Charles Stone talks about Brain-Savvy Ministry



Have you ever stopped to think how amazing the human brain is? It’s capable of so many reactions in an amazingly short time. God gave us this brain, so doesn’t it make sense to understand it and learn how to use it to the full advantage within your ministry? Today, we have Charles Stone on the show to give us some tips on just how to do that.

About Charles’s journey to understanding the brain

Charles Stone is the author of the book Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry. Twenty-five years ago, he noticed a quivering in his younger daughter’s eye while he was feeding her. Her doctor said she would probably grow out of it, but recommended they have a specialist check it out just to be sure. The specialist said it was probably nothing, but recommended a scan on her head. It turned out she had a brain tumor. She is now in her mid-twenties and doing well after many brain surgeries, but that experience changed Charles’s life and his thoughts on the brain.

Charles now works with West Park Church in the north part of London, Ontario. It’s a forty year old church that started as traditional, but has shifted in the last few years to a more contemporary style. Making a change like this can cause a lot of uncertainty and emotional responses, so Charles uses his knowledge of the brain to help guide this change and other changes within the church to make the transition as easy as possible.

In today’s podcast, I chat with Charles to discuss understanding the brain and ways church leaders can use it to their advantage.

  • Your mood affects people around you. // Our brains have an emotional contagion. If you’re in a good mood, it spreads to others. Other people around you can catch your attitude and in return, you can catch theirs. How we carry ourselves emotionally leads the day for others around us. How are you carrying yourself in your every day life and within your ministry work?
  • Understand the anatomy of an emotion. // Something outside of ourselves stimulates physiological reactions inside us in every situation we’re faced. This gives us the sensation of an emotion and the brain kicks in, assessing the situation. All of this happens in less than a second, but there is a tiny gap between when we react and when the brain kicks in to take over the situation. This is the time when we can react badly, saying things we might later regret. If you allow the Holy Spirit to step in during that gap, it can lead you away from these bad reactions that cause bigger problems.
  • The brain hates uncertainty. // When you go to a party where you don’t know anyone, the brain automatically gets a little anxious. When our emotional centers are engaged like this, it interferes with our ability to think clearly. Charles reminds us that when you’re going through a big change at your church, it will cause anxiety and emotional response if things are left uncertain. Communicate to your membership what will be coming up and set clear goals for the change to take away this uncertainty and anxiety.
  • Learn about the brain and use it to direct your ministry. // Charles recommends that we follow blogs or read books and magazines to learn how the brain works. God gave us this amazing organ, so shouldn’t we know how it works? Learn ways to use it to your advantage within your ministry.

You can learn more about Charles and his books on understanding the human brain at his website

Episode Highlights

00:33 // Rich introduces Charles Stone to the show.

01:00 // Charles introduces himself and tells us about West Park Church.

01:38 // Charles tells us his motivation behind writing his book Brain-Savvy Leaders.

04:23 // Charles gives an example of how brain research supports him as a leader.

06:47 // Charles talks about the impact of the brain.

09:42 // Charles talks about dampening your emotional centers.

10:52 // Charles talks about good change management.

12:20 // Charles encourages leaders to learn about the brain, to become better leaders and better people.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools //

Influential Book // Fully Present

Inspiring Leader // Bill Hybels

What does he do for fun // Read – Movies

Contact //

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host around these parts. So glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us today, to put us in your earbuds as you get ready for this weekend at your church.

Excited to have Charles Stone with us on the show today. He’s from a church, actually from kind of my old stomping grounds London, Ontario, West Park Church. Welcome to the show today Charles.

Charles – Great to be with you Rich.

Rich – Yeah it’s kind of fun. Charles is an American who’s serving in Canada, I’m a Canadian who’s serving in America, so we’re on an exchange program, so it’s kind of fun to connect today. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about West Park and about your ministry there?

Charles – Yeah, West Park’s about a 40 year old church in the north part of London and an incredibly fast growing area. The church has been traditionally traditional, the past three or four years began to make the shift. I came about a year and a half ago, just having a blast. People are great, they’re warm, they’re responsive, even accepting an American dude, they’ve just been really super.

Rich – Nice that’s great. Now you’re also an author, you’ve written a few books, your most recent one really caught my attention and I want to dig into that today about being a brain-savvy leader. Now what motivated you to write this book?

