Hopeful Church

Are we leading with our whole brains?

Overcoming half-brained leadership

by N. Graham Standish 

Is your leadership whole-brained or merely half-brained? Even more, is the mainline church decline really a matter of our being a bit too half-brained?

Back when I was in high school there was a book that was the rage for a proverbial fifteen minutes, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. She had a ground-breaking insight — we let our left-brain hemisphere control too much of our lives, which is why we have such a hard time being truly creative.

Left-brain/right-brain theories have proliferated since then throughout pop psychology and corporate training. They posit that the left brain is mathematical and overly logical, while the right brain is really abstract and creative. But what if our common understanding is oversimplified, causing us to misunderstand how the two hemispheres truly impact our lives and especially our leadership?

According to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, this past oversimplification obscures how the brain really operates. In his book, The Master and His Emissary, he says that a better way of understanding the brain is that the right hemisphere specializes in the big picture. It’s the “master” brain that gives us principles, ideals and morality. It’s aware of the interrelationship of all things. It’s abstract, symbolic and expansive. It’s the brain that most gets art, music, poetry, symbol, ritual, melodies and jokes. But it’s also the brain that recognizes that the leering man in the shadows is a possible threat, that this path leads to the top of that mountain, that last night’s sunset was stunningly beautiful, and that this sermon topic is important.

The left brain is the “emissary” who turns the master’s ideals into concrete actions. It’s focused on details, the specific and rules. It enables us to write with a pen, turn the steering wheel, fit the pieces together for an Ikea cabinet and make sure the dish really is clean. It’s the part of our brain that gets angry when plans fall apart and when people don’t do what we tell them to do.

Half-Brained leadership

I’ve long suspected that mainline (perhaps especially Presbyterian) denominations attract right-brained ministry candidates, who are then trained in predominantly right-brained seminaries to become mainly right-brained pastors. Mainline pastors tend to love abstract ideas and ideals. Why else do we always assert that “theology matters”? We’re right-brained people who love right-brained theological thinking, discussions and debates. In sermons we love to theologically explore social problems and identifying their causes. What we don’t like is giving people concrete, specific guidance on how to overcome these problems.

We also don’t tend to like dealing with details that may not be connected to abstract thinking. How many times have I heard pastors complain that she or he loves preaching and visiting, but not administration? We’re heavy on vision but light on the specific steps to accomplish these visions.

Simply put, we’re not all that good at leadership details — the left-brained stuff that most pastors and leaders in the evangelical, non-denominational world are good at. We criticize their simplistic theologies, and we wonder how they can be so successful when they offer such fundamentalist or prosperity gospel pablum. The answer is that they get the need for left-brained details. They understand that hospitality isn’t just an ideal, it’s details. They train their members to welcome. Meanwhile we preach to our members to be more welcoming, and then criticize them for not just “knowing” how to welcome better. We complain, “Aren’t they adults? Shouldn’t they know how to be hospitable?” Evangelical preaching may feel restrictive or insipid to Mainline pastors, but they understand the need to teach the details of a stronger faith and better life. Why else do their sermon series seem to constantly offer the five concrete steps to a better marriage, to a deeper prayer life, to a better biblical understanding, to a more moral life and on and on and on?

Is it a coincidence that mainline denominations are declining while non-denominational churches are generally growing? We often think they’re growing because they offer contemporary worship. Perhaps they grow because they just do all the details well, including the music. They get the details right.

Our pastoral training is in right-brained abstraction, often focusing on theological and biblical knowledge supporting our one big, right-brained task: preaching. Their training often comes from the fields of business and marketing where they know details matter if they are going to get people to become part of their churches.

To be fair, there are areas where we love the left-brained stuff. We love the exquisite details of communion, saying with inflection every syllable written in the prayer book. We love crafts and curriculum. We love projects. Still, the evangelical, non-denominational world is better at offering detailed, projected presentations; childcare centers with scrupulous check-ins and wireless parent buzzers; welcome centers with smiling volunteers handing out detailed brochures; parking lot guides wired-in with walkie-talkie earpieces; and, an overabundance of signs both welcoming and directing us to where to go. In the mainline church we have a hard time with this level of detail because our right brains get a headache with that level of left-brained detail.

Pastoring with a 100% brain

The best pastoral leadership actually is both right- and left-brained, which is what makes good leadership so hard for so many. Good leadership requires making good use of the corpus collosum. That’s the bundle of neurons connecting the two hemispheres, allowing them to coordinate with each other. It allows us to be both big pictured and fine detailed at the same time.

The best preaching, teaching and counseling combines the strengths of two hemispheres. We preach sermons that give people a global understanding of life along with specific, practical, concrete guidance on how to live that life. We teach classes that take grand concepts like grace and salvation and make them accessible to be experienced in the minutiae of daily life.

Recently a senior pastor told me about an interesting situation. Her associate pastor wanted to include a meditative exercise in his sermon and shared his idea with her. She began to ask questions: How long will it take? When in the sermon would it take place? Would he teach the members how to sit, breath, and what to do with their hands?  How would he modulate his voice? How long would it take? Would the rest of his sermon disturb the peace of that experience? These were important, detailed questions.

The associate dropped the idea, saying to her, “I don’t know that I want to think that hard.” He was really saying to her, “I don’t want to think that hard out of my left brain.” He missed a chance to really teach his congregation something important because he only wanted to preach a half-brained, abstract sermon on prayer.

We live in a left-brained world that often values quantities, precision, details, facts and data. The mainline church stands as a contrast to that where we value ideals, symbols, sacraments, myth, story and experience. But we can’t stand as a complete contrast. We need to integrate details that support our ideals so that people can be led to stand in the meeting of the right-brained and left-brained world. That’s where God’s really found — in the abstract holy and the experienced details.

The Rev. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, where he leads their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program (www.ngrahamstandish.org).