enables us to regulate our emotions in consideration of others. The New Living Translation presents it as, “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.”

My challenge to you this week: stay aware of your emotional state and if it becomes sour and dour, find prayerful ways to change your thinking and exert the energy and optimism of a godly leader!

Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

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I thank my friend Chuck DeGroat, PhD for this guest post. Chuck is the professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Western Theological Seminary up in Holland, Michigan. He has a real heart for helping pastors with their inner and spiritual growth and helping pastors become all that God intends for them to become. This article was originally published on his blog which you can find here.


Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. 


It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.


Create Personal Power by Being Fully Present


 I sat at a restaurant with a young lady I had invited to dinner. She spent a good bit of that time with her nose in her smart phone, texting.

Anything like that ever happened to you? How did you feel?

Maybe you never experienced that situation specifically but what about those times when you knew the other person was only half-listening to what you were saying? Or were checking their phone every five minutes?

Let’s turn it around, though. Have you ever found yourself only half-listening, thinking about what you are going to say next rather than what the other person was saying to you? Or planning what you were going to do after the conversation was over?

Can the other person in that “conversation” tell that you are not fully present?

Yes, of course. Absolutely.

Now, the other side of the coin. Ever experienced someone listening intently to every word you said? Or asking you about that conversation later, even much later, proving they had in fact listened very carefully?

How did that make you feel?

Well, that happened to me.  I had a conversation with a pastor about some details in my life and months later he asked me how that situation had turned out. Wow!

Unfortunately, encounters like that occur far too infrequently!

Listen, making yourself fully present with others when they speak leaves them feeling heard and important. (My husband, Bud, likes to say, “Most people don’t distinguish between the feeling of being heard and the feeling of being loved.”)

So here’s a great verse from Isaiah 50:4 (NIV):

The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.

Listening. So powerful. Do it. Listen to each person as though you are “one being instructed.” I guarantee it will make you more trusted, more influential and more powerful with people.

Then when you speak they will be more ready to listen!

So here’s my challenge: see if you can catch yourself, even once, half-listening to someone (spouse and kids included)! Stop, fully tune in them, and see what happens!

The Testing of Philip


I've written a book and now face the daunting task of finding a publisher to help launch it. My husband, Bud, wrote an amusing (but serious) devotional for me based on John's account of Jesus testing Philip prior to feeding the 5,000.

You may not be attempting to publish a book but you may face some other seemingly impossible task. So, I thought you may enjoy "The Testing of Philip", too.


At some point, Jesus put it into the heart of an author, Philip, to write a book that would help believers and advance the Kingdom of God. Great crowds of people needed the wisdom of this book because, despite living as Christians, they still struggled with many pains and problems, as all people do.

So, an idea come into Philip’s mind and he wrote a book.

Jesus, pleased that Philip had used his gifts wisely thus far, looked out upon the world and saw a great crowd praying and beseeching Him for help. Although many of them did not know it, they needed exactly the kind of help offered in Philip’s book.

Through the Spirit, Jesus said to Philip, “How will you publish and launch this book?” (He only put this question in Philip’s mind to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.)

Philip answered him, “Well, I’m told you must have a gigantic platform in order to catch the interest of a publishing house, much less sell the book. You need big name endorsers, too. I don’t have either of those things and they will take years to build. Besides, all that networking stuff makes me gag. Frankly, I just don’t see that I have the resources.”

Then someone said “Well, Philip, you do know a couple of lesser known Christian celebrities and you have several hundred folks on your mailing list, but I guess you’re right, what difference will that make?”

Jesus said, “Philip, wrong answer. But here’s the correct answer: start with what you have. Be thankful for what you have. Pray over what you have. Give what you have. Keep on giving – not until there’s nothing left, because there will never be nothing left, but until everyone’s need has been met.”

So Philip, began to pray and determined to publish his book. He did so and when it was over, the book ministered to thousands of hungry people, and he earned enough to carry him through to the next one.

Four Types of People Who Resist Change

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Resistance to change most often springs from the well of emotion. That’s why helping people overcome their resistance and move forward requires emotional intelligence!

Of course, every individual brings their own particular motivations to a situation but I’ve identified below four kinds of people who may resist change. Understanding their motives can help you design an approach that has the best chance of winning them over.