Charles – Yeah, really two motivations. One personal and one more professional. 25, 26 years ago I really began my journey in a highchair, not me in a highchair, my youngest daughter. She is now 28 but we discovered when she was a year old, I noticed a quivering in her eye when I was feeding her, [Inaudible 00:02:00] or something like that and we went to the doctor and he said, “Ah it’s probably nothing, probably a strabismus, she’ll grow out of it and you go back to Atlanta though”, we were at Mississippi at the time, “just get a specialist check it out.” He checked it out and he said, “Oh no big deal, it’s probably a strabismus, it will go away, but let’s just do a scan anyway.”

He did a scan and I can distinctly remember on the way home, after that scan, I opened the door to my little room, I had started a church in the Atlanta area and the phone was ringing. I picked up the phone, it was the neurosurgeon who had looked at the scans, he said, “Mr. Stone we have that report, your daughter has a lesion.”

Now what is a lesion? It’s like you know, a little scrape you know, put ointment on it. Then he said some words that literally changed our lives. He said, “Your daughter has a brain tumor.”

Rich – Oh my goodness yeah.

Charles – Fast forward, 25 years later, she’s doing well, she’s had over a dozen brain surgeries, she’s had an experimental device placed into her brain, into her chest to control seizures and she would just [Inaudible 00:02:52] for many years, doing well and I saw, just seeing her sit for so long, what happens when the brain physically is not right.

Now I made the leap from there and I began to ask myself and I’m committed to spiritual disciplines, I pray, I read the bible, I know my scripture and yet I found myself still being really anxious at times and doing all of those right things, like going to an elder’s meeting or staff meeting, I found myself being defensive and reacting. I didn’t want to be, I didn’t plan on that but I asked myself, “What’s going on here?”

Then I read a book called Your Brain at Work by David Rock and lightbulbs came on. I realized, even though there may not be something physiologically wrong with our brain, stuff that goes on inside of there, profoundly impacts how we do life in leadership. So that really began my journey. I’ve just finished a master’s degree in that and wrote the book.

So that’s kind of a short story over a long period of time but that’s what prompted me.

Rich – Interesting, now that’s fascinating. Now for a leader, obviously today I’d love people who are listening in to get a chance to read your book, because I think obviously that will give them a deeper sense and kind of how we should be thinking about the use of the brain and how, as leaders obviously, this is a critical part of what we need to think through. But what are, you know an insight or two that a church leader who’s listening in today, can draw out from your research and other’s research, for leading in their church?

Charles – Yeah, yeah one comes to mind. There’s something, a type of a brain cell called the neuron, which is a fundamental [Inaudible 00:04:29] thinking brain cell, it’s either off or it’s on and there’s a subset of neurons called mirror neurons.

1960s at the University in [Inaudible 00:04:38], they were doing some research on Monkeys and at that time they could put probes in their brains and when the monkey would reach for a peanut you could hear this cracking and they were recording that, but they noticed something very interesting. When the researcher came in and he reached for a peanut they would hear that same cracking. So as they began to look at it, they began to determine that, not only monkeys have these mirror neurons but a later research showed that we do, that basically we mimic goal directed behavior, intentional behavior and here’s one specific way that can apply to a leader.

You go to work in the morning, you’re not feeling that great.

Rich – Yep.

Charles – It’s Sunday. What you bring in the office, your emotional temperature, people catch it, it’s called emotional contagion. If you come in and you’re in a good mood or you choose to have a good mood, it lifts the boats, all the boats you know, or so to speak. I found that to be so true, even though I feel like, you know rotten, it doesn’t mean they we’re fake, you know sometimes we have a bad day, but if we bring in a really positive, hopeful attitude, people will catch that. If we’re stinkers, people catch that too. So that’s one little insight that’s really helped me a lot.

Rich – Yeah it’s so true. I remember early on when I started, the kind of transition from, I was a team member to now okay I’m leading a team, I distinctly remember that time where I realized just how I carry myself, like you’re saying emotionally, really does lead the day for the people who are in my little team and that’s continued as we’ve grown as a church and added more team members. There are times when one of the down sides of being a leader is we lose the opportunity to just kind of react all the time, we have to think, okay, how is it that just the way I’m reacting to what’s happening around us, how is that impacting the people around us?

Charles – Yeah.

Rich – Now any other insights when you think… I think that’s a good hook for people to think through, even as they wrestle through the impact of the brain on their leadership as a church leader?

Charles – Yeah, yeah oh there’s so many. One that comes to mind is kind of understanding an emotion, kind of what I call the anatomy of an emotion. An emotion kind of goes like this: Some stimulus outside, outside of ourselves, maybe somebody says something really stupid or offensive in the meeting, or we just think of something, that’s called a stimulus. A stimulus immediately evokes physiological things inside of us, that’s the emotion. Now we don’t feel it then, this is uncontrolled. When somebody says something that offends you, automatically your fight, flight system kicks in, your heart rate increases, your palms get sweaty, your mouth gets dry. That happens within point two seconds.

