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
“The future is already here, it is just on the margins.”
-Dave Gibbons, author and pastor of Newsong Church, Santa Ana, California
On February 11, 1805, a sound rang out through Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery that they had never expected to hear. Not the roar of a grizzly bear, not the thunder of waterfalls, not the call of an unknown bird.
A baby’s cry.
The military corps charged by Thomas Jefferson with finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean had a new recruit because his mother would someday become — next to Lewis and Clark themselves — the most famous member of this fable crew who would find their way across the Rocky Mountains to the far side of the continent.
The baby’s mother, Sacagawea, had been born Shoshone. Kidnapped by the Hidatsa when she was 11 or 12, she was now at 16 or 17 years of age, one of the wives of a French-Canadian trapper named Toussant Charbonneau. The captains had hired Charbonneau as a guide through the mountains, but they very quickly realized that Sacagawea’s interpreting was far more valuable. So, when the captains needed to drop their canoes and find horses to cross the Rockies, it was to Sacagawea they turned.
She led them to the Shoshone, navigated the tense relationship at the first encounter, and helped broker the deal that brought the corps the critical horses they needed. When her tribe begged Sacagawea to stay, she instead insisted in going with the corps and continuing the journey. Later, Clark would praise her as the “pilot” that took them through the country.
Their journals don’t reveal any of their thinking about why they invited along a nursing mother, but this much was sure: the only member of the Corps of Discovery who was not in uncharted, off-the-map, territory when these river runners came to the edge of the Missouri river and headed over the Rocky Mountains was the teenage mother with her nursing baby. She was not venturing into unexplored territory, she was going home.
As the church has lost power and influence within the larger culture, there is a tendency to bemoan and even battle to regain that place of dominance. For those who were trained for a Christendom world, this experience of feeling as if you are in uncharted territory can be disorienting. Therefore, the vast experience of women, racial-ethnic minority persons, and leaders from majority world contexts is as critical to the transitioning western church as was Sacagawea’s to Lewis and Clark.
The problem, of course, is that even the very reality of being trained for Christendom means that most of us won’t recognize the value of a Sacagawea when she is sitting in front of us. Fuller Seminary Chaplain Steve Yamaguchi reminds his students, “Our immigrant churches, have generations of experience living on the edges, displaced from the center, as more than survivors.” But do we even know that we need them?
Like the Corps of Discovery captains who figured out that all of their “on the map” education was less valuable than the life experience of a Shoshone teenage girl, many church leaders of particular prominence and position today are only now beginning realize that as the Christendom narrative is being rejected, they are in great need to collaborate with and learn from leaders who because of their gender, social status, ethnicity and less-privileged life actually makes them more equipped for the world today than they are. As Theresa Cho, a 2nd generation Korean-American pastor, told a group of church leaders in 2012:
My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is ministry. For smaller congregations, there isn’t a sense of perishing because the hey day left over 50 years ago. You have to HAVE something to feel like you are LOSING something.
While many of us who can remember when our churches had full pews and overflowing offering plates feel so disoriented in this new day, Cho reminds us that there are many church leaders who have known nothing else and that they – not the successful pulpiteers of the Christendom past — are the true missional experts.
The demise of Christendom in the west offers us an opportunity for a different kind of leadership, more equality of roles, more valuing of previously ignored voices, and more opportunities for shared witness to a world that is more profoundly in need of the gospel. In other words, the deep disorientation for those trained in Christendom can be helped by learning to look to and partner with those who have been living in the post-Christendom marginality already.
Be sure to check out Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.