Leading Your Church into Uncharted Territory

A review of Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

By Gail Hughes

Thousands of marathoners regularly run grueling races, punishing themselves with both physical exhaustion and pain. Why? Is it the hope of winning? Probably not. Most likely it is the personal challenge of finishing what one has set out to do. That’s the attitude the Hebrews were supposed to have: stay in the faith-race to the end. That’s also the attitude we as Christian leaders need to keep today.

Several months ago, the board of the Regional Synod of Canada read and discussed together Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains. What hit home for me, both as I reflected on past struggles and experiences and as I looked to future endeavors and goals, was the idea of “staying the course.” Bolsinger says we must “start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, stay the course” (p. 15).

As our Canadian churches struggle to remain viable communities that bring the presence of Christ to today’s changing culture, we recognize that we, too, need to change. When we see a decline in membership and giving, when we notice a lack of young people, or when we consider the shortage of pastors (and churches able to support pastors), we may wonder how to stay both relevant and consistent in today’s world. Of course we must start by praying for God’s direction. Bolsinger tells us that churches must also “adapt to the changing world around them without losing their core identity, their reason for being, their core values and purpose” (p. 41).

And that’s where adaptive leadership comes in. Adaptive leadership is defined as “adapting to the changing environment or circumstances so that new possibilities arise for accurately seeing, understanding, and facing challenges with new actions” (p. 41). Bolsinger uses the story of the explorers Lewis and Clark, who were tasked with finding a water route across what is now the western half of the United States. When they came to the end of the river, they had to adapt their skills to mountain climbing. I wonder if in some ways the church today has come to the end of the river. But that does not mean the mission is over! There is still new territory to explore.

What I appreciated most about this book, and what gave me the encouragement to keep venturing forth, was the idea that we need “to be transformed into something more than we have been—without losing our core identity—in order to accomplish the mission we have been called to” (p. 42). This thought is both humbling and challenging. It inspires, uplifts, reaffirms, and excites me. It provokes me to think about the possibilities God has in store for his people as we seek to build up the kingdom in uncharted territory.

I’m reminded of Hebrews 12 and its encouragement to us: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV).

As Bolsinger says, “The church is also at an exciting crossroads. … We are not alone. The Spirit of God goes before us. The mission of Christ will not fail” (p. 23).

Tod Bolsinger will be the keynote speaker at the Regional Synod of Canada’s Canada-wide leadership event in April 2018. Learn more at www.synodcanada.com.

Gail Hughes is an elder at Powell River Reformed Church in Powell River, British Columbia. She is vice president of the Regional Synod of Canada executive board and involved in Ridder Church Renewal.

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