Devil’s Advocate Dan. The “devil’s advocate” can be misconstrued. It’s easy to dislike Dan, the contrarian, the person who bucks popular opinion, the one who points out negatives when everyone else points out positives.

True “devil’s advocates” (as opposed to straight up trouble makers) actually have the best interest of the church in mind. They genuinely fear that serious obstacles may have been overlooked, that the group is rushing toward a poorly thought-out decision.

I recommend listening to Dan carefully. His gift is not to merely rain on the parade but to help you honestly answer this question: are our plans really the best they can be? You calm Dan’s concerns not by blowing him off but by making sure that, in fact, you have reasonable answers to all his objections.

Anxious Annie. Annie suffers from free-floating anxiety. She’s nervous about many things. Any change scares her. She may state reasons but really she’s simply suffering from an anxious inner state. Annie needs reassurance: everything’s going to be ok.

Power Broker Patty. Patty craves control. She fears the loss of status or personal power. Proposed changes strikes her as a threat to her sphere of influence. You will need sufficient backing from other influencers to overcome Patty’s “objections” to the change. That’s why you build a team of change leaders, as I pointed out in a previous article.

Traditional Tom. Tom is set in his ways and often will tell you so plainly. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’ve never done it that way before. We’ve been doing it this way since the beginning of time. Tom genuinely fears the loss of the stable, secure, familiar way. You will need to help him realize that the only way to preserve the best of the past will be to move forward.

You likely can think of other reasons people fear change. Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts.

The main thing we’re trying to communicate here: people often fear change. Any successful effort to lead change has a far greater chance of success when you address those various fears throughout the process.  

Eight Step Process for Leading Change


The early church needed an organizational change in order to deal with issues around feeding widows. They made the changes successfully, and Acts 6:7 indicates the happy results:

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

What changes would you lead your church or organization to make if you could? What would be the first steps or stages? What challenges do you think you would face if you launched a major change initiative?

I ask these questions because it appears to me that many proposed changes introduced by pastors to their churches ultimately fail or even get shot down before they ever get started. Would you agree or disagree with that premise?

Surely, if that is the case, pastors must often feel discouraged about leading change; perhaps even a little burned out on even trying. Again, though, I would be curious as to whether you also find this to be true.

Finally, I wonder if you believe your education and background have well-prepared you to skillfully and effectively lead change initiatives.

If not, I would like to recommend Harvard Professor Dr. John Kotter’s book, The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations which lays out an eight step process for leading change. It’s not a new book but Kotter’s model has come to be considered one of the very best.

So, you may find it useful.

In it, he lays out an eight step process for leading change: 

  1. Create a sense of urgency around the need for change.
  2. Form a powerful coalition of change leaders throughout your organization.
  3. Create an overall vision for the future that people can easily grasp.
  4. Embed your vision within everything you to do.
  5. Check for barriers and remove obstacles in the way of implementing change.
  6. Create short-term targets (“quick wins”) to give your organization an early taste of victory.
  7. Look for opportunities to build on quick wins and identify areas of improvement.
  8. Make change an integral part of organizational culture

I wonder if you find those eight steps thought-provoking, as I do. Do you think you could apply them in your ministry? Do you see any scriptural support or censure against any of those steps?

In any case, if you’re looking to lead change and want a great book on the subject, definitely check it out Kotter's The Heart of Change. It's available on Amazon and elsewhere.   Oh, and by the way, if you read it, you will see the connection between emotional intelligence and change leadership early into the book!

Eight Big Reasons People Resist Change

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Ever tried to implement a big change and watched the effort fall short, maybe even get shot down before it got off the ground?

(A pastor once told me he wanted to move a table from one side of the fellowship hall to the other. Before he could complete that simple task, several people had already informed him that the table should stay exactly where it was!)

People tend to resist change, even trivial ones. Big widespread changes to programs or approaches? Even more so!

If you’ve ever tried to lead a significant change initiative, you’ve likely encountered resistance.  In fact, that’s why many change efforts fail. So the questions are, “Why are people so resistant to change?” and “How do I as a leader overcome that resistance?”

Let’s start with the first question. Here are eight reasons people tend to resist change both before and during the process.

