A Conversation with Tod Bolsinger
Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Tod Bolsinger of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Canoeing the Mountains. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Early in your book you share your epiphany “that your people need you to lead them even more than preach to them” (page 36). If preaching, teaching and the care of souls were at one time seen as the primary tasks of the pastor, what do you see as the primary tasks of the pastor as leader?
Tod: I define leadership as “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.” Therefore, the primary tasks of a leader certainly do include preaching, teaching and pastoral care as what I would call the “on-the-map technical competence” of a leader. Those primary tasks cannot be ignored our overlooked.
But leadership in uncharted territory is more about leading a process of learning and transformation with a group of people so they can carry out the mission to which they are called. Leading that process requires a leader to focus more on how to be, rather than on what to do. Specifically, to adapt a phrase from Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center: “Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”
Because all transformational leadership requires change, and change is experienced as loss, a significant amount of a leader’s work is to help a community determine what will never change (start with conviction) and then prepare to courageously face the necessary losses (stay calm) to keeping together (stay connected) to accomplish their mission (stay the course).
Those experiences of loss tend to cause people to lose their nerve and fall back on quick fixes or platitudes. But the way of leadership is ultimately about helping a people face their losses with courage, commitment and hope believing that God is at work within them and through them—so they can continue the course of change and fruitfulness. As Jesus put it so clearly about his own life and leadership in John 12, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Tim: You describe adaptive capacity, technical competence and relational congruence. Let’s look at relational congruence. How does a clergy leader learn relational congruence?
Tod: Relational congruence is the key to engendering trust in those whom we seek to lead into uncharted territory. While technical competence is learned in the repetitive discharging of our expected duties, relational congruence is both more difficult and requires more transparency.
Relational congruence comes through the intersection of reflection and relationships. Or to flip that on its head, relational congruence comes through relationships with trustworthy, caring and brutally honest people who cause you to engage in deep searching and brutally honest self-reflection. A famous principle that is attributed to educator John Dewey is that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. The key way that we learn to be relationally congruent is to reflect upon the moments of incongruence in our lives. It is to have safe, trusted advisors who will allow us to reflect with them on why we act one way at the church office and another in our neighborhoods, why we preach judgment on some people and some sins and overlook others, and why we act generously to those with whom we identify but withhold from those who are different from us.
Relational congruence comes only as we are able to see ourselves reflected in the eyes of those whom we respect and who love us. When they see us showing up in the same way in every circumstance—and we see them seeing us showing up this way—then we will be trustworthy leaders.
Tim: Your book builds on Ronald Heifetz’s theory of leadership based on understanding the difference between adaptive and technical problems. It is possible to teach this theory. There are as many leadership workshops for clergy on adaptive leadership now as there were on workshops regarding Bowen Family Systems 15 years ago. How do you help clergy live into adaptive leadership and not just understand the theory?
Tod: Leadership is an art, a practice, a way of functioning. It is a skill that is more like conducting an orchestra, guiding an expedition or teaching a cooking class. Leadership is learned in the leading. The problem with most theories of leadership is that they tend to communicate that once someone learns the theory then she is a leader. But learning to be a leader, especially an adaptive leader is something that happens only in real time with space to reflect on, with feedback from others, and with opportunities to try again and correct one’s mistakes.
Learning leadership from a book, a workshop, or a lecture is like learning to cook without entering a kitchen, fly-fish without casting to a trout, or flying a plane using only a video game. The best way for pastors to learn to become adaptive leaders is to secure a leadership coach who both understands adaptive leadership and whom the pastor can trust enough to be vulnerable and reflect on the lessons learned in the leading.
One warning: Don’t assume that because a pastor has been successful that he or she can be a good coach. Coaching is itself a skill and adaptive leadership coaching is not the same thing as either pastor or even leading. My own coach for three years was a brilliant psychologist who not only knew adaptive leadership theory, but was a committed church lay leader. He had never pastored a congregation nor led a company, but was great at asking questions, reflecting back to me, and creating a space for me to learn “on-the-job.”
Tim: What’s one thing you’ve been working on regarding congregations and leadership since you published Canoeing the Mountains?
Tod: I’m currently working on a book that combines my early work in communal spiritual formation with my more recent work in leading change to focus on the practices that form adaptive leaders for the church and mission of God. My working title is Tempered, and it is focused on helping Christian leaders develop the strength and flexibility to lead people they love into the places of pain in the world, in the face of their people’s own resistance.
Tim: You can give first-time clergy three books to read that they probably didn’t read in seminary or whatever education route they took to ministry. What three books do you offer?
Tod: Let me give you one ministry book, one theology book, and one novel:
Thriving through Ministry Conflict by Jim Osterhaus, Joe Jurkowski and Todd Hahn
The Misunderstanding of the Church by Emil Brunner
Glittering Images by Susan Howatch