Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger came highly recommended. Last year, I received a copy of the book from Archbishop Foley Beach. He had read it and found it so helpful that he sent each rector in our Diocese (ADOTS) a copy of the book.

bolsinger book

The premise of the book focuses on Christian leadership in uncharted territory—often referred to as “leading off the map.” The uncharted territory in view is the shifting milieu from Christendom to post-Christian contexts in North America.

After receiving the book, I skimmed through it and found it helpful at the time. Then, a few weeks ago, I dug it back out again. It has been an incredibly useful resource for me as I think through leading our congregation off the map during this pandemic.

Why has it been more helpful now? Because the ongoing crisis has added a level of urgency. Plus, the shutdown itself has stopped everything “normal” long enough to think more critically and creatively about the work of ministry.

Stories and Summaries

Canoeing the Mountains is filled with stories and summaries. Tod is an experienced pastor, denominational leader, and now serves as the Vice President and Chief of Leadership Formation at Fuller Seminary. Clearly, he is a reflective practitioner.

The book itself has an overarching motif using the 19th-century expedition of Lewis & Clark to capture the imagination. He looks at their adventures from various angles highlighting their crisis, unique collaborative leadership, and eventual success. They followed the Missouri River west in their canoes, never imagining that the Rocky Mountains lay ahead. How does a crew specializing in river-exploration transition into mountain-explorers to complete their mission?

That is the hook that sets up the entire book. Along the way, Tod also uses illustrations from pastoral ministry and denominational leadership. He frequently weaves in quotes and summaries from leadership guides like Ronald Heifetz and Edwin Friedman. The combination of stories and summaries throughout helps the material stick. Beyond that, it really helps the leader self-reflect on similar experiences and challenges.

Key Distinction

Early on, there is a key distinction made between technical problems and adaptive challenges. For me, it was really helpful to be able to categorize things in this pandemic.

Technical problems are well defined, the answer is known, and implementation is clear. For example, how do we live-stream our worship service is a technical problem. How do we sanitize based on CDC guidelines is a technical problem.

Adaptive challenges are complex, answers are unclear, and implementation requires innovation and learning. When should we regather as a congregation? How do we structure our leadership teams? What does hospitality look like when people are hesitant to gather in-person? What online efforts should continue? These are more adaptive challenges.

Technical problems can be solved, but adaptive challenges are best explored together.

Leading Off the Map

The middle section of the book is focused on “Leading Off the Map.” It has been the most helpful section for this pandemic season. In some ways, part 1 and part 2 are making the case that we are off the map. During this pandemic, no one is debating that at all! So, part 3 is the pay-dirt for leaders.

For me, chapter 10 on “mission” was incredibly clarifying. Tod defines leadership and how focusing on the overall mission is critical when leading off the map. He writes:

“Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. 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.”

The leader is guided by the mission of the organization. Having clarity on your church’s mission right now will help you make decisions about the next, right steps.

“There is perhaps no greater responsibility and no greater gift that leadership can give a group of people on a mission than to have the clearest, most defined mission possible.”

Right now, each congregation should be revisiting and clarifying its mission to guide them in the days ahead. Tod goes on in the chapter to talk about the reality of conflict and the need for clear decisions (rather than win-win patience) while leading off the map.

Reflection

To me, the content in this book was really helpful. But the key was in how reading through the book helped me reflect on our actual context. This book will spark ideas, underline challenges, and help you think clearly.

I would recommend that Anglican pastors and leaders catch their breath and dive into this book right now as they are looking at this summer and thinking ahead through the rest of 2020. It also has a discussion guide you can use to process with your teams.