Rich – Oh my goodness, right.

Charles – Within half a second we feel it, we have this sensation of emotion, “I’m anxious, I’m angry, I’m worried,” whatever that is. Then within another point two seconds, the brain begins to kick in and it assesses. So “Okay, this is what’s happening, this is how I feel,” it checks back in the other memories of similar situations and begins to determine, “What am I going to do?” Then we decide. All that happens in less than a second and that little gap between when our brain really kicks in, in behavior, that’s where the problem comes, then we react, we say something we shouldn’t. Even mentally we get on this kind of thought strain.

I see that little gap there, this is where the Holy Spirit plays a profound part. As we are connected to God and our souls are healthy and we’re walking moment by moment with the Spirit, the Holy Spirit I think creates a bigger gap, so that we have more timing here between the feeling of an emotion and our thoughts and our behavior and our reaction.

So just simply knowing that this is going on in my mind I do have this gap, I can so no to defensiveness. I can say no to debilitating worry. On this part of our brain, the right side of our brain, so the ventral lateral [Inaudible 00:08:49] cortex, basically the sub-brain break, this is where we can actually control those defensive temptations.

Just knowing that has really helped me when I feel like saying something or doing something, then I would say, “I don’t need to do this,” and by the power of the Holy Spirit and the way our brain works, I don’t have to yell something stupid or unfortunate.

Rich – You know, I’ve said with my own kids, even a similar thing, where you know, things happen to us and there is that moment between when something happens and when we react and just for me, as a leader, slowing down or as a person, a Christ follower, slowing down in that moment to say, “Lord how is it that you want me to react now?” That takes a lot of work, we want to react, we just want to react, reaction, act, reaction. We want to do that for sure.

Charles – Well Rich it’s interesting, as a guy and especially in the US western culture, we’ve been told when you have these emotions stuff them or suppress them, get them out of the way.

Rich – Yeah.

Charles – They’ve actually found that one of the key ways to dampen our emotional centers is labelling the emotion. So you’re in a meeting, you’re in a staff meeting, you’re in an elder meeting, somebody says something that really ticks you off, makes you mad, makes you fearful whatever.

Rich – Yeah.

Charles – In our mind something’s saying, “Okay, God right now I am feeling fearful and feeling quite angry, I am feeling anxiety,” but actually the very fact that we label that sensation dampens our emotional centers.

Rich – Interesting.

Charles – So a little something we can do right then and practice this and when we’re kind of alone we can say it out loud as well.

Rich – Interesting. Now kind of changing gears a little bit, you said earlier on you’re in the process of kind of a change at your church, shifting from, that started before you came, from a more traditional to maybe more contemporary, more relevant to today. How have you been using some of this research or some of this thinking through that process?

Charles – Yeah, yeah. Well I mentioned kind of a fight, flight part of us, our emotional centers, that’s kind of deep in our brain, this front part of our brain, it’s where our thinking, this is where we want to stay most of the time, all our emotions impact and influence us, but what they found out, in change management, is that the brain hates uncertainty. Like when you go to a party and you don’t know anybody, how are we going to feel? We’re going to be a little bit anxious like, “I don’t know anybody, what am I supposed to do?” So what happens is that engages more of our emotional centers, when our emotional centers are more engaged, it dampens our ability to think clearly.

So in change management, one of the things I did was try to, since the brain does not like uncertainty, to create certainty. Now we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, scripture tells us that, but simply things like communicating to people what’s coming up, setting goals, looking at what would be that preferred future, the vision, what that does that gives people a measure of certainty, which again corporately diminishes that emotional reaction and helps people engage more in a thoughtful way.

So helping decrease uncertainty was a great tool to bring about good change management. I think we’ve done pretty well here, you know, certainly we’ve messed up some here but generally I think we’ve had a really positive change process.

Rich – Interesting. Now anything else you’d like to share with people here, you know from Brain-Savvy Leaders?

Charles – Yeah I guess I would say, the whole brain thing is really popular today and it’s the cover of Time Magazine in the US and in Canada a lot of money is being spent on the brain. I would encourage ministry leaders, pastors, non-profit leaders, Christian leaders in the business world, learn about the brain, don’t be behind the eight ball. Christians tend to be slow learners. Let’s get out on the frontend of this, learn, read, follow blogs writing about this, so that we can use this incredible insight about this thing God’s given us, the brain, be better leaders and be better people.

Leave a Response

Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.