Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Stop Judging: Start Default Training

Written by: on April 18, 2024

I was not very far into Clear Thinking by Shane Parrish and it felt familiar. The premise of the book is to distill the best of research and wisdom about thinking into action steps leading to repeatable results.[1] The method is to make small decisions along the way which enable people to be in good positions to make the big decisions that really matter. It makes sense that it feels familiar as we have been reading about the best ways to think all semester and Kahneman in particular was widely referenced in Clear Thinking.

This connection inspired me to locate author Shane Parrish’s interview with Daniel Kahneman on Parrish’s podcast, “The Knowledge Project.” In it, Kahneman says that the more people know about psychology, the less judgmental they will be.[2] That statement resonated. The more I understand about how human brains function, I am gentler with myself. To be truly effective with these bits of knowledge about psychology though, I need to think more broadly. How can what I am learning be healthfully applied in the context of my NPO and how can pastors be less judgmental of one another?

Specifically, how does pastor’s susceptibility to the default mental wirings from part one result in harm? The default modes of thinking are part of human wiring and pastors are no different. The defaults are briefly summarized below.

  • Emotional Default – An impulsive reaction based on feelings.[3]
  • Ego Default – More concerned about social position than doing the hard work of increasing skills.[4]
  • Social Default – Going along with the group.[5]
  • Inertia Default – It is easier to maintain status quo than to change.[6]

I observe the ego, social, and inertia defaults are a trifecta of intertwined traps that can keep pastors stuck. I will explain starting with the ego default. Parrish notes that many people are socially conditioned to organize social hierarchy by money and status. [7] Pastors do something similar by developing a hierarchy based on the size of the church they lead. Church size comes up when pastors meet one another for the first time. At conferences or similar gatherings, the “large” church and “small” church pastors tend to form different groups and status is conferred accordingly.

Imagine that a pastor of a smaller church has some exciting ideas to reach their town for Jesus. First, they will have to overcome the social default which makes it so much easier to go along with the congregation who are likely resistant to change. Without well differentiated leadership, they may then succumb to inertia default because change is hard! In Friedman’s terms, strong togetherness forces are contributing to the difficulty in leading change because anxious congregations act from their herding instinct.[8]

Without understanding all of the psychological forces at work, it is tempting to be judgmental about churches that seem stuck. However, pastors actually may be participating in another psychological default that is contributing to stuck-ness. David Rock called it the narrative circuit which is a mental map formed by repeatedly giving meaning to events through one’s own interpretation of events.[9] Rehearsing a litany of blame or getting on social media with defensive posts about why big is bad seems like nurturing an unhelpful narrative default stemming from the ego default. There has to be a better way than this vicious cycle.

According to Parrish, the way to overcome our unhelpful mental defaults is to create a new one, a default to clarity.  The idea is to change the brain into defaulting to the desired behavior.[10] Perhaps a different kind of hierarchy for churches and pastors could be useful. If we assigned status on different metrics, it might improve defaults. For example, measuring the number of congregants who are actively involved in serving the community outside the church points to engaged disciples. Another example might be measuring percentage of income shared with poor and marginalized community members, thus pointing to abundance mindset. In this imagined scenario, community engagement and generosity become hierarchical status markers. Pastors (they are still people) would probably still judge each other but perhaps the ego default would give way somewhat to greater orientation toward others.

If we looked at Kingdom-minded measurements, we could support our pastors in healthful church development as a default to clarity. In the living system of a congregation, small decisions which set a church up for big decisions might look like a coffee meeting to hear about partnering with a ministry outside the church. Perhaps it is asking the women’s ministry to use their annual tea as a fundraising opportunity to serve the city. Defaulting to the clear way of Jesus as an everyday default in the local church could better prepare the body for wanting what matters when faced with big decisions like capital campaigns and building projects.[11]

[1] Shane Parrish, Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results (New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2023), xi.

[2] The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish, #68, “Daniel Kahneman: Putting Your Intuition on Ice,” aired October 15, 2019.

[3] Shane Parrish, Clear Thinking, 13.

[4] ———, Clear Thinking, 17.

[5] ———, Clear Thinking, 25.

[6] ———, Clear Thinking, 30.

[7] ———, Clear Thinking, 21.

[8] Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, [Reprint], paperback ed, The Guilford Family Therapy Series (New York: Guilford Press, 2011), 105.

[9] David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Revised and updated edition (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2020), 93.

[10] Shane Parrish, Clear Thinking, 36.

[11] ———, Clear Thinking, 230.

About the Author

Julie O'Hara

17 responses to “Stop Judging: Start Default Training”

  1. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hi Julie,
    I LOVE your idea. What a difference that would make for the overall health of the church. The worst thing that could happen is the competitive pastor might want to steer the congregation to be the top outreach church, or the most giving, or the largest missional church, and that might not be a bad thing. Feed their ego and feed the people at the same time 🙂
    The church as a whole is losing out because the small church pastor is not being heard. As much as I love your idea, I just don’t see it ever happening. What small steps do you think one could take to slowly try to change the current thinking and ego driven minds?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Chris, Thank you for your comment. I want to find a way to reply within the framework of our reading. How about this…Even if organizationally speaking, a single person can never change measurements, they can influence culture. In a different culture, people have the safety that comes from increased status in which to try new things. My suggestion for one small thing to change culture is to change the default people you speak to in group settings. What about making a “rule” to go to the person who is alone, who has less status, or just doesn’t seem to have any way to give your ego and/or ministry a boost. I can’t even imagine the surprises God might have in store in that environment.

