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Book Review: Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

Canoe the mountains?

Yep, it’s the question author Tod Bolsinger wants us to ask when we first scan the title of this vital contribution to the field of Christian leadership in a post-Christendom era.

Post what? (And I’m unsure how to pronounce ‘Christendom’.)

It’s okay – that’s not the significant bit. What makes Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory an essential read for all people in Christian leadership today is the way Bolsinger (minister, professor, coach, consultant) synthesises the work of primarily two others (Ronald Heifetz and Edwin Friedman) using an effective analogy taken from real life 18th-century adventurers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Bolsinger doesn’t conceal his dependence on Heifetz and Friedman, quoting them often and sometimes at length in exploring the concept of “adaptive leadership”. His application of their research into the context of Christian leadership is the real benefit, particularly for a post-Christendom society (which Bolsinger explains in the first chapter).

What I found particularly helpful and challenging were the following:

  1. To lead people ‘off the map’ (adaptive leadership), you must demonstrate ‘on the map’ technical competence. (ch. 4)

This was a timely reminder that we must be capable and competent with the necessary aspects of ministry and best practices. If we can’t do these well (and Bolsinger lists them on pp52-59), in a context where one can develop expertise, there is little point in giving much time to learning adaptive leadership where process and principles than expertise guide us.

  1. Trust is built in organisations through relationally congruent actions (ch. 5)

Again, this is a timely reminder of the essential quality of consistency between what we say and how we behave whilst grounding our words and actions in compassion and care.

  1. The culture of an organisation changes when those responsible act differently (ch. 6)

At our church (Southside UC), we’re looking to reorder our ministry structure. However, this third point challenges the assumption that a different church order creates a different way of being. Maybe the leaders (Ministers in placement, pastors, church council, key leaders) must first demonstrate and live out the desired change through its existing structure, creating an environment that calls for a renewed church order.

  1. The maxim (attributed to Richard Blackburn), which Bolsinger expands on in chs. 11-13):

Start with conviction,

stay calm,

stay connected,

and stay the course.

Each clause of this maxim is instructive for leaders and, when well understood, provides an effective strategy for transition and change. Staying connected is particularly helpful for us to remember as we work through challenging realities to discern outcomes aligned with our mission.

  1. Sabotage is a systemic response to change (ch. 13)

Not familiar with Friedman’s Failure of Nerve, this was a new insight. It’s a helpful ‘heads up’ for leaders, including preparing them for its eventuality so that they can respond in calm, emotionally regulated ways. The alternative is to risk reacting in a manner that raises the emotional temperature rather than lowering it.

Finally, Canoeing comes in an Expanded Edition, including a six-session study guide. One feature I’ve not yet come across, which Bolsinger includes, is the option to converse with a trusted companion between sessions (mentioned in ch. 12 as an important relationship for leaders in a context of change). These conversations are structured around questions that seek to hold a mirror to the leader so that they can take more active responsibility for their leadership practices and values. I could see these studies being highly beneficial for church councils or leadership teams, perhaps a session per month (in addition to any regular meetings).

Further reading?

Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman

Why not join us to discuss the book at our online discipleship book club on Tuesday, April 4, 7-8 pm? All are welcome; joining us for this discussion doesn’t require you to attend any future gatherings!

Click here to register and receive the link to the meeting, and for further information, please get in touch with Paul Wetzig at paul.wetzig@ucaqld.com.au

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