Irrational Leadership

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed teaching in the Duke Doctor of Ministry Program is the privilege of having a hand in the work of some of our most able pastoral leaders.  The Reverend Dr. Ken Evers-Hood was a student in the program and was one of the first of many to do some significant publication arising out of his Doctor of Ministry work.

While in one of the first Duke D.Min cohorts back in 2011 Ken studied irrationality and game theory with our new Dean, Greg Jones, and with Duke’s behavioral economist, Dan Ariely. In 2016 Wipf and Stock published a version of his D.Min thesis as The Irrational Jesus: Leading the Fully Human Church.

Here’s Ken’s big idea. While classical economics offers beautiful, econometric models for how people should behave, behavioral economists like Dan Ariely study how people actually operate. What Ariely finds over and over again is that people are not only irrational but we are predictably irrational. Being a pastor and a leader who works with churches in conflict Ken realized there was something similar between Ariely’s work and his own. Having attended Princeton Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity Ken noticed that we academics can sometimes offer such beautiful and articulate theological models for how people ought to behave in the church, but, as every pastor knows, the blessed humans who show up on Sunday morning can be…a little different, downright irrational, even.

In The Irrational Jesus Ken offers something of a field guide to the predictable irrationality that shows up in the church. In the first section Ken explores how, in our full humanity, we don’t simply perceive the world as it is, but because of the particular way God shaped our brains, we interpret the world through what Dan Ariely refers to as thinking fast and thinking slow. The fast parts of our brains operate largely on automatic using cognitive heuristics, or shortcuts, to process vast amounts of information quickly. Most of the time this works okay, but now and again these interpretive devices create blind spots called cognitive bias.

Did you know it feels about twice as bad to lose something as it does to get it in the first place? This “loss aversion” helps to explain why even good changes freak out our dear, beloved congregants. Confirmation bias leads us to seek out the facts that support our opinion and ignore or discount facts that don’t. This is why even fair-minded people can read the same Bible and come away with entirely different perspectives…because they aren’t really reading the same Bible. People cherry pick, and the divisions that split us up stem from the different parts of the orchard we pick from. (UMC, take note!) Ken has the guts, or foolishness depending on your perspective, of speculating on Jesus’ fully human and divine nature.

The second section, The Irrational Paul, explores game theory. Paul often uses gameful metaphors and refers to disciples as being like athletes, but Ken thinks there’s more to it than this. One of the tools behavioral economists use to study people are economic games like the prisoner’s dilemma and the public goods game. There are patterns to them that these people optimistically refer to as games. For his thesis work here at Duke Ken actually studied over 100 Presbyterian elders playing different versions of a public goods game. In the most interesting version the elders could reward or punish others in the group anonymously. Now, I don’t know what Ken learned from all this, but it made me glad I’m United Methodist where we only have kind and loving people who would never punish one another in a meeting!

The last section of the book Ken puts everything together and focuses on leaders and the decisions that we make. Most of the time we judge a decision by its outcome assuming good decisions lead to good outcomes, but this isn’t always true. Sometimes, even good decisions can head south on us, and other times we can make a terrible decision but luck out. Not satisfied with his Duke D. Min, Ken earned a certificate in Strategic Decision Making and Risk Management from Stanford, where he merged what he knew about irrationality with a tool they use called a decision quality chain. While outcomes are important, Ken points out the only thing we can really control and improve is our decision making itself. He received an Innovation Grant from Duke’s Leadership Education in 2016 to offer this teaching to middle governing bodies in the church. And now we get some if it, too through Ken’s book.

Ken is preceptor in my Introduction to Christian Leadership course.  If you are a pastor who is interested in honing your leadership skills and in getting your good ideas out to a wider audience through publication, you ought to consider the Duke D.Min.  Write me at and let’s talk about whether the Duke D.Min would be good for you.


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