Muscle Memory and Mission

It takes practice, and humility, to change a pattern.

At the end of last year, I ran my first marathon. The race was tough, but it was the training that almost killed me.

With only six weeks left before the race, I injured my knee. Worried that I wouldn’t be able to run after six months of training, I went to a physical therapist.

After checking my range of motion, flexibility and gait, she watched me run. She noticed that I wasn’t landing properly on my left foot. She demonstrated the proper form and gave me some exercises to help strengthen a few weak muscles.

Will I still be able to run the race?” I asked.

“I’ll do everything I can,” she said, “but here is what you’re up against: We’re going to try to undo 30 years of muscle memory in six weeks.”

Those words hit like a ton of bricks. I had come in because I was in pain. Now I was aware of the problem, and I even knew how to fix it. However, getting over the injury wasn’t the biggest obstacle; I was faced with retraining my body to change something it had been doing for 30 years.

Muscle memory in the church

As ministry leaders, we often see the changing culture as our biggest obstacle. Or, that people are slow to grab onto vision. While these things are true, one of our biggest enemies is often our muscle memory; our unconscious leadership keeps us stuck. Leadership muscle memory relates to any behavior or mindset that is our default posture. It’s what we do without even thinking about it. This can be a positive thing, but when there is an area of our leadership needing change, muscle memory can be one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with a church on a vision overhaul. Its leaders refined and reimagined their mission, vision, values and strategy. For instance, they admitted that one of their stated values—community engagement—was merely aspirational. Together, they determined this had to change. It was thrilling to hear various team members speak with passion about how they envisioned the church in the future.

A few months later, I visited the church again, this time on a Sunday morning. The revised vision was being unpacked in a several-week sermon series. The pastor called the congregation to be servants out of the overflow of how Christ had served them.

Then the muscle memory kicked in, and every example of how to serve was tied to a program in the church. What the pastor was unintentionally communicating was that 80 percent of their lives (that lived outside the church walls) had nothing to do with the mission of God. Instead, if they wanted to serve God, the primary way to do so was by volunteering in one of the ministries offered by the church, the majority of which focused on the already reached.

What happened? What about that value of community engagement? What about getting outside the walls?

Muscle memory took over. Although there was a desire to focus outwardly, there were years of inward conditioning; the muscles continued to pull in the same direction.

Embrace the awkwardness

In any area of desired change, we often know what we should do, but it is easy to unconsciously fall back into default mode. We understand a principle—a fundamental truth about the way things should be—but we have not intentionally trained ourselves (or our teams) to practice the principle.

In the case of a desire for community engagement, it takes intentionality to replace inward-focused muscle memory with missional memory.

All learning takes place along the same path:

  • Unconscious incompetence: We are unaware of what we don’t know or can’t do.
  • Conscious incompetence: We are aware of what we don’t know or can’t do.
  • Conscious competence: We know what to do, but we have to think about it.
  • Unconscious Competence: We engage in the new skill without even thinking about it. (We might call this a new muscle memory.)

The middle two stages are incredibly uncomfortable. They are humbling and feel unnatural.

This was true of reconditioning my running form. Thinking about what I needed to do and how I needed to plant my foot was awkward. At first, I just ran funny. Not only did it feel unnatural, but it also looked unnatural. Running was not relaxing. I had to think about every move I made. But as I focused on the weak muscles and persevered, I moved into new muscle memory. I did run my first marathon, just six weeks later, free of knee pain.

How do we re-train our missional muscles?

1. Spend time with outsiders.

One of the best ways to change our inward-focused muscle memory is to regularly spend time with outsiders. Listen to what they value, what they talk about, the questions they ask about family, life, politics, spiritual matters, etc. You’ll become aware of what you do not know (conscious incompetence).

2. Get coaching.

It felt weird to walk down the hallway of the clinic and have my physical therapist point out what I was doing wrong. I felt a little silly, as a grown adult, to be told I didn’t know how to walk. Give a few trusted people the opportunity to evaluate what you are saying and doing. Ask them to help you connect your passion for a principle with practice.

3. Embrace the awkwardness.

Change never feels comfortable at first. It takes a lot of humility to admit you have muscle memory that is reinforcing behavior that will never get you where you want to go. It takes even more humility to allow others to see you stumble through the awkward stage of learning something new. But embrace the awkwardness. A new pattern is just around the corner.

4. Depend on the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is our best physical therapist. He knows exactly what the problem is and the necessary heart adjustments. He is the change agent—more powerful than our own working is His working within us. Ask Him to show you what needs to change, then open your heart to change and ask Him to do the work needed for the glory of Jesus Christ.

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