  1. They don’t see the need to change.
  2. They think the proposed change is essentially just one person’s (or one small group’s) opinion.
  3. They don’t have a clear vision of what the future will look like after the change.
  4. Major changes take time and people tend to lose focus after a while.
  5. Barriers to the change seem numerous and insurmountable.
  6. As things progress, they don’t see any immediate results.
  7. They don’t recognize the numerous opportunities for immediate improvement.
  8. The group as a whole embraces the status quo over progress.

Study those and I believe you will find within them seeds of answers to the second question, “How do I as a leader overcome resistance to change?”

Harvard Professor Dr. John Kotter in his book The Heart of Change lays out an eight step process for leading change designed to address each of those problems. I plan to share a bit of Kotter’s process in my blog article next week.

One thing for sure, though, successful change initiatives require some forethought and strategy.  It’s helpful to think through your approach to overcoming each of the eight reasons people resist change.

For now, I would like to leave you with the primary thesis of Dr. Kotter’s book. He says, ”Our main finding, put simply, is that the central issue [of leading people through change] is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. All those elements, and others, are important. But the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.” [i]

When God instructed Joshua to begin huge “change initiative” of conquering the Promised Land, He included several exhortations to not be afraid.

Perhaps we also do well to address the emotions of people when leading them into something new.


[i] Kotter, Heart of Change, p. x

10 Questions Pastors Should Ask Their Members


Jesus asked his followers lots of questions, including the famous duo of questions: “Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am?”

Perhaps his example suggests we should be more inquisitive!

Leadership guru John Maxwell wrote a book entitled Good Leaders Ask Great Questions. In it he says, “If you want to be successful and reach your leadership potential, you need to embrace asking questions as a lifestyle.”

Maxwell backs up his assertion with a list of eight reasons why this is so. As a proponent of emotional intelligence as a key leadership skill, his third reason particularly caught my eye:

“Questions are the most effective means of connecting with people.”

Of course, as a counseling psychologist who spends twenty plus hours weekly asking people questions, then listening closely to their answers, I may be biased. However, if what Maxwell asserts is true, and I believe it is, then every pastor really should master the art of asking the right questions often.

Now, if the proliferation or articles on the internet serves as a reliable guide at all, there’s plenty of advice for pastors on what questions to ask in one particular situation: when interviewing as a pastoral candidate.

Of course, that is in fact a critical time to be asking all the right questions. So if you’re interested in learning more on that topic, here’s just one of the many articles available (in this case, from Christianity Today).

My contention, though: a good pastor never stops asking great questions.

If you agree, you may want to check out this little tool I’ve prepared called Ten Questions Pastors Should Ask. It’s a great list of conversations starters that will generate insightful and helpful feedback from your members.

It’s not a conclusive list of great questions and I am sure you have others. In fact, if you have a particular favorite question you like to ask, please post it in the comment section below as a way of sharing with others!

Four Reasons to Welcome Feedback

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She chewed out Pastor Larry angrily, her temper flaring. He tried to reply calmly but nothing he said seemed to help.

Finally, she stormed out of his office.

That wasn’t the end of it, of course. She emailed a denominational leader. She talked to people. Other members weighed in with their opinions. Some took sides.

Unfortunately, a few folks left the church.

Her anger and frustration should not have totally surprised Pastor Larry. This conflict had been brewing for some time. It could have been addressed earlier and more proactively with less damaging fallout.

However, Pastor Larry missed all the warning signs. Never saw it coming. Why? As he later admitted, he failed in the arena of receiving feedback.

The member had spoken with him previously, always in a more calm and reasonable manner. She had laid out her concerns rather plainly, actually.

Pastor Larry listened superficially and politely each time. He didn’t agree with her, so he merely ignored what he heard and moved on. In other words, he blew her off, just as he tended to do regularly when members approached him with suggestions, observations or complaints.

Most people responded to his disinterest by simply shutting down. In some ways, Pastor Larry realized this and liked it. He didn’t really want to hear a bunch of complaints or silly suggestions anyway.

However, this lady did not shut down. She blew up! When she did, others took her side.

That’s not to justify her immature, dysfunctional behavior. She behaved badly.  

Yet, reality is that Pastor Larry could have saved himself a lot of trouble by paying more attention to feedback from her and others.

Did he need to implement every suggestion, agree to every criticism or endorse every opinion presented to him? Of course not. He could have paid more attention, though, to what folks were trying to tell him.

