By Eddie Pipkin

July 25, 2016

Research is constantly being done on the art of motivation (motivating ourselves, motivating our ministry teams, motivating the leadership of our all-too-frequently moribund institutions). How do we get people excited about the things we’re excited about? How do we move forward with positivity through difficult moments? How do we tamp down the inevitable anxiety that comes withanxious emoji trying new and difficult things? This is an important question, because if we routinely experience anxiety, pushback, or too much drama in our attempts to experiment and chart new paths, we can begin to develop an institutional “hardening of the heart” – that is, a reluctance to try new things because we are tired, worn down, or just want our lives to be a little easier and a little less stressful.

Of course, everybody in every work environment experiences this.

And as Christians, we are supposed to have special insight and tools for how to handle it: prayer, for instance, and a more obvious common vision that is the ultimate goal of our work together.

But often times, the techniques employed by the fields of business and psychology can also be successfully applied to the work we do. For instance, The Atlantic recently reported on a study that has discovered a powerful substitution method for moving from the performance-killing state of anxiety to a much more positively focused attitude. And it’s all made possible by a simple modification of our internal script: one basic phrase, altered from a mantra of despair to a chant of impending victory.

You can click here to watch the entertaining and enlightening video, “Three Simple Words,” for yourself.

The point which is made (using science!) is that the state of anxiety is a state of aroused emotions. While we generally suggest to people that they deal with their agitated emotional symptoms by “taking deep breaths” and trying to “just calm down”, this is difficult to do because it is an attempt to move us to a completely different category of emotional state, from keyed up to relaxed. What might happen, if instead, we tried to make what is in effect a lateral move, from a negative heightened emotional state to a positive heightened emotional state? The researchers asked each other, what if instead of moving from anxiety to calm, we could move from anxiety to excitement?

This could perhaps be accomplished by replacing the phrase “I am afraid” with the phrase “I am excited”, repeating this newly substituted string of words over and over and concentrating on all the things that could go right in the new moment ahead (versus all the things that might go disastrously wrong). Visualize all the possible positive outcomes, then go for it! And guess what? When their volunteer test candidates stopped obsessing on the potential for catastrophe, and instead enthusiastically imagined the ways in which success might be just around the corner, success more often was the achieved result (verifiably, statistically speaking).

You can see how his strategy could obviously be useful to individuals – useful for all those times we have to give a speech or sermon, have to go into an intimidating room and make a big pitch, or have to host a kind of event we have never hosted before. If you’re like me, it’s something you want to immediately try out for yourself!

But also join me in thinking about how this strategy might be expanded to work with ministry teams and institutional leadership. When the naysayers, the skeptics, and the professional doubters show up, what if we could help them turn all that negative energy on its head? For every “That won’t work”, “We can’t do that”, and “You know that is way out of my comfort zone”, what if we were able to get people to recognize those phrases for the ministry killers they are and instead practice a shift in language and analysis that used those same impulses to explore creative possibilities rather than establish roadblocks?

Here are some ideas:

• When someone says we can’t do something, have them brainstorm what it would take (with no limit on resources) to move that ‘can’t’ to a ‘can’?

• At the early stages of considering whether to undertake a project, have people take turns dreaming about the good that might come from it if it is successful.

• Keep a little notebook handy, filled with Scripture verses of encouragement and biblical examples of bold thinking and improbable outcomes. Whenever you feel a discussion losing focus or drifting negative, call a timeout and remind people of their heritage as dreamers and doers for God.

• For a particular project or initiative, have people make a list of the possible positive outcomes, large and small, that might happen even if that project or initiative fails by traditional standards of measurement. (So what if not a lot of people attend? What are some outcomes that still might have meaning even if there is a smaller crowd, etc.?)

• Encourage people to routinely share the aspects of ministry leadership that keep them up at night fretting. This provides a community of support in which other leaders can share the ways they have learned to deal with the same fears, creating a strong sense of “what I’m feeling is normal” and “I am not in this alone” for the whole team. In all likelihood, different leaders have different practical advice to offer as well.

• Once someone has expressed a fear or concern, don’t forget to circle back around to that issue in later meetings or conversations. Don’t treat it as a one-and-done, but as a process that is helpful in understanding the weaknesses and strengths of individuals and for the team as a whole. Always do a follow-up analysis that moves from ‘this is what we expected” to “this is what actually happened.” Celebrate and replicate the good outcomes. Learn from the inevitable mistakes.

These are just some of the ways in which ministry teams can convert that negative energy to positive outcomes. You probably have others to share in the comments section. And like the lyrics to the karaoke sung in the video said: “Don’t stop believin’!”