July 16, 2019

Why “Canoeing the Mountains”

For many years, books about healthy congregations focused on how to do what we’ve always done better, or at least in a more attractive way. One book capturing attention today asserts that what we’ve always done is not likely to work, no matter how well we do it.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership In Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger, takes a frank but hopeful look at the opportunities for adaptive leadership within the church today. The title is a reference to the ways that explorers Lewis and Clark had to adapt to the unexpected reality of the Rocky Mountains as they sought a riverway to the Pacific.

At a recent gathering of leaders of several parishes in the Diocese of Chicago, Bishop Jeffrey Lee recommended Canoeing the Mountains as a guide for the reality of today:

The world in front of us is almost nothing like the world behind us. The world that created, sustained and helped the Episcopal Church to flourish for many, many decades is gone. And it’s not coming back. Our ‘canoes’ are not much use…

As frightening as this sounds, Bishop Lee and many others find encouragement in how author Bolsinger offers insights for navigating the territory of today’s mission field.

Bolsinger, who is a pastor and Vice President for Vocation and Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary, calls for a “reorientation” for church leaders who were “trained for a world that is disappearing.” Adaptive challenges call for adaptive capacity. The book calls us to consider what that means for our individual faith communities, and what we can learn from each other as we all face the reality that there is “no quick fix.” But, he says, this is good news!

This is a divine moment. This is an opportunity to express even more clearly what it means to follow and serve the God who is King of the entire world. The church at its best has always been a Corps of Discovery. It has always been a small band of people willingly heading into uncharted territory with a mission worthy of our utmost dedication.

Bolsinger’s book is praised for its Biblical foundation and organizational leadership applications, with examples from those who have applied what he urges: keep calm, clear and connected as we journey this new world together.