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The Chemical Side Of Failure

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 112

One of the most difficult parts of ministry is dealing with the sense of failure and rejection. It inevitably occurs during the course of ministry.
 
Why is it that failure, rejection and conflict can be so emotionally difficult? What causes the dramatic--and unexpected--mood swings? What is it that fuels the overwhelming sense of failure?
 
Part of the answer may be "all in one's head." Specifically, these difficulties and others may be related, at least in part, to delicate cerebral chemical imbalances.
 
Attitudes And Behaviors: The Chemical Side
 
Researchers have demonstrated that many aspects of human behavior are influenced, at least in part, by various cerebral chemicals and their respective balances or imbalances. Human relationships tend to be influenced by cerebral chemical interactions. Pheromones and Dopamines affect feelings of attraction between the sexes. A third chemical has also been found to influence human behavior.  That chemical is Seratonin.
 
In the December 29, 1998 issue of Newsweek there was an article entitled, "A Little Help From Seratonin." This valuable article described the dramatic influence Seratonin has on mental states and cerebral function. Authors Geoffrey Cowley and Ann Underwood explained that this single brain chemical could "hold the key to happiness, high social status, and a nice, flat stomach."
 
Seratonin is but one of well over 200 or more identified cerebral chemicals. Recent research is beginning to show that may be one of the most important. Seratonin appears to be the chemical largely responsible to help maintain the balance of the other 200-plus chemicals needed for proper brain function. 

Seratonin effects on human behavior are so pronounced they cannot be overlooked. Dr. Larry Siever of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine underscored its importance.

"Seratonin puts the brakes on primitive behaviors like sex, aggression and excessive feeding,"

 
Seratonin And Social Hierarchy
 
Are Seratonin levels related to social hierarchy? In a series of classic experiments with Vervet monkeys at UCLA, researchers Michael McGuire and Michael Raleigh discovered the answer. Its a resounding "YES!"
 
McGuire and Raleigh discovered a strong correlation between social standing and Seratonin levels. In experiments with Vervet monkeys, they found that those monkeys who ranked highest on the social hierarchy had the highest levels of Seratonin. Monkeys ranked lowest the social hierarchy consistently had the lowest levels of Seratonin.
 
Social hierarchy, they concluded, is positively related to the levels of Seratonin. In other words, the higher one is in a social hierarchy, the higher the expected level of Seratonin.
 
What Happens When You're No Longer "King of the Hill"
 
One of the most significant observations in this study was that if the highest ranking male monkey was deposed by a challenger, the deposed monkey's Seratonin level would plummet. After victory, the Seratonin levels of his challenger, however, would surge dramatically upwards.
 
Another finding was that Seratonin levels were dependent on positive reinforcement. Without encouragement and praise, Seratonin levels in the Vervet monkeys decreased. When isolated from others, Seratonin levels also decreased remarkably. When placed in front of a one-way mirror away from others, Vervet monkey cerebral chemistry responded in a consistent manner. The Seratonin levels again decreased significantly.
 
What's Going On?
 
Among Vervet monkeys, when the "King of the Hill" was demoted, isolated, unrecognized, and left out of the communication and feedback loop, Seratonin levels decreased; what appeared to be depression--and its related complexes--set in.
 
Among Vervet monkeys, they concluded positive social feedback was necessary to maintain normal or elevated Seratonin levels. Without feedback, Seratonin levels dropped predictably and precipitously. Without feedback, monkeys demonstrated marked decreases in energy, reduced dominance, and a marked tendency to behave more impulsively. One might say they experienced the "chemical side of failure."
 
Seratonin: It's Not Monkey Business!
 
In so many ways, humans are certainly more advanced than monkeys. However, research conducted with humans demonstrated virtually the same results as the research with Vervet monkeys. According to Cowley and Underwood,

"When Seratonin is doing its job, we're apt to feel calm, sociable, alert. Impulses and appetites don't rule us."

When Seratonin levels are reduced, just the opposite occurs. We are apt to feel restless, antisocial, tired, run down, . Impulses and appetites do rule us. We feel out of control.
 
Some Observations
 
1) Regular, positive reinforcement maintains Seratonin levels.
Whether received from the sense of a job "well done" or from genuine positive encouragement from others, positive reinforcement is probably more important that many every imagined. Without it, leaders may experience a decline in Seratonin levels. At time, these reduced levels may hinder "normal" leadership function.
 
2) Failure and/or long-term frustration may trigger serious drops in Seratonin levels. In leaders, this drop can exceed  25%! If not addressed, leaders will be subject to energy loss, burn-out, feelings of failure and worthlessness, and the like.
 
3) Church unrest also affects Seratonin levels.
During such unrest, Seratonin-depleted leaders may be prone to a variety of self-defeating behaviors. These behaviors may hurt the organization. They may also hurt the leader--personally and professionally.
 
