Leaders of the Future Must Adapt


July 05, 2019

By Pam Ekey

If the church is to survive in the future, its leadership must change, says Tod Bolsinger, Ph.D., who is the chief of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, most seminaries do not prepare pastors for the challenges of adaptive leadership; those skills are needed if the church is to thrive. 

“We were trained for a different context. The fading of Christendom requires that religious leaders learn to lead all over again,” said Bolsinger. Leading in uncharted territory requires new learning, results in loss and leads to a lifetime of transformation. 

Bolsinger authored the book, Canoeing the Mountains which uses the Corps of Discovery journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as a model of transformational leadership.

Bolsinger wrote the book as a leadership model for uncharted territory. The present and future of the church is not at all as it was in the past, and a new leadership model is needed. In the 1950s and ’60s, church was the backbone of the community. Employers, families and society expected and encouraged attendance at worship. Today, churches struggle to remain relevant within their communities.

From 1804 to 1806, the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, traveled from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the headwaters of the Missouri and then over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the journey was to find a navigable route through the interior of the United States to the Pacific Ocean. Bolsinger pointed out that men on the Corps of Discovery were rivermen. They expected to float all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But when they reached the Rocky Mountains they confronted a new reality and had to find another way to travel overland to the west coast. They abandoned their canoes to travel by horse.

Adaptive leadership is needed when the world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you. Like Lewis and Clark, church leaders today were trained for another context. And like the explorers, church leaders must find a new way of leading through uncharted territory.

“Management is what we do when we what we have always done no longer works,” he said. Churches today are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly changing culture. In order to reach new people, church leadership must change. 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.

Learning is at the heart of adaptive change. “The first loss for most of us trained in Christendom is to overcome the expert expectation and become learners who listen to and learn from the margins,” he said. Leaders must distinguish between what should be preserved and what needs to change. 

Pastors need to learn the DNA of their congregations before they can initiate changes. This means learning the stories and experiences that define a particular congregation. This requires deep listening to discover the values as well as the fears of the congregation.

There is also a need to differentiate between technical change and adaptive change.

Technical solutions involve the application of current knowledge, skills and tools to resolve a situation. This might require repairs to the building or recruiting additional Sunday school teachers. But adaptive solutions cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge, skills and tools, requiring people to make a shift in values, expectations, attitudes, or habits of behavior, he said. Adaptive challenges are systemic problems with no clear answers.

A spirit of adventure and a willingness to explore uncharted territory are keys to adaptive change. “No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map,” he said. Building trust will make it possible to implement changes. In uncharted territory, adaptive change, or the ability to try something new is possible when the leader is trusted.

Sabotage is a normal reaction to change, Bolsinger said. It is what a system naturally does to protect itself. “Sabotage is not the bad things that bad people do, but the human things that anxious people do,” he said. People naturally want to go back to what is familiar. Adaptive leaders are able to help people acknowledge their loss in order to move into the future.

You can view Bolsinger’s entire presentation at www.vimeo.com/channels/moac19

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory is available online at Cokesbury and Amazon.