A young leader reflects on the all-Canada leadership conference.

By Elena Francescini

How is the church to be faithful when the world ahead of us is so different from the world behind us? How do we lead ministry in a cultural context that is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity? What do we do about shrinking and dying churches? These questions and more were the topic of discussion at Navigating Change Together, a Regional Synod of Canada conference in April that focused on adaptive leadership.

The conference was open to RCA leaders across Canada, as well as members from the Christian Reformed Church. There were seminars, panel discussions, and opportunities to connect. The keynote speaker was Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains. In his book, Bolsinger relates the story of explorers Lewis and Clark, who were trained and equipped to find a water route across the continent but had to learn new skills when they ran into completely unexpected terrain: the Rocky Mountains.

In Canada, where, among other things, courts assert that Christians cannot practice impartially as lawyers, it is safe to say that the era of Christendom has passed. For centuries, seminary has prepared and equipped leaders to minister in a culture that privileged Christianity, but today’s changing cultural climate requires adaptive leaders who are willing to transform their ministries and be transformed themselves, and who are equipped to lead their congregations through new terrain.

Over the course of the conference, I often felt as though I were meeting with old friends. It was humbling and inspiring to meet leaders who care deeply about their congregations and who want to engage with their neighbourhoods effectively, to connect with the children and youth who are leaving, and to do so in a way that remains true to the character of their church. So many different contexts! Rural churches, older congregations, churches filled with newcomers to Canada. Having attended the same church my whole life, it was fascinating to hear the different challenges and opportunities in each place, and yet the same love and commitment and concern.

Practically speaking, I appreciated learning the difference between “technical challenges” and “adaptive challenges.” You’ll experience both kinds in a church. A technical challenge can be addressed by applying current knowledge, skills, and tools—for example, balancing the church budget or hiring an expert to produce a survey of our neighbourhood’s needs. An adaptive challenge requires us to change internally. It can’t be solved by continuing to do what we’ve been doing or by bringing in an expert. An adaptive challenge may be a situation we’ve never found ourselves in before and will certainly require new learning and a shift in values or expectations. It may even result in loss.

Several leaders at the conference shared that when they tried to implement changes, they experienced quite a bit of pushback within their congregation. Bolsinger explained that people are not usually afraid of change so much as they are afraid of loss. This really hit home. Especially for church members who have already experienced loss—for instance, moving from their home country, grieving the changing religious climate in Canada, or seeing their children or grandchildren leave—the church might feel like the sole remaining safe place. If we expect to adapt our ministries and leadership style to respond to a non-Christian culture, we must also expect to lead our congregations through the complex loss that accompanies change.

On one of the evenings, I spoke on a panel of young leaders in the RCA, discussing what it would take for young leaders to be vitally engaged in the life of the church. I shared that young people in my church have expressed a desire for cross-generational connection. In our city a lot of young people move to town for school or work, and the church is one of the few settings in which we have access to real relationships with older adults. We hope not only for spiritual growth but also for relational connection outside of church; we long to be invited into homes, share social events, and connect on a deeper level than being asked questions about our studies or relationship status.

One of my take-aways from this conference is the realization that we have a Christian family across Canada. In every province and territory, and across Christian denominations, we are all struggling to learn new skills for ministry in a changing culture. We are getting out of the canoe and heading for the mountains. Events like this can give us the courage, motivation, and joy to continue the journey together.

Elena Francescini is an elder at New Life Community Church (RCA) in Burnaby, British Columbia.