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The demographic trends are clear: support for Christianity in Western culture is on the decline. In the face of these trends, some church leaders are grasping for ways to hold onto the church’s past cultural influence. But there are also a few who see this as an opportunity we should embrace. Tod Bolsinger, the vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary, is in the latter group. And he has made it his mission to equip leaders for ministry in this changing cultural environment. Bolsinger authored Canoeing the Mountains, a popular book about church leadership in uncharted territory, to act as a guide to adaptive leadership. In this interview, Bolsinger discusses his work on adaptive leadership, recapturing the mission of the church, and how it all might actually come down to discipleship. 

What you won’t hear is any mention of COVID-19 in this conversation, which might seem surprising at first glance. That’s because the interview actually took place in December 2019. Ironically, adaptive leadership was about to become more pivotal to the church than ever, and neither of us had a clue. Reckoning with racism and privilege also doesn’t play as much of a part in this conversation as it should have, in hindsight. However, I did eventually ask Bolsinger about both COVID-19 and race in adaptive leadership. You can read our follow-up conversation, which took place in September 2020, here.

I debated whether we should still publish the original interview as an article. (It’s been available in video form for a few months.) But despite its limitations, I think it’s a discussion with insights worth sharing. It is at times eerily prescient, preparing the church and its leaders for a future that would arrive much sooner than we imagined back in December.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

North Americans are a lot less likely to say they are Christians than they used to be. Most people would probably expect you to be discouraged by that. And yet you identify this as not only an opportunity for the church, but even a potential source of hope. Why is that?

It means the mission field is closer to us than ever. There’s something about that that is energizing, at least to me. It’s painful. Growth is pain. Change is pain, but it’s not hopeless, and it’s certainly not despairing. It’s a great challenge and a great opportunity.

Can you talk a little bit about what it means for a church to be a mission field?

In what I would call the “Christendom world,” the culture supported Christianity. The church’s reason for being was often to be Jesus’s healing presence, teaching presence, and comforting presence in the culture. Today, that sense of the culture being nominally Christianity is evaporating. 

The church has always been a people on mission. But how do we embody Jesus Christ in this world where people may not show up, may not get it, may not care about it? Where people don’t necessarily move into a town and automatically think about which church they will join? You have to have a much more compelling reason to be church. 

To me, the most powerful part of Jesus’s ministry, the most disruptive thing, is probably the most basic thing. When Jesus is asked, “what’s the greatest commandment?” he gives two: to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor. Now the church exists for nothing else but that. We become people who love God so deeply that our neighbors get to see in us the embodiment of God’s love to them. 

That is really exciting to think about, but it does ask church leaders to do and be things that they probably weren’t prepared for. In Canoeing the Mountains, you propose adaptive leadership as a framework for navigating the changing terrain. What is adaptive leadership, and how is it different than the kind of leadership that a church might have expected from its pastor in the past?

A group of folks at Harvard, led by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, developed the notion of adaptive leadership 20 years ago to describe a kind of leadership that works well in a rapidly changing world. This is leadership for when technical expertise cannot be counted on to solve the problem. 

When Christianity was supported by the culture, you needed church leaders to be experts: experts on Scripture, experts on understanding the souls of people, on community building, on caring for people. We still need all those skills. They are really important. But now people aren’t showing up for your preaching. They think it’s great you’re running community programs, but aren’t getting involved. They may not even reach out for pastoral care because they’re not sure they need or deserve it. So what is the adaption we have to make? 

Adaptive leadership starts with your deepest core values, who you are as a person or community. And you ask, what is the adaption that will enable us to live out our calling as God’s people in this changing world? And that means you need to be trained differently than you would to become an expert in a technical skill.

So how do you learn adaptive leadership?

You only learn it when you’re doing it. The leadership is really only learned in the leading. Leadership comes out of expertise. But adaptive leadership has to be willing to set aside expertise and keep learning so that the group of people you’re leading can go through a process of transformation and growth.

The hardest part for most leaders is the learning is done through experimenting and failing. It’s very vulnerable. And most pastors didn’t get into this to be vulnerable; they got into this to be helpful, to help people love God through Scripture. 

It seems like this would be a pretty difficult type of leadership to figure out on your own. I wonder if we’re looking at a return to a model that’s more like apprenticeship.

