Three reasons that having an internal motivation matters, a lot, for Christian leaders

bicycle_flickr-pesisIn early spring every year, not long after the crocus bloom, I get out my bicycle. It’s silver in color with large, narrow wheels, a black bag above the rear wheel and with several water bottle holders. It’s ten years old and has some well-earned rust spots. It’s a joy to ride. Riding it is like connecting with an old friend. My goal each summer is to ride about a thousand miles—long enough to get me into good cardiovascular shape and far enough to see much of the local countryside. This year, I started recording my rides with a new app on my smartphone. This app automatically tracks speed, elevation, and distance. It also identifies key segments of the ride and compares how fast I ride each segment versus every other user of this app who has ridden that segment.

About halfway through this summer, however, I noticed that my riding mileage was way down. Instead of having ridden about 500 miles, like I normally have at this time of year, I had logged only about 260. I was puzzled as to why. Maybe the summer had been too busy, though as an academic that was unlikely. Or maybe it’s because I am getting old, though I know older riders who ride many more miles.

I didn’t figure out what had happened until I happened to read about research on internal vs. external motivation. One well-known Internal motivation west point cadetstracked West Point cadets for fourteen years. The cadets who launched their careers with internal motivations—such as serving one’s country—had much more successful careers than those careers were based on external motivations—such as making money or attaining a high rank. Likewise, other studies have found that motivating people with external rewards usually reduces their performance.

That was what was happening to me. Using the new app had moved me from internal to external motivation. Previously, I would go for a ride just because it made my body feel good, and it cleared my mind (which is always needed). With the app, however, I started thinking about how my riding compared with other people, and a good ride was when I would set a personal record and pass other rider’s scores. Ultimately, this made for a less enjoyable ride, and I started finding reasons not to get on my bike. When I turned off the app, my rides got longer, more frequent, and more satisfying. (Note: This was my experience with this type of app. Others people may have entirely different experiences).

On a recent ride, I started wondering about how internal vs. external motivation plays out in the context of Christianity. An obvious issue would be Christian leadership. Ministry positions don’t pay that well, so I assume that most Christian leaders don’t do it for the money. (Or, if they do, they’re not too smart about money). However, ministry can pay a lot of another external reward—approval and affirmation from other people. When a pastor or Christian leader does well, people notice. Attendance increases. Compliments are given. Warm words are spoken. Reputations rise. This approval can become a motivation for ministry.

Years ago a friend of mine witnessed this firsthand. He had joined a group of people in his town who were planting a new church. The pastor of that church had big, exciting plans for both the church and the surrounding community. You couldn’t talk to this pastor for more than a few minutes without hearing the great things that would happen: More people reached; more people served; more people connected. Wonderful things, all of them. His message of bigger and better drew many people into the church. After a couple of years, however, a pattern emerged. The pastor would launch a new program or other initiative with great enthusiasm and fanfare. But after not long after, he would lose interest in it and launch another one, and the first one would slowly fading away. The pastor was fueled by external rewards. Launching a new program is exciting. People notice and applaud and sometimes even give more money. After some years of this pattern, that church imploded amidst difficult circumstances. The focus on external rewards made it a church built on sand.

Relying on external rewards has several limitations.

1) External rewards won’t sustain us every day. External rewards are from others and thus the timing of them is controlled by others. A boss may give us a bonus, or they may not. A friend may appreciate our good deed, or they may not. A loved one may return our affection, or they may not. External rewards are intermittent and capricious. Sometimes they happen, and sometimes they don’t. In contrast, our lives are happen every hour of every day. They are continuous and ongoing. If we rely on external rewards for motivation, we will often run of motivation.

2) External rewards take us out of flow and external rewards. When we’re in the psychological state of flow, we are completely absorbed in what we’re doing. The activity is rewarding in and of itself, and we’re doing it because we enjoy it. Flow happens in situations that challenge us—stretching but not overwhelming us. In flow, we concentrate intensely on what we’re doing and we get lost in the moment. Flow produces optimal experiences—both pleasurable and high performance. Think of a painter lost in a canvas or a rock climber aware of only the rock face. External rewards pull us out of flow. We start thinking of other people and other things not of the moment. It is like a competitive swimmer lifting their head completely out of the water during a race to check their time and to look around at their competition. If we rely on external rewards, we lose the joy and performance that happens in flow.

