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Canoeing the Mountains


September 20, 2021

The past year and a half have been at the very least inconvenient for almost every aspect of our society, economy, and culture … but it has made for a great time to be teaching about adaptive change. 

Tod Bolsinger, MDiv, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the De Pree Center Church Leadership Initiative, a Senior Fellow of the De Pree Center for Leadership, and Associate Professor of Leadership Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’s also an author of five books and was at Community United Methodist Church in Columbia on September 9 presenting the material in his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. The book was written in 2015, but its everything is different now and we’ve never been here before themes have resonated very well in 2020 and 2021.

The need for an adaptive change immediately hit close to home for Bolsinger. Before the pandemic, he was traveling 100,000 miles a year doing speaking engagements and consulting. In one week, he had his next 15 presentations canceled. Then in the next 15 months, he ended up doing 170 webinars. 

Bolsinger said many pastors are leaving the ministry, often citing exhaustion. He contends that much of exhaustion won’t be helped by self-care. 

“The problem of exhaustion is that we are not wholehearted with what we are facing,” Bolsinger said. “Learning to lead with adaptive change can lead you back to wholehearted ministry.”

Wholehearted ministry is likely to require adaptive change, which will involve having the capacity to:

  • Learn
  • Face Loses
  • Navigate Competing Values
  • Bring to light problems that were there all along

A byproduct of all of those webinars that Bolsinger was doing was a lot of data. Because people were commenting and asking questions using the online chat function, he went back and analyzed common themes or underlying conditions that kept churches from living up to their true values. 
  1. The lack of deep discipleship for a persevering church.
  2. The lack of a deep community that keeps people connected and unified in times of disconnection and division.
  3. The lack of extensive leadership capacity for distributed models of ministry. 
  4. A church unable to wisely and courageously speak prophetically, collaborate for justice, and serve the common good because it was shaped within the cultural privilege.

Unfortunately, most pastors are trained for preaching, programs, and pastoral care, which will not necessarily overcome the imaginative gridlock holding back a church. The churches, and pastors, are not stuck because they aren’t trying, and simply trying harder may not help.

“I’m not going to tell you to paddle harder when you’re in a canoe in a riverbed without water,” Bolsinger said. 

“You can’t just think about it harder. You need to see the problem differently. You need to see it before you can solve it.”

Bolsinger said a spirit of adventure is needed, which requires learning and will result in facing loss. The leader needs to stand in front of the group and say the three most challenging words to say: I don’t know. 

You know you’ve identified adaptive challenges when the challenges:
  • Require learning
  • Results in facing loss
  • Reveals gaps in behavior, values, or strategies that must be negotiated

Bolsinger told a story about presenting a plan for change at Fuller Seminary to some venture capitalists. They weren’t impressed because his presentation wasn’t about saving souls. It was about saving the seminary. 

“Nobody cares whether your institution survives. They only care if your institution cares about them,” he was told by someone on the panel. Bolsinger said many organizations, including churches, fall into the same self-preservation pattern. 

“The default behavior of most organizational leaders is to solve problems for our organizations rather than change our organizations for the meeting the needs of the world,” he said. He offered the following Keystone Adaptive Questions to consider:
How might the charism of our congregation address the pain points of our community as an expression of God’s mission in the world?
How might that inspire us to adapt, change, and grow faithfully?

“You’re not supposed to become something that you’re not,” he said. “Adaptive change is about becoming the healthiest version of yourself.”