Last week I wrote about something I called “church war rooms”. (You can read that here).These ways of dealing with problems tend to occur when leaders fear they have something to lose, or feel that a situation has moved beyond their control. This leads them to respond in a thin-skinned, authoritarian manner. 

When you observe a war room in a church or ministry setting, you can be sure that the amygdala (the lizard brain) is running the show. 

I believe there are ways that we can avoid falling into fear-based, lizard-brained reactivity. I will offer five suggestions below.

Clarify Expectations

During our final year in New York, Liz was at home with daughter number 4, and we were planning a move to Ireland. We had a lot going on. I was heading home one day and hoping that Liz had started laundry because it would allow me to focus on other things I needed to do. We were living in a 3rd-floor apartment and required to use a nearby laundromat, so it was an involved process.

As I got closer to home, I became upset because I had a long day and didn’t want to spend the next few hours doing laundry. I could feel myself preparing to become upset with Liz for not starting the laundry. 

Then I remembered something we had just learned. Although I would have appreciated it if Liz had started the laundry, I had not asked her to. She would have no way of knowing that I had that expectation, and therefore it would make no sense for me to be upset at her.

Pete Scazzero, who has written a lot on Emotionally Healthy Spiritualityfrequently talks about the importance of clarifying expectations. He says that for an expectation to be valid it must be:

  1. Conscious – I am aware of my expectation.
  2. Reasonable – It is something the other person can accomplish.
  3. Spoken – I have told the other person what I expect.
  4. Agreed upon – The other person has agreed.

In my story with Liz, my expectation was Conscious and Reasonable. However, I had not told Liz, and she had not agreed.

Think back to the war rooms I mentioned previously. One church supported us financially and expected that, in return, Cornell students would be sent to their church (or another supporting church). When I began holding worship services on campus, their expectation was violated. However, they had not told me of this expectation, and I had not agreed to it. Whether or not it was a conscious expectation (before it was violated), I can’t say.

If they had told me ahead of time what they were expecting, I would have had a decision to make. 

There were two other churches near campus sponsoring us. The church furthest from campus made it clear that students were welcome but not anticipated because of the distance. That meet all four criteria of a valid expectation.

This issue is evident in the Dublin (international) war room as the denominational leader in Belfast overseeing the process acknowledged that while he had not clarified his expectations, he was upset Liz and I had failed to meet them.

Clarifying expectations is not only vital for church leadership. It is essential in any relationship you wish to be healthy. 

Assume the Best About Others

Fear motivates people. Sadly, much of what passes for preaching in our churches uses fear to rally the troops. An expedient means of getting people to support you is to create an enemy…or to ‘other’ people. 

(Here is an example of this practice

While using fear and creating enemies is an effective way to sell stuff and motivate people, it violates the way of Jesus. 

If a situation occurs and it upsets you, instead of assuming this person is now working against you, recognise you may not be seeing the whole picture. 

This leads to the third suggestion, 

Be Curious

I don’t know about you, but I do not enjoy conversations with people who believe they know everything and have nothing more to learn. They make pronouncements without knowing the whole story and ignore truths that don’t fit the story they have told themselves. And it is always fun when they tell you what you think and how you feel.

So ask questions. Did you ever notice that Jesus asked a lot of questions? In fact, when someone asked Jesus a question, he usually responded with a question. Asking more questions would be good practice for all of us. 

When there is a situation where you sense your lizard brain springing to action, a good first question is to ask yourself, “Why am I reacting this way?” Is there a value of mine that is being violated? Is this reminding me of something else? There might be something you need to repent of. There might be something they need to repent of. That seems worth investigating before reacting.

Once you have resolved that question, you will be better positioned to address the person or situation that is upsetting you. Rather than seeing them as an enemy that needs to be thwarted or punished, you will be more likely to recognise that they may be doing the best they can. 

Don’t Be Defensive

As I wrote in the previous article, a critical factor in each of the three war room experiences I mentioned was fear of losing something. Control, authority, whatever. 

Contrast King Saul to King David. Despite David’s faithfulness to Saul, Saul viewed him as a threat to his rule, authority, and everything. Saul demonstrates what it looks like when the amygdala is in charge (although throwing spears at a person’s head during dinner is next level).

When David faced a threat from his son Absalom, he responded this way,

“”Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”

2 Samuel 15:25b–26

David didn’t view his position as something he needed to hold onto at all costs. If God was raising up, Absalom David was ready. He didn’t give up and give the kingdom to his son, but if that was what God was doing, he would not hurt others to protect his position.

When church leaders are in lizard-brain mode, it demonstrates what they truly believe about Jesus’ call to Servanthood.

Avoid Hierarchical Models

The fifth suggestion is less about how we interact with people and more about how we structure our churches. 

Wherever there are hierarchies, there are positions with power and authority. And human nature is to do whatever is necessary to hold on to power once it is acquired (think January 6, 2021).

In a polycentric model, leadership and the authority that comes with it are not consolidated in one person. Multiple people with diverse gifts and temperaments lead and will bring various views to the table removing blind spots. 

Polycentric models require an atmosphere of trust to function. Hierarchical models are often short on trust and encourage fear.

When one charismatic leader is in charge, they have something to defend.
When one charismatic (visionary) leader is in charge, they often believe they are the one in the church who best hears God and knows his will.

In a hierarchical leadership structure, especially with a person who presents themselves as a visionary…who had a call from God that the rest of the church is expected to rally around and help carry out, it often leads to the thin-skinned, reactive, lizard-brained leadership that leads to war rooms and the like.

(I’ve written a bit about non-hierarchical leadership)

Would you add anything that helps discourage lizard-brained leadership?

Photo by Keith Markilie on Unsplash