Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015. 269 pages.
Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a good friend recommended I read this book. It was published in 2015, but I had somehow missed it. I found it extremely helpful, insightful, and relevant to leadership issues today, especially in the Church.
The author, Tod Bolsinger, was on staff at First Presbyterian Church Hollywood for ten years. He then served as senior pastor at San Clemente Presbyterian Church for seventeen years. He is currently a vice president at Fuller Seminary.
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This book follows the epic journey Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took from May 14, 1804 to September 23, 1806. Bolsinger bases much of his writing on the bestselling book Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, which I have also read (and highly recommend!).
Bolsinger’s fundamental point is that Meriwether and Lewis and their party set out on a mission to discover the best route to the Pacific Ocean. Europeans had been searching for a western route to the Orient for centuries to no avail. The explorers assumed they could canoe all the way to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, their preparations and equipment were focused to that end. For the first fifteen months of their journey, everything went according to plan. Then they ran smack dab into the Rocky Mountains! They were nothing like the familiar Appalachian Mountains. Lewis and Clark discovered “that three hundred years of experts had been completely, utterly wrong” (26).
At that point, Lewis and Clark had to make a decision. They could admit failure and go home. They could futilely attempt to continue using the methods that had given them success thus far. Or they could adapt. This book is about adaptive leadership. It is for when what got us to where we are now won’t get us any further.
Bolsinger particularly applies this principle to church and Christian nonprofit leadership, though it also applies to leading companies. He notes that many pastors today complain that “seminary didn’t prepare me for this” (12). He suggests that approximately 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month. He concludes, “In this changing world we need to add a new set of leadership tools” (13). He adds, “All that we have assumed about leading Christian organizations, all that we have been trained for, is out of date” (28). “We are in uncharted terrain trying to lead dying churches into a post-Christian culture that now considers the church an optional, out-of-touch and irrelevant relic of the past” (31). He suggests, “The answer is not to try harder but to start a new adventure” (33).
I found this book’s thesis particularly compelling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Church ministers had been trained to prepare sermons during the week and deliver them in person each weekend from their pulpit. Suddenly, the government forbade churches from meeting in person. Many churches had no live-stream capability. Many pastors were novices at using social media or their iPhone to broadcast messages to their parishioners. Some ministers merely complained about the government’s overreach and longed for a return to normalcy. Others adapted to the unexpected circumstances and discovered new ministry opportunities they had previously missed.
Ironically, Bolsinger suggests problems churches are facing today “. . . are very often the result of yesterday’s solutions” (19). If certain methods have brought us success for many years, it is extremely difficult and unsettling to let them go.
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Bolsinger’s book is summed up in five key lessons:
- Understanding uncharted territory: the world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.
- The on-the-map skill set: no one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map.
- Leading off the map: in uncharted territory, adaptation is everything.
- Relationships and resistance: you can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived sabotage.
- Transformation: everybody will be changed (especially the leader) (14-16).
Bolsinger makes heavy use of the work by Ronald Heifetz throughout his book. Years ago, I read Heifetz’s book Leadership Without Easy Answers and found it to be very thought-provoking. Heifetz teaches adaptive leadership. Bolsinger notes that “If someone is not functioning as a leader, the system will always default to the status quo” (21). He quotes Ed Friedman who said, “The leader in the system is the one who is not blaming anyone” (21).
Heifetz suggests that adaptive challenges “cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge and skills, requiring people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes, or habits of behavior” (42). Of course, this adjustment requires a high level of leadership. Some challenges leaders face are technical. Leaders can deal with them by honing their current skills in preaching or modernizing a worship service. These problems merely require improving what a leader is already doing. But adaptive challenges require a radical adjustment that depends on great leadership.
Bolsinger defines leadership this way: “Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world” (42). Bolsinger suggests there are three key components to such leadership: adaptive capacity, technical competence, and relational congruence (43).
Bolsinger makes many good points in this discussion. He notes that if you have not demonstrated competence in your past leadership, there is no reason for people to trust you as you lead them into uncharted territory (51). He also mentions that most leaders, especially in the church, are not trained to lead organizations (58). Organizations have cultures and a DNA. Most leaders are unfamiliar with what is required to transform organizations that have become old and stale, which is why roughly 70% of churches in America today are plateaued or in decline.
Ron Heifetz states, “Adaptive processes don’t require leadership with answers. It requires leadership that creates structures that hold people together through the very conflictive, passionate, and sometimes awful process of addressing questions for which there aren’t easy answers” (65). To lead an organization to adapt, leaders must begin with themselves. Bolsinger confesses, “Most of my experience was invalid, and most of my so-called expertise was irrelevant. Indeed, my past experience, especially my past ‘success’ could end up leading to my downfall” (109).
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Bolsinger discusses his attempt to address a problem in his church. At a certain point, attendance at worship services began to decline. People immediately offered solutions and knee-jerk reactions. Bolsinger notes that “Because of the gap between cause and effect, it is difficult to diagnose the true underlying causes of most problems” (116). Ultimately, he discovered that what they thought was the problem was actually a symptom. Turning things around required more significant change than people had initially assumed.
Interestingly, Heifetz defines leadership as “. . . disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb” (172). In adaptive leadership, searching for a win-win can be elusive (139). People, even your friends, may have to lose in order for the organization to accomplish its mission. Bolsinger notes that “mission trumps” (123). “In a healthy Christian ministry, the mission wins every argument” (125). What I have seen is that people in declining churches often confuse the methods with the mission. They get upset if the pastor removes the pews or changes the songs, but the furniture and music are only methods. Churches do not exist to have pews. Their purpose is not to sing hymns. It is to make disciples of all nations. Yet people become more enamored with and attached to the methods than they are to the mission.
Bolsinger encourages organizations to develop a robust mission statement. He suggests it only be eight words or less (130). He notes, “There is perhaps no greater responsibility and no greater gift leadership can give a group of people on a mission than to have the clearest, most defined mission possible” (129) Interestingly, Bolsinger also states, “A big mistake that many leaders make is to assume that all friends are allies” (158). Finally, Bolsinger writes of the Lewis and Clark expedition, “It took European civilization almost three centuries to grasp fully that what it had found—North America—might be more important than what it was looking for” (207).
I found this book to be very helpful, particularly for our current situation. I have long believed that organizations get stuck because its leaders cannot think outside the box. The methods that got an organization into a problem are the same ones they are trying to use to get out of it. Part of the issue is the leadership training people are receiving. Church pastors are trained in seminaries. Most of the professors are not leaders themselves, which greatly compounds the problem. A preaching professor assumes the key to healthy churches is solid, biblical preaching. A theology professor assumes a church with solid theology will automatically grow from the blessing of God. But few teachers help people know what to do when their training and previous experience is inadequate to solve their current problems.
Too often leaders assume the situation is impossible when, in fact, they are merely using an inadequate approach.
I enjoyed this book. I am not always a fan of books that draw lessons from historic events. They often seem forced. At times the analogy got a bit weary, but, overall, I found the Lewis and Clark expedition provides a powerful picture of today’s leadership. Rather than longing for the good old days, leaders ought to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of adaptive leadership. It won’t be easy, and it might cost them some friends. But, ultimately, their organization will thank them when they continue to thrive into the future.
Richard Blackaby is the president of Blackaby Ministries International and lives in Georgia. He travels internationally speaking on spiritual leadership in the home, church, and marketplace as well as on spiritual awakening, experiencing God, and the Christian life. Richard regularly ministers to Christian CEOs and business leaders. He has written or co-authored 33 books . This article was first published on RichardBlackaby.com. Used with permission from Blackaby Ministries International. Learn More »More on Book Reviews
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