I actually think the models of the church are going to be more and more shared leadership models. I mean, one of the reasons why I use the story of Lewis and Clark with all of its attendant problems built into it is that it was a remarkable partnership. It was a partnership of two men, not one, who ended up having to then recognize they needed to add a third: Sacagawea. And their entire way of dealing with the Corps of Discovery changed from a top-down, hierarchical military order to a much more shared, collaborative, trusted community. The further they got off the map into uncharted territory, the more they had to trust each other, and the more they had to grow together and serve together. It’s closer to a New Testament model, to be honest. It’s part of our Christian DNA.

It’s also more decentralized. I find that interesting because a lot of leadership development material will talk about needing clarity of vision. And clarity of vision tends to be associated with a centralized, tightly aligned way of working. You can’t depend on organizational structure to keep people aligned with the model you’re describing.

The more decentralized and collaborative you get, the more there has to be clear alignment at the core. 

What’s changed is that the alignment is in the mission, not the leader. Ambiguity is an enemy of change. You need clarity, but the clarity is no longer about a personality. The clarity is about something that is shared.

I wonder if this approach could address another common problem in churches. When the ministry depends too much on one person, without them, everything falls apart. Or people will talk about the 80/20 rule, where 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.

20 percent of the people might still do 80 percent of the work. But those people shouldn’t just be doing whatever work they want. The core ideology, which is the combination of our vision, values, and strategy, has to be shared by a group of people. 

What really creates the lack of a missional fruitfulness or faithfulness is when it’s only about keeping a group of people together. It becomes a church potluck instead of a family meal. You want people to bring their favorite things, but there’s a difference between saying everybody gets to eat whatever they want and actually gathering together to share a meal because we’re involved in something bigger than eating.

So how do we know what should be at the center of our family meal?

We need to lead the church with the knowledge that to be a member of a church means that you are joining a mission. NT Wright talks about the fact that when Jesus goes around proclaiming the kingdom of God, he’s more like a politician asking people to join his movement. There’s something about “join us” that is really different than just show up and let me teach you or entertain you.

Churches have to have a reason for being beyond themselves. That means asking, why has God put us here? And then, what do we need to faithfully live that calling out as God’s people?

It almost seems like we need to rediscover what it meant to be a first-century church. How do you think the church of the first century would look if you transposed it into the 21st century?

Even in the first century, the church wasn’t perfect. I mean, Galatia causes Paul to cuss. But they were trying to be the witnessing community to the reality of God’s unbreaking reign in Jesus. So the question is, what does that look like today? 

The church was always built on the pieces of the past. Even the word “church” was a reframing of a Greek fraternity system. The ekklesia was a gathering in Roman culture. The early Christians said, we have a different kind of ekklesia. It’s not just men. It’s men and women. It’s slave and free. It’s male and female. It’s Jew and Gentile. 

The difference today is our reframing of the church is built on the vestiges that we constructed. So think about all of our church structures, our buildings, our processes. If these are the raw material that we’ve been entrusted with, how do we recast these, reframe these, rebuild these for this new day? I think that’s the challenge. I think that’s the main challenge to the next generation.

I work for a denomination. You don’t get much more institutional than that. And even though I don’t think we are post-institutional in reality, there’s a perception that people have that this is a post-institutional age. And the change that some people believe we need to go through is to throw the institutions away. I’m curious what it looks like to take the raw materials in an institution and to say let’s rebuild, whether that be a church or a denomination.

I’m not cynical about institutions. You set up an institution whenever you have an idea that is so compelling that you want it to live beyond a person or a group of people. There’s something beautiful about that. The problem is when the institution exists just for the institution’s sake. 

There’s an old quote by Gustav Mahler that talks about tradition. Tradition is the tending of the fire, not the taking care of the ashes. It’s about keeping fire going, not holding buckets of ashes. So how do we create institutions that exist for the reason we got in this in the first place? 

Sometimes that means institutional forms will die. We don’t use wineskins anymore. We use wine bottles, right? There’s an entire metaphor of Jesus’s that talked about changing wineskins, and today, nobody uses the wineskin. But the point is still the wine. The wine still makes people glad. The wine is the sign of life. So how do you create structures that pass on the wine, not become connoisseurs of wine bottles?

So we know that we ultimately want wine. But we also know that people don’t like having to give up their wineskins. Change is hard. What advice do you have for leaders and churches who are trying to figure out how to make change when people aren’t always ready for it?