3) External rewards can move us in the wrong direction. When we pursue external rewards, we are naturally pulled in the direction that will get us the most rewards. That means that the person or group or organization that dispenses the rewards strongly influences what we do. It is like training a dog—give them a treat when the do a desired behavior, and eventually the dog does the behavior on the trainer’s demand. If we rely on external rewards, we give other people choose what we should do.

As Christians, we have deep, powerful internal motivations in living out Christian values and following a calling. These motivations, far more than money or approval or whatever else others have to give, will get us to what is best in life.

Photo by Pesis/FLIKR

References for “Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?” in Christianity Today

The July/August issue of Christianity Today has an article about a recent research project of mine. I wrote it for the non-academic, so I left out references; however, if you want them, here they are.

The article in JSSR is scheduled to come out in the June 2015 issue. Production delays have meant that it this issue isn’t out yet. You can check here for it.

A church in Columbus, Ohio….

A church in Los Angeles….

A church in Chicago….

Georgia had a law…. Colored people when fishing. 

A substantial majority supported laws…. [p. 314]

Many thought that blacks had…. [p. 313]

In 1970, only about 55% of Hispanic….

Disparities also existed with….

Now, only a trivial number of white Americans…. [P. 312]

Even fewer believe that blacks…. [P. 313]

An implicit bias refers to….

Currently about 70% of Hispanic….

A host of studies have demonstrated…. 1, 2, and 3

Whites and blacks were sent….

Doctors were shown patient histories….

Job applications were sent to thousands….

EBay auctions were created to sell….

Of all congregations in the United States… described as “hyper-segregation.” 

Journalist Bill Bishop has termed it….

Another finding is that evangelicals report….  if they are black or Hispanic. 

Evangelicals are more likely to support…. [p. 312, 314].

Sociologist Robert Putnam puts it this way…. [p. 314].

Evangelicals have a strong in-group identity…. 

Also, evangelicals tend to discount the impact….

For example, evangelicals are less likely….. 

Also Evangelical Christians tend to oppose….

We tested for religious discrimination in the job market…. Studies 1 and 2

In Des Moines, Iowa.


Two Simple Questions for Finding a Great Pastor (for Search Committees and Anyone Else)

My wife is on a pastor-search committee this fall and that has got me thinking about how one would predict if pastor will be highly effective. The role of pastor requires so many different skills—it’s part theologian, accountant, counselor, teacher, property manager, and so on—that it might be difficult to know what, exactly, to look for. Having the right pastor, however, makes all the difference for how well things will go for a church. Over the years I’ve seen churches falter because of different shortcomings of the pastor. Perhaps they could not teach effectively or were abrasive or were mired in their own sin. This makes the work of the search committee vital. What, then, should they look for?

After interacting with a potential pastor, one can ask two simple but powerful questions:

1) Do I feel loved? Presumably most pastors believe that they love the people that they lead, and I assume that they do. The key issue, then, is whether they can convey that love in a way that other people feel loved. This is not at all easy. Effectively communicating love requires clear motivation, strong interpersonal social skills and a fair degree of mental health. Not everyone can pull it off, but it’s so important. Think about the people with whom you interact. How many of them make you feel loved? It probably isn’t many, but I’ll guess that you are eager to spend time with them. This type of person makes a good pastor.

2) Do I feel inspired? The promise of Christianity is that it leads us to something bigger than we are, that there is more than life than taking the trash out on the right day, saving money for retirement, and eventually dying. The problem is that our vision for a bigger life is routinely swamped by the minutiae of everyday life. We look to pastors to turn our eyes upward, to what ultimately matters. Conveying vision to others requires recognizing it oneself and having the verbal skills to communicate it to others. The people that I know who communicate this kind of vision naturally attract followers. This type of person makes a good pastor.

Notice that these two questions ask about how we react to people. This makes them easier to answer because we only have to identify our own perceptions. This also makes them potentially more accurate. If, in a group such as a search committee, most people feel loved and inspired by someone, that is probably a good sign for how the congregation as a whole will react. And if a church feels loved and inspired by their leader, there’s potential for vitality and growth.

