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News Flash! You’re not the only one who struggles to lead change.

WHY IT MATTERS: Many churches today are stuck or in decline. These churches want to move forward. They want to make a difference. For that to happen, something must change. Trying harder is not the answer. Incremental change rarely moves the needle.

Our churches used to flourish. What happened? Seminary prepared us to canoe down rivers, but now we face a range of mountains. We are ministering to people with radically different worldviews. Trying harder at the same approach will not make a difference. We must embrace Tod Bolsinger’s “adaptive” change.

In “Canoeing the Mountains,” Bolsinger uses the story and leadership of Lewis and Clark to illustrate our current dilemma. Their goal was to discover a water route to the Pacific. They loaded up their canoes and headed upstream. Everything was going as expected until they encountered the Rocky Mountains. They prepared to navigate rivers. To reach the Pacific, they had to change their approach radically.

Bolsinger points out that today’s church leaders face a similar problem. They are prepared to navigate a world and culture that no longer exists. The only way forward is adaptive change. This requires leadership, which Bolsinger defines as “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.”

This changing world requires churches to be “continually moving out, extending themselves into the world, being the missional, witnessing community we are called into being to be: the manifestation of God’s going into the world, crossing boundaries, proclaiming, teaching, healing, loving, serving and extending the reign of God.”

This requires more than proclamation; it requires new actions, new ways of functioning, and new ways of learning.

Bolsinger focuses on principles of navigation and leadership that are effective when we are forced off our maps and the terrain is not what we expected. This requires adaptability. The church must adapt to the reality in which it’s been called.

Bolsinger states that a “geography of hope” must give way to the “geography of reality.” This requires a painful paradigm shift, and the pain is what prevents many from changing. “Adaptive leadership is about letting go, learning as we go, and keeping going.”

When Lewis and Clark stepped off their map, they decided to become a Corps of Discovery. Instead of longing for the river, they embraced the challenge of the mountains. Even though they were disoriented, they refused to be stuck or overwhelmed. This can only happen when the leader mobilizes the group toward the growth they will need to face and conquer the new terrain.

“When our old maps fail us, something within us dies. Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical.”

As pastors, many of us are in this situation, facing a similar decision. Will we lament the lack of a river or embrace the changes necessary to scale the mountains?

Before answering this question, it helps to answer a few others first.

  • Why do we exist as a congregation?
  • What would be lost in our community if we ceased to be?
  • What purposes and principles must we protect as central to our identity?
  • What are we willing to let go of so the mission will continue?

This will require deep thought and discussion. It will also require new learning. It means reconsidering old assumptions and becoming a learning community – collaborating to find a way through the mountains.

The good news is that God designed the church to adapt and thrive in changing environments. The church of Jesus Christ is a living organism, “a vibrant system. And just like human bodies, human organizations thrive when they are cooperating with the wisdom of God for how that system is designed, how it grows and how it adapts to changing external environments.”

This is why adaptive leadership is essential. It’s the act of leading a church to adapt to its changing environment so it can fulfill its purpose for being.

By the way, this is not all mission without community. Bolsinger’s epilogue is purposefully titled, “Taking the Hill with Grandma.” He says, “We all have hills to take, and our organizations are filled with grandmas.” We are not called to leave people behind. We are called to navigate the mountains with the people God gives us. Christian work is a family and a business at the same time. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and on a mission for Him.

“Leading a Christian organization that is faithful to both mission and family is indeed the challenge for most of us.”

Our task as leaders is to cast a fresh vision. “In Christendom, vision was about seeing possibilities ahead and communicating excitement. In unchartered territory – where no one knows what’s ahead – vision is about accurately seeing ourselves and defining reality.”

For that reason, I encourage you to read this book. Most of us need to lead adaptive change to equip our people to accomplish God’s mission in our world – not the one we long for. I hope you take notes as you read and take mountains as you apply what you learn.

Store your canoe. Grab your hiking boots. I’ll see you in the hills.

Clare serves as the Executive Director for EveryEthne. He focuses on leading the North American team and mobilizing churches to reach every people group in the United States and Canada.

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