First of all, adaptive change is built on the acknowledgement that change is loss. People don’t resist change; they resist loss.  Our faith is built on the hope of the resurrection: lest you lose your life, you will not gain it. So we have a narrative of loss built into Christianity, but we have often set that narrative aside. Now we need to recapture it. 

Second is helping people realize that what you’re losing is never your identity. God has our names etched on his hands. This is where I think we would do better to spend more time with our Jewish brothers and sisters. During World War II, Jewish folks who were sent into the ghettos and then into the concentration camps were still teaching children the Hebrew alphabet. Because no matter what else changed, what mattered was that you passed down those beliefs. 

I think when people start caring more about wineskins than wine, they’ve lost the taste for wine. They’ve become collectors of bottles, not people who get a taste and see the Lord is good.

Do you think we’ve lost the taste for wine?

In some places, yeah, I think we have. But the taste for wine is also alive. And it takes a group of people who know the craft to keep it alive. It takes a lot of levers. 

I had a conversation once with a famous writer who talked about how the church has become too organizational. And I said, “yeah, but if you ever talk to a farmer, they don’t just plant. They’ve got to build fences and deal with markets and figure out how to create stuff that will last every season.”

The church needs to have such a passionate taste for the wine that it will create the structures to keep it alive for the next generation. The challenge for any of us called into church leadership is that you have to love both the wine and the wine business. Others can be consumers and even lovers of the product. We have to be the people who care about both the product and the craft that preserves it. 

And if you are looking around and you’re saying, I’m not sure if the people around me share this passion, what do you do? Do you try to awaken that passion, or is there a point when you would say, I’m going to go find somebody who loves it as much as I do?

To want to build a good winery, people have to love the wine. So I think you keep introducing people to the reality of God, to the presence of the Spirit, to the beauty of the life of discipleship. 

We can become disappointed or cynical in the church because we get a little bit idealistic. We think, maybe I’ll find these perfectly motivated people who will love things the way I do. Humans aren’t like that. We’re deeply contradictory and disappointing. And you can’t make anybody else love the cause. They have to say yes for themselves. Sometimes there comes a day when you’re called to move on. I just think it needs to be owned that it’s a hard, long transformation.

Adaptive language is built on the metaphor of evolution. It’s built on how living systems adapt to a changing environment. And for that kind of process to happen, you’re talking generations. People ask me, so how long does it take for a church to make an adaptive change? I’m like, well, we were in Christendom for 1,700 years, and we’ve been in post-Christendom for about 10 minutes. It’s going to be awhile. 

I do like that metaphor. I was a linguistics major in college. And one of the things you learn is that language is always changing. And if it’s not changing, that means it’s dead. So Latin is a dead language. The reason why a lot of people prize it is because it’s so dead that it can’t change. It’s attractive to the grammarian who just craves consistency, a system in which everybody always follows the rules and the rules are clear. But the only way that you can truly have that is for the system to not be used by anybody.

That’s actually a beautiful illustration. So when things are alive, they’re changing, which also means that you’re experiencing the loss of things going away. That’s just part of life, right? That is learning how to think of the church as a living system that has a reason beyond itself, that has a map that’s about growing and producing fruit. I mean, this is why that vineyard illustration is always so important to me. Israel was the vineyard. The people of God are to be the people who produce the food that makes the world glad. We exist to bring life and celebration and joy and also live in the middle of how those things are grown out of seasons of barrenness and struggle.

So given that we do face some significant challenges, what do you see in the church right now that brings you the most hope?

What’s happening in the global church, the immigrant church, African American church, the Latin American church. These churches have vibrancy. I think those of us who’ve been in the more dominant church are now realizing that part of our future is joining with them. If our future is giving up some of our dominance, our power and privilege, to actually have vibrancy, life, and creativity, that’s by far the most interesting thing. 

There are always small groups of people experimenting on the margins. And I think those experiments on the margins are actually going to end up becoming really huge someday. Whenever the margins and the dead center interact is where you get creativity and innovation. And so for me, wherever I see that interaction, I’m very encouraged.

The phrase “experiments on the margins” makes me think of your colleague Scott Cormode, who I’ve interviewed before. He talks a lot about trying innovation or change on a smaller scale over to the side instead of starting with the center of what you do, where it might blow up too fast, not be ready, or be squelched by our fear of risk.

