In Trust recently spoke with Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, a book that is drawn from decades of experience guiding churches and organizations through unchartered territory. A Presbyterian minister, Bolsinger is vice president and chief of leadership formation, as well as associate professor of leadership formation, at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger (IVP, 2015, 250 pp., $24).

The title of Bolsinger’s book refers to the voyage to the Pacific Ocean led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark between 1804 and 1806. The two led the 28-man Corps of Discovery west to the headwaters of the Missouri River in what is now Montana, where they discovered not a hoped-for water route to the distant ocean but rather a nearly impassable mountain wilderness.

The absence of a water route forced Lewis and Clark to shift their thinking and adapt their strategy and their leadership to the unexpected landscape in which they suddenly found themselves.

What does Canoeing the Mountains have to do with leadership?

The title is a metaphor for the way a dominant mental model shapes the way we see the world and act — until we’re disrupted by external circumstances.

Here’s the background: Since it’s easier to take raw material over water than over land, Europeans had been trying for the better part of three centuries to find a water route across North America. In commissioning Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, a specially established unit of the U.S. Army, to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, President Thomas Jefferson was joining that quest.

But when Lewis stepped over the Lemhi Pass, between what is now Montana and Idaho, instead of finding what he fully expected to see — another river to run — he found the immense ranges of the Rocky Mountains. This discovery disrupted not only his mental model of the world, but the entire idea of the expedition. Lewis needed a completely different way of leading, not just a new technique.

The Corps of Discovery had river expertise but no mountain expertise. They couldn’t get across the mountains without assistance, but instead of giving up, they adapted by working with a Native American named Sacagawea, a teenage nursing mother, to acquire horses from the Shoshone.

At first, the expedition team assumed the indigenous people were enemies, but they moved past their preconceptions and developed a capacity for collaboration that has been unmatched since then.

This is where the church, higher education, and theological education are today. We were trained for canoeing and are expert canoers, but the topography has changed. It requires us to learn to lead all over again.

What does adaptive change look like?

One of the problems in most organizations is that leaders default to technical solutions: find the best practice, find the expert who can solve it, find the person who will come in and fix it. But a quick fix is not what organizations need; they need to change at a deeper level. Ironically, the more successful an organization has been in the past, the harder it is for it to change now — because the tendency is always to default to their once-successful training.

In one congregation I served, we had 12 years of consecutive growth. As soon as we started having a decline, our defaults were: (1) it is nothing to worry about, or (2) we know exactly what is causing the decline and we should fix something as quickly as possible. I was in the second camp.

Because I assumed people were tired of my voice — I had been preaching the most — I asked if I should step down, because we needed other voices.

Then a wise person said, “We’ve never been here before. We have had 12 years of consecutive growth and we don’t know what’s holding us back now. Maybe we should find out.” That is, maybe we should learn before launching into a fix.

Getting curious, looking at the terrain, and actually listening to people led us to a completely different answer than the one we had expected. What we found was that the congregation was not losing focus or confidence in the leadership, but that our pastoral team was not adept at taking our congregation through big transitions (and we had just been through several in a row).

So, if we had changed what I had thought needed changing — that is, if I had resigned — we would likely have made everything worse! The quick fix wasn’t what we needed. We need to learn first, and then make changes.

Is it a leader’s role to help people through the often-uncomfortable work of change?

People experience change as loss. As Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard University have written: “People don’t resist change; they resist loss.” This is the first principle of adaptive leadership. As a leader, you have to take people through that loss. And what might seem like a small loss to one person can be deeply painful for another.

Leaders must navigate those losses while still moving the organization toward its mission and goals. That’s why a leader has to create the context of trust, so that over a long enough period of time, the community can face the losses, be transformed, and face future challenges.

How does this need to adapt to change apply to the context of theological education?

It’s even more acute in theological education than in the church. In the church, the “customer” is the people in the neighborhood, and if you listen to them deeply, you‘ll find out which changes you have to make. But in the seminary setting, the “customer” has traditionally been a denomination needing well-educated clergy. Denominations created a pipeline of students that was reliable and consistent. But because of the decline of the church in the West, that pipeline is drying up.

Also, the traditional mental model for a seminary came from the monastery: It was a reflection of the notion that a communal and even a cloistered environment is the best place to form people for religious leadership, even if that environment is just temporary until leaders are sent out into the world.