4) Frustration, burn-out and depression are related to lower levels of Seratonin. Frustrated leaders will tend to consciously or unconsciously seek substitutes for their accustomed elevated levels of Seratonin. If not attained through positive, healthy means (e.g. exercise, differentiated activities, hobbies, et al.), individuals with reduced Seratonin levels may become more prone to uncontrolled behaviors.
 
Anger, verbal outbursts, and physical confrontations may become more frequent. Addictions can include addictions to sex, alcohol, drugs, work, relationships, etc. These and other addictions may be indicative of the onset of mental illness triggered by reduced levels of Seratonin.
 
5) Leaders need regular victories.
Regular, little victories, may have a greater significance than previously believed. These little victories are needed. Why? They help maintain Seratonin levels. Perhaps this is a good reason that leaders never give up. They keep pressing on for victories...and Seratonin maintenance. Churches which do not enjoy a history of "victories" and pastors who are unable to taste victory in their ministries risk long-term Seratonin reductions.
 
6) Reduced Seratonin levels may result in stressed coping relationships.
During conflict or difficulty, various aspects of the stressed pastor's' life may be at risk. In order to cope with the risks, they may turn to coping relationships. However, as Seratonin levels plummet, relationships with those most able to help may become transformed. Coping relationships may become strained when they are transformed. Some are terminated not without great pain and grief.
 
Signs of transformation due to reduced Seratonin levels may include increased "touchiness," unusual impatience, aggravation and other aggressive behaviors. Transformed relationships may also be marked by a clinging "co-dependency." These transformations are disruptive, uncomfortable, confusion, and fear-inducing. When they occur between members of the opposite sex, they can be extremely uncomfortable, unhealthy...or worse!
 
Trusted confidants, scared by the transformed relationship, leave...sometimes with no explanation. The suddenness of the loss, the mysterious abandonment by a confidant, and the lack of closure simply magnify the trauma, the loneliness, and the effects of Seratonin depletion. Depression increases. The traumatized leader feels more isolated. A sense of hopeless may incite mental illness. It can also trigger suicidal tendencies.
 
Traumatized leaders who have lost significant coping relationships may not, in their depressed state, have the motivation or energies necessary to seek, develop and cultivate other coping relationships. Indeed, such relationships take time to nurture. Unfortunately for the traumatized leader, they need immediate replacement of coping relationships. Professional counseling is the best immediate reactive response.
 
The best response, however, is for a confidant to be aware of these changes in the early stages. Though difficult to share, the trusted encouragement of a confidant that the pastor see a counselor can result in long-term benefits. It may be painful. But one must remember, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend." Its friends like these who are the best confidants and really care about the well-being of others...even when it hurts.
 
Some Seratonin Issues
 
The research and experience with Seratonin raises some interesting issues. These include...
1) The Importance Of Regular, On-Going Positive Reinforcement
 
The direct, positive relationship between Seratonin levels and positive reinforcement out to become the pillar of any Christian ministry. Local churches, Districts, Synods, Judicatories, Denominations, et al. need to recognize that one of the most critical things they can do for their churches is to provide regular, genuine encouragement. In fact, it   may be more important in today's hostile church climate than ever before imagined.
 
Celebrating ministers and validating their ministries in good times and bad is not a difficult thing to do. It doesn't cost much money. It doesn't take much time. It doesn't even require a denominational resolution. It just takes a response of God's love to give a "pat on the back" to any of God's workers.
 
A quick phone call, an email message, a note in the mail, an unexpected lunch invitation can go a long way to build bridges of encouragement between ministries. Even a simple recognition that someone exists--saying "hi" or shaking their hand--can communicate affirmation, especially when it is from denominational leaders.
 
Praying supportively for each other--privately and in public worship--ought to be the hallmark of our ministries. Taking time to listen, to care by word and action, and giving helpful counsel and support in difficult times are ways to build lasting supportive relationships.
 
As naively simple as it may sound, a thirty minute brainstorm in your next congregational meeting about how to celebrate and support pastors, key leaders, and denominational representatives in their ministries may be the single most effective thing churches can do to affirm and strengthen local, regional, national and international ministries.
 
If caring and affirmation can support Seratonin levels and increase ministry joy, imagine what prayer can do!!!
 
2) Clergy Misconduct May Have A Chemical Component
 
Given the known effects of Seratonin and other cerebral chemicals (e.g. Dopamine) on human behavior, the issue of clergy misconduct of all kinds--including sexual--may merit some  re-examination. When not the result of a habitual character disorder, some pastors who "fall" from ministry may do so, at least in part, because of a chemical component.
 
