What We Read: Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015. 269 pages.

Book Cover

Canoeing the Mountains offers a better way to think about the problems of congregational decline and the changes that churches need to make to respond to a new world. Turning the Lewis and Clarke expedition into a parable, Tod Bolsinger compares Christian leaders contemplating the strange new culture that we live in to Merriwether Lewis reaching the Lemhi Pass and realizing that the journey forward would in no way resemble the one he had just completed. Travelling to the source of the Missouri River did not lead to a Northwest Passage and a water route to the Pacific; instead, they found the daunting obstacle of the Rocky Mountains. Likewise the church’s future is increasingly one for which leaders feel that their traditional seminary education and formation has done little to prepare them.

Expanding on the work of Ronald Heifetz, Bolsinger makes a critical distinction between technical problems, which can be solved with existing solutions and knowledge, and adaptive challenges, which arise from a changing environment and uncharted territory. Perhaps no insight is more helpful for church leaders trying to navigate the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, with which we will continue to wrestle long after the last vaccinations are administered. Writing before the pandemic, Bolsinger reminds us that the adaptive challenges arising from rapidly changing social realities will take more than ‘magic bullets’ to solve them: ‘If talking, trying or tricks work, they would have worked already.’ Instead of proposing technical solutions which can only solve technical problems, he proposes a framework for seeing problems and interconnected systemic issues with fresh perspectives, allowing leaders to pivot and innovate the challenges ahead.

Much that Bolsinger presents is nothing new; indeed, he draws heavily from experts in systems and change theories such as Ronald Heifetz, John Kotter, Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, and Ed Friedman. What he does offer is a reminder that once an expedition—whether a congregational one or a search for the Northwest Passage—goes ‘off the map’, the value of ‘experts’ changes. Their insights are helpful in preparing leaders for the journey, but they cannot do the work of adapting, learning, growing, and being transformed for us. Likewise, this book will not be helpful for those seeking magic bullets; instead it is encouragement and an invitation to the heroic work of church leadership ‘off the map’.

Jonathan Rowe, Contributor

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