One of my favorite movements right now is Fresh Expressions, which came out of the UK, out of the church of England. A Fresh Expression is a small group of people who are trying a new expression of church that is supported by and given permission to innovate by a traditional expression. The vibrancy of that relationship brings both expressions of church to life. 

When I work with churches on innovation, I always say, “look, the goal is for you to find a small group of people who want to take something out of your church’s core DNA, your great strength, and say, how do we leverage that toward a pain point in our community that otherwise wouldn’t be attended to?” There’s something about that process that’s very life-giving. And it changes over time. When it’s integrated into the center, it’s never as radical as the people who are out on the front end. The Corps of Discovery were a pretty radical group of 30 people. But without them, I wouldn’t be living in California today.

So you’re saying that we need to explore the uncharted territory, but not everyone needs to go on the first expedition.

One of the stories I often tell, the Lewis and Clark story, is fraught. It’s really complicated, especially because of what happened to Native American peoples on the back-end of the story. And I think that as a country we’re only now starting to understand it. For all the great parts of the Corps of Discovery, the doctrine of discovery really exploited a lot of people. Even when you’re talking about something that is vibrant, there will be unintended consequences. There will be biases because we are sinful and because we are blind and we don’t give up power. There’s all these things that are fraught. 

So if you talk about someone like Thomas Jefferson, it’s really complicated. But Thomas Jefferson loved the American West. He was the one who had the energy for the Corps of Discovery. He’s the one who had the vision for the West. Yet he never traveled West himself. He was 60 when they left for the Corps of Discovery. He didn’t go anywhere, but if he hadn’t had the vision and the resources for the expedition, it never would have happened. 

[Note: We discussed the Lewis and Clark metaphor, exploitation of Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson, and present-day racism and marginalization at greater depth in a follow-up conversation. Read it here.]

I’m very aware that I’m 55 and that I’ve lived most of my life and training in Christendom. I have been invited into this space that looks at post-Christendom. I have been engaged in a missional conversation for post-Christendom since the earliest days. And I still think we’re just beginning. Most of my life is about, how do I set up the future for the next generation? I will be Moses dying in the wilderness. I won’t be crossing into the promised land. and my job is to be faithful with the people who will.

Is that hard?

Partly, but it’s my call. I have a daughter who’s a pastor. I think my job is to set up the church that she will get to lead. When she preaches, I’m more excited than when I’m preaching. 

That’s one of the reasons why I’m at the seminary, and it’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time coaching and working with leaders. There’s something about seeing my call as supporting those calls that lets me participate in the larger body of Christ. 

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you think is important for people to know about where we are now and where we’re going?

I think one of the biggest changes coming is that it used to be you were trained and then you were sent. Now I think the model for leadership formation is going to be that you’re called to be trained and sent again and again. It’s going to be a lifetime of continually learning. And that lifetime learning is important for a group of people who are called to be disciples. 

Disciples are learners. My favorite quote by Eric Hooper is “the learners will inherit the earth, but the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.” It’s like your Latin language. To create communities of lifelong learning is going to be critical to a changing church.

I think that’s really exciting. I would rather know that there’s always something more for me to learn than to think that I’ve already got it figured out.

I think one of the most powerful spiritual practices is the prayer of examen of the Ignatian tradition. It literally asks us to prayerfully reflect upon our every day: to ask God to “show me where you’re present,” to ask the question, “so God, where was my consolation? Where did I experience the power of your presence? Where did I see you at work? Where did I say yes to an experience?” And then it’s also to say, “okay, God, where did I miss your presence? Where did I live out my own will instead of yours? Where did I live with what the Jesuits call the desolation of missing the presence of God?”

There’s parts of church that are so life-giving that we keep coming back. But there’s all this stuff that just feels like desolation; it just feels empty. How do we let some of that go? What is desolation to you or me may be consolation to someone else. So we have to wrestle with that. But to go back to our earlier metaphor, we also just need to keep developing a taste for the wine. And we need to stay open to the fact that it’s not your wine to hoard. It is ours to share. So how can we be as generous as possible?

Grace Ruiter is digital content coordinator for the Reformed Church in America.

Tod Bolsinger

Tod Bolsinger is the vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has authored several books on church leadership. Explore his work and find adaptive leadership resources here.