Easily the most effective pastor that I’ve ever met epitomizes these two qualities. Whenever I talk to him, I find myself afterwards basking in his warm concern for me as a person and feeling excited about what could happen in my life and the church. This is love and inspiration.

When people leave one church for another, it can be due to something missing in these two areas. Maybe they don’t feel loved by the people at the church, perhaps due to interpersonal conflict or just plain neglect. Or, maybe they don’t feel as if anything is happening, that there is nothing to rally around.

The importance of love and inspiration dovetails nicely with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right above physiological needs and safety is the need for social belonging, which entails love. At the top of his hierarchy is self-actualization which, like inspiration, regards realizing potential. Maslow’s hierarchy regards our basic needs in life, but it also fits well with what makes organizations flourish.

Obviously there is more to being a pastor than just loving and casting vision. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a highly successful pastor who can’t do both well. So, want to predict how effective a pastor will be? Start by asking yourself two simple questions.

What do you think? Are these useful questions? Are there other simple indicators?

The planning fallacy: Overcoming the frustration of underestimating how long work takes

Work is important to me, very important. I enjoy doing it, think about how to get more done, and feel antsy if I’m away from it for too long. This includes my work as a scholar and teacher as well as even just work around the house.6521248195_c7b7d4ce3a_b

There is, however, one aspect of work that frustrates me to no end—my inability to predict how long a given project will take to complete. Not only can I not accurately predict how long something will take, I routinely underestimate it—sometimes by a lot.

Looking out my window right now,

Sometimes we have to work on our own lives if we really want to love others

Back in the day, when I was in high school, I heard a sermon on love, and it had the punch line was that we should view ourselves as third in importance, after God and others. Being the clever high-schooler that I was, I wrote “I am 3rd” on my tennis shoes to remind me of the message (and also because tennis shoes cost a lot less back then so writing on them wasn’t a big deal).


Now, getting high schoolers to think of anybody other than themselves is a noble if not perhaps futile cause. However, that message (and hundreds like it that I’ve heard over the years) can overlook an important point about the self and loving others.

If you want to have a meaningful life, should you think about the past, present or future? Yes.

The past gets a bad rap. We’re told to “let go of the past” and “not to live in the past.” Common wisdom roots us in the presence. We’re to live “one day at a time” and “be in the moment.” A recent study, however, suggests that thinking about the past, as well of the future, can give you a more meaningful life.


Generally speaking, having a sense of meaning about life entails understanding why things happen. Life needs to make sense to us. (What is meaning?) As such, part of creating meaning is…

Tony Gill, of the Research on Religion Podcast, interviewed me about the SoulPulse study. We talk about both the long-term goals of SoulPulse as well as more technical methodological. As always, it’s fun to talk to Tony, and he has great questions (and is funny, too).10338745_716362898427298_4828598623355621070_n

List to the podcast here

Tony’s description of it: “On this week’s Research on Religion with Anthony Gill we talk with Brad Wright of UConn on a very interesting sociological study he is doing called “SoulPulse.” Great interview.
But what is more awesome is that you can participate in this study for two short weeks yourself by going to They are very easy and fun surveys. No one calls you and your information isn’t shared for marketing or anything. It is all above-the-board social science.”

Appearance: Interviewed on Research on Religion Podcast
Format: Podcast

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”

Maya Angelou

What’s the difference between meaning and purpose in life?

What’s the difference between meaning in life and purpose in life? Over the past several years, I’ve started studying the social-psychological aspects of both meaning and purpose, and I’ve used terms interchangeably. While they are related, even closely so, they are not the same thing, I think. So in this post I would like to explore their relative meaning.

When blog writers start a post with a question, they usually already know the answer. E.g., “Do you want to be more success?” Well, yes, most people probably do. Or, “How can you get rid of the unsightly hair growing on your teeth?” Chances are they already have a product to sell you that will do it. But here I’m asking a question because I would like to know the answer.

Happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness is linked to doing things that express and reflect the self and in particular to doing positive things for others

Roy Baumeister et al. 2013