      • mm Chris Blackman says:

        At least one of us brought this back to the assignment – good work! I think I got so excited about your thought I forgot the point of the post :/

        I would support your “rule”. Thanks for looking out for the unseen!

  2. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Julie, Thank you for offering a way to reframe the status of the mega church pastors who might struggle with this comparison dilemma. One of the things that has been going on in our area is a push for congregations to embrace Matthew 25, particularly 25: 45. I am not sure what my question is other than do you see a way to shift the focus at conferences and gatherings of pastors?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Diane, Thank you for your question. Honestly, at first glance I agree it feels hopeless. As I have been working on our final essay two relevant things have surfaced. First, while in Oxford, Simon Walker referred to rediscovering our own moral and spiritual footing and fighting for the long game. I recall him implying that a remnant needed to be prepared rebuild foundations after the inevitable collapse. What I am saying is that living as in Matthew 25 will quietly continue and form people who will be leading in the future. So don’t give up! The second thing is in Rock on page 232, “Creating a sense of safety is the first step to transforming a culture.” To the degree that I am able, I must make it OK for conferences/meetings to highlight themes of caring for the least of these. In March I was at the Wesleyan-Holiness Women’s Clergy Conference and confess I thought it was too ‘soft.’ Maybe I need to think again. Thank you for giving me eyes to see.

  3. Debbie Owen says:

    GREAT ideas Julie. Thank you. Which one do you think you might try first?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Debbie! Thanks for the push. I was able to establish a metric for outreach in my former role as Executive Pastor. More recently I set up ‘Community Engagement’ as section within the Ministerial Development process in my district. However, it is not very well emphasized by the interview teams. Specifically in answer to your question – this is the location for me to start. By highlighting why we include it, prepping the teams to work that section, and modeling for the panels during the interviews I conduct. Also – new thought – Bringing evaluation of our classes of candidates more pointedly to this topic, not just on theology, etc.

  4. Daren Jaime says:

    Hey Julie! I loved this as you are looking at Parrish’s writing which style best compliments you during this season?

  5. Graham English says:

    Julie, love the idea of reframing success and metrics. I appreciate your desire to see churches and pastors experience health. Your blogs have been encouraging to me, particularly as you have written about these matters.
    How might a denominational leader developer implement the ideas that you’re proposing?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Graham, Thank you for your questions and remarks. I was asking myself the same things as I was writing it. Most of my thoughts are contained in the replies above. I again emphasize the idea of culture. How do we show people what really matters (to the heart of God?) Partially, we need to be relentlessly on message as we culture shift. For example, in 2024 my denomination has a focus on “Blessing our Community.” Whenever I have the opportunity, I try to highlight the difference between transactional and transformational ‘blessing.’ It is hard because I feel like a nag. For folks who are getting outside the church for the first time, a ‘big serve’ is a start, but to truly transform and bless, relationship is required – messy, dirty, put the bloody guy on your own donkey and stay overnight at the inn kind of commitment. Adding to the difficulty – at levels of greater denominational influence, the less opportunity a leader (me) has to engage in said messy blessing.

  6. Nancy Blackman says:

    Thank you for writing such a concise post about Parrish’s book, and connecting it to your context.

    When you started off with small action steps, you reminded me of a time when I was overwhelmed with having to read large chunks of material for a class. In a conversation with Chris he said, “Break it down. How many days do you have? Divide the number of pages by the number of days and that will give you a smaller number of pages you need to read each day. Do you think you can do that?” Game changer.

    Now we call it the 2% rule, and I implement that in other areas of my life.

    In context to the default modes that Parrish wrote about, what intentional small steps can you utilize to help you move into more desirable behaviors that benefit you and your ministry?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Nancy, My daughter has been coaching me similarly about how many words per day to write! I agree it is helpful. Regarding the defaults – Right now I am taking small steps to resist the social default. I could very easily go with the group and organize our project with the high-profile obvious speakers and methods. I have pushed for different voices and feel excited about the resources that are coming. It actually feels like big step as in I might be risking my position…so far so good. 🙂 On a smaller scale, I need to keep doing it, it would be so easy to let the clutch out and coast.

  7. Akwese says:

    Hi Julie, thanks once more for a great post! I love the idea of “Kingdom-minded measurements” and “defaulting to the clear way of Jesus as an everyday default in the local church. “ That said, I couldn’t help but think everyone will likely have their own understanding of what the “ clear way of Jesus” is/means/looks like in practice… How would you invite churches/pastors to consider this for themselves and begin creating “rules” within their congregations?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Akwése, You are so right! Also, it seems like the way I framed that statement can be classified sort of know-it-all…yuck! What I had in mind is following Jesus in living out his mission as declared in Luke 4:18-19 via Spirit-empowered everyday action alongside gospel proclamation. In terms of modeling relationship in community I suggest pastors cultivate relationships with organizations outside the church who are meeting community needs. Maybe as a volunteer? Developing a partnership? Getting to know people? Given how difficult this might be within the competing demands of ministry, it could signal value.

  8. mm Kari says:

    Hi Julie, I loved your practical application. How have you personally grown in your own journey to having a default to clarity?

  9. Julie O'Hara says:

    Hi Kari, Thank you for your question.

    Even though I am wired like Martha I don’t need to embrace distraction as my exclusive domain. Jesus invites me to sit with Mary, there is space for me there, too. I am pleased by his invitation and even though it doesn’t always feel comfortable, Jesus is happy when I just show up. I am showing up more and more and that is growth.

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