But now theological educators are increasingly training people who are already in ministry, who want to stay in their contexts and can’t afford to relocate or interrupt their work to go to seminary. That fact alone changes our whole educational and economic model. The only way to continue doing theological education the old way is to have a substantial endowment, to be connected to a university, or to have a robust denominational pipeline of people who are required to go through your school.

But at Fuller we’re only 70 years old, not 200 years old. We don’t have the kind of endowment that older schools have, and we’re not connected to a university. We don’t have a denominational pipeline either. So even though we’re larger than most seminaries, we are exposed. We must adapt.

How does adaptive change actually happen in a seminary setting?

The first work of adaptive change is deep reflection on organizational identity, and then grappling with which part of our identity needs to be preserved at all costs, which needs to be adapted for a changing environment, and which needs to be discarded because it’s no longer relevant.

I think the seminary — if it can make changes — is still the best way to develop Christian leaders. But any organization that is concerned primarily with survival is going to waste a lot of energy and time trying to figure out how to survive as long as possible with the old models instead of adapting to the new environment.

Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University in Canada, talks about each college or each university having its own “charism” — its own unique spiritual calling. That means each institution should be asking “What is our gift?” From a business point of view, it’s the same as asking, “What is our value proposition?” I love the idea that each seminary has a charism to offer the church.

What adaptive changes have you been a part of at Fuller?

My entire education was face to face, and my skill set was lecturing and leading discussions. But at age 50, I had to learn to teach all over again so I could teach online. Now my online classes are some of the most invigorating educational experiences I have. Students bring their perspectives from all over the world into a conversation in real time. You can’t have that in most on-campus experiences.

At Fuller, I partner with the provost of our graduate division (which serves degree-seeking students) while overseeing the leadership formation division (which serves what we call “learners” — people interested in lifetime learning whether they get academic degrees or not). I also mostly teach in the doctor of ministry program, and all my students are hybrid students. They are mostly online during the year and they come to campus for one week a year.

Over the last few years, there have been big changes in the way we do continuing education. In the past, continuing education meant conferences, and while we still do them, now we think much more about how to engage students beyond a week or a weekend. How can we put them in online experiences, cohort-led experiences, mentor-led distance learning experiences? How can we be with them right in the place where they need formation or they need to learn in order to fulfill their calling? And how can we do that for life?

Since theological education doesn’t just include people who are earning master’s degrees, we’re providing resources to folks in other ways. Some people want the scholarly resources of a graduate school or a seminary’s experience for integrating formation and academics, but they need it delivered in different contexts and different ways, to different constituencies of people.

Do you think other disciplines are better than theological education at adapting to significant change?

The struggle is not exclusive to theological education. Medical schools, business schools, and law schools are all currently operating on education models that seem less effective than they once were. Businesses and start-ups, on the other hand, have to adapt to change all the time.

For better examples of adaptation, you can look at smaller organizations and communities that are figuring out how to train their own home-grown leaders. That’s where innovation is taking place. For example, a Pentecostal church in Bogotá, Colombia, one of the largest congregations in the western hemisphere, hosts a pastor’s conference for 25,000 pastors. Very few of those pastors have any degree. The leaders of this megachurch came to us at Fuller and said, “We need you to train us. The kind of environments we’ve used for training have not sufficed for the kind of movement we have.”

So now we’re working with them to develop a training program that will fit their needs. We don’t have experience in training 25,000 pastors! Our Centro Latino at Fuller has a couple of hundred students in a master’s program, but we are now working on adapting that experience to a much larger movement of pastors who desire training.

How can leaders adapt to radically new circumstances and also guide others to do the same?

Adaptive change is built on discernment. It requires taking a deep look into the organization’s identity. Adaptation doesn’t mean becoming what you’re not. It means being the healthiest version of what you are.

How dependent is the process of change on a senior leader?

Adaptive change cannot happen without the commitment of a senior leader to a long, deliberate, reflective process of change. Now the senior leader may not have the actual skill set to lead that change —it may fall to others in the organization — so the key is for the leader to be the person who calmly protects the process of change with conviction, while others work on the change process itself.

Often, when adaptation stalls, it’s because the leader has become discouraged and suffers what Rabbi Ed Friedman called a “failure of nerve.” This happens when leaders become so discouraged with organizational resistance that they begin to collude with those who want the status quo, and they stop being the strength in the system that moves them forward.


This interview was conducted by Jay Blossom and edited by Celeste Kennel-Shank.

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