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The Chemical Side Of Failure
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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 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
- 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
- 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
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:39 PM