Some of the best and most creative, qualified and spiritual leaders, thrive on high levels of Seratonin. However, when subjected to dramatic depletion of Seratonin levels, they sometimes fall. This does not absolve or excuse them from their actions. However, given the chemical side of failure, perhaps clergy misconduct should, in some select cases, be revisited. One of the key questions might be,

"Should clergy misconduct due to cerebral chemical shortages to be handled in the same way as chronic, habitual immoral behavior unbefitting of the Office of the Ministry?"

Could it be that, in some select cases, pastors "caught" in misconduct may be restored to God-pleasing levels of ministries through appropriate therapy, including especially confession and absolution? Could it be that a little more affirmation may, in some cases, ease some of the pain and trauma which may have contributed to factors leading to their misconduct?
 
3) Healthy Churches May Have Elevated Seratonin Levels
 
If Seratonin can affect individual emotions as it does, can its affects also be felt in groups and congregations? If so, would that mean that declining churches are declining, in part, because of continued perceived failures? Could it mean that the "momentum" of growing churches is, in part, a result of continued achievement of goals which produced Seratonin? Does the achievement of congregational goals increase Seratonin levels? Could this also be a factor for leaders to begin  the positive energies in these churches? Certainly these are interesting questions to consider.
 
If Seratonin levels were proven to be positively and directly correlated to the level of goal attainment in church programming, would not this knowledge place an even greater importance on planning, vision, goals, objectives, philosophies of ministries, et al? Wouldn't it point to a realization that to hold leadership back from goal attainment depletes Seratonin levels among the leadership? Wouldn't there be a long list of things that might be affected by an awareness of the group dynamics of Seratonin? 
 
4) Celebration May Have A Key Role In Congregational Seratonin Levels.
 
If leaders, by celebration, affirmation, goal attainment, etc. can affect Seratonin levels, then a key for congregational renewal is right in front of our nose. That key is "Celebration."
 
Celebration happens when individuals and groups are affirmed in ministry. Celebration is what happens when congregational goals are achieved. Celebration is what happens when God's people decide to commit themselves totally to a faith goal so large that only God can do it (Cf. Ministry Health article, Get A BHAG).
 
If any organization on earth has anything to celebrate, it's the Christian church. The reason for our entire existence is because God has called us to give our lives as living sacrifices and, thereby, celebrate His salvation in Jesus Christ.
 
Regardless of Seratonin or anything else, it is the calling of God's people to celebrate. We are called to celebrate everything God does, the people He does His work through, and everything and anything He does that we see and don't see. As the Psalmist said in the final words of the Psalms, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord." Isn't that the best prescription for dealing with the "Chemical Side of Failure?"

"Let everything that has breath, Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!"

5) Pastors and Christian leaders need a deeper Christian spirituality to sustain them with or without chemical imbalances.
 
Pastors and congregations miserably fail the test of spiritualism  Virtually addicted to a purely "CEO" way of operations,  pastors and congregations are driven by externalities and results. Unfortunately, they may sacrifice their spirituality to attain it.
 
A biblical spirituality and connectedness with God is the greatest asset for any leader. Consider Job. He lost everything, but was his life--and Seratonin levels--based on his vast holdings? Probably not at all. "The Lord gave, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
 
Job knew the secret for not falling apart in tough times. Paul knew the secret for contentment. These people didn't depend on Seratonin. They nurtured their spirituality. They lived by faith. They lived in an active, vital, dependent relationship on God's working in them. Even healthy ministries will become even healthier as they deepen the awareness that God is in control. He controls the outcomes, not us. All we can do is produce "outputs" and trust God to bless their intended "outcomes." Of course, in the final analysis the outputs are really God's, too!
 
6) Pastors need to take personal responsibility for a healthy personal and professional ministry.
 
Pastoral mental health has to become the number one priority for every Christian pastor, staff person, executive and ministry professional. No one can monitor your Seratonin levels for you. You have to do it yourself.
 
Without proper attention to this critical issue, you may unwittingly become susceptible to the most heart-wrenching experiences of your ministry and life. All it takes is an awareness of the "chemical side of failure."
 
Listen to your body and respond. Notice when you are overworked and under-rested. Notice when you're too "wrapped up" in ministry. Back off when you find you're too undifferentiated from your ministry. Notice when your starting to enjoy certain toxic things and relationships too much.
 
Notice when your thought patterns become increasing obsessed, guilt-ridden, or negative...especially when others notice it! All these can be signs that Seratonin, as well as many other things, may be working on you. Chief of them is Satan Himself!
 
Failure: A Final Word
 
It is proven. Failure, success, loss or disappointment can alter your cerebral chemistry. Know it, learn it, recognize it. If you don't, they may incrementally and tragically change you from the "real" you to something quite unrecognizable to yourself and others.
 
When these indicators occur--or when you recognize them in others--respond quickly, appropriately, and constructively. The ministry you save may be your own.
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:39 PM