Here’s my challenge to every pastor: strive to welcome feedback – positive or negative. Here are four big reasons why:

  1. To stay in tune with people’s thought and needs
  2. To learn how people are perceiving your actions and motivations
  3. To find genuine opportunities to grow as a Christian and a leader
  4. To prevent destructive conflicts – at least in some cases – by heading them off at the pass

Pastor Larry’s trouble eventually blew over; he made some changes and became a wiser, more effective pastor. He gained this insight, though, at the cost of upset, hurt and a few lost members. He also had missed out on good ideas from his less volatile members who simply didn’t share them because they knew he would not respond.

Proverbs 15:31: If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. (NLT)

Let folks know you want their feedback. Then, make certain to listen, prayerfully consider and provide a thoughtful response when they offer it. You will be a wiser pastor for it.

Top Seven Real Life Problems Facing the People in Your Pews

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Want to make your preaching more relevant? I'm certain you do.

My work operating a Christian counseling center provides a unique overview into the problems facing Christians -- at least, those in my geographic area -- and I have no reason to believe it’s much different in yours.

So, I thought it may be useful to share with you my perspective on the "real life" problems some of  your congregants may be thinking about on Sunday mornings as you deliver God’s Word to them.  

Here's my top seven problems occupying the minds of the people in your pews.

1. Marriage Problems.  Roughly 40-50 percent of calls to our office involve marital problems. If you think no one in your congregation currently struggles with their marriage, has affairs or is currently contemplating divorce, well, you may want to rethink that.

2. Affairs.  Did I already mention affairs? Fact is, several hundred people came to my counseling center last year to see me or one of my associates. Of those seeking marital counseling (including professing Christians), many come to address an extra-marital affair. This has really burgeoned over the last decade as social media has broken down barriers which previously made crossing that line more challenging.

3. Anxiety. Another top reason Christians coming to counseling: anxiety. Prolonged stress, perfectionism and trauma contribute to the anxiety puzzle. People show up frequently complaining of panic attacks, racing thoughts and similar symptoms.

4. Depression. Yet another big reason Christians coming to counseling: depression. Many describe depression as this cloud that won’t leave or the inability to climb out of a horrible pit. People complain of depression that interferes with sleep, appetite, and ability to focus. They feel hopeless, worthless and full of shame and guilt. Some fantasize about suicide.

5. Addictions. Alcohol abuse, cyber addiction, and porn addiction often show up in my office. We see many family members in pain because someone they love is addicted. We see those who have lost family and friends to the heroin crisis.  Not infrequently we see people with shopping or gambling addictions or with hoarding disorders, which some consider an addiction.

Addiction of some nature is probably the second most common factor we see in marital counseling as well. Again, if you think no one sitting in one of your pews Sunday morning struggles with addiction, you may want to reconsider.

6. Debilitating levels of stress. Many people we see feel stressed to their breaking point. The most common stressors include financial, job or career problems, children’s problems, time and schedule conflicts, and caring for elderly parents.

As you know, most couples both work full time jobs, then spend a significant portion of the evening helping kids with homework in addition to running them to various extra-curricular activities. Some take on the role of part-time caregiver for parents while still raising teen-aged children.  Many feel the stress of problems in multiple areas of life.

7. Loss or Trauma. Loss of loved ones, especially untimely deaths of children, parents or other close relationships burdens some people. Those with unresolved childhood trauma seem to have greater difficulty.  Other losses that people present to me include loss of health, coping with an empty nest, job loss, and aging.

I also see people who have experience the trauma of combat situations, accidents, losses or other catastrophic events. Increasingly, children experience increased feelings of trauma and fear due to school shootings and other events.

Finally, one additional, significant reason people come for counseling: spiritual problems. Now, Christians rarely cite “spiritual problems” as their main reason for coming to counseling. However, I often hear the following themes as people talk to me:

  • Lack of devotional or prayer life
  • Condemnation or fear that God is ‘mad at me’.
  • Anger towards God and sometimes estrangement from Him along with some version of, “Why did God allow this to happen to me? He could have stopped it if he wanted to!” (This is very common.)

Pastor, likely, you too see these problems in your ministry. Hopefully, this elaborated list can serve to help you be even more alert to the problems the people in your pew actually wrestle with as you preach to them on Sunday mornings and make the Gospel of Jesus their greatest source of hope and help.