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If I were making a list of 2020 essentials, adaptive leadership would be right up there with a Zoom account, face masks, and sweatpants. Adaptive leadership is a leadership framework for navigating through rapid change and addressing complex challenges. And in the church world, Tod Bolsinger is known for his work on the subject. The vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary authored Canoeing the Mountains, a popular book about Christian leadership in uncharted territory. In this interview, Bolsinger discusses adaptive leadership in 2020, race, privilege, and turning a critical eye toward his own work.

Canoeing the Mountains, which came out in 2015, acts as a guide for church leaders who find themselves leading in a cultural context that is changing rapidly and is asking for a different kind of leadership than they were trained to provide. To explain adaptive leadership, Bolsinger uses the historical example of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis and Clark were going to canoe across the country to the Pacific; the Rocky Mountains required a drastic change of plan, a willingness to adapt to uncharted territory.

The backdrop for this conversation is a little unusual. I originally interviewed Bolsinger about Canoeing the Mountains and his work on adaptive leadership in the church last December. It was a good conversation. But it goes without saying that a lot has happened since December. There were questions that I didn’t think to ask in December that I now feel I can’t go without asking. And not just because of COVID-19. In the original interview, I shied away from several important questions about race and representation because I was afraid to admit my own ignorance. After revisiting the interview this summer, I decided to reach out to Bolsinger to see if he’d be willing to discuss those questions now. Thankfully, he was. 

This is a condensed version of our conversation and has been edited for clarity. 

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: COVID-19. How are you thinking about adaptive leadership in a pandemic context?

In the same way that COVID attacks the underlying conditions in a body—so the more health issues you already struggle with, the more vulnerable you are—COVID is now demonstrating the underlying issues in the church. 

Every time I do a webinar about leading in the pandemic, I ask: what are the underlying issues that COVID is revealing in your church? And some common themes are emerging: a lack of discipleship, a lack of community, a lack of leadership development, a church that is shaped by power and privilege that doesn’t have resilience to change, and most prophetically, the parts of the body of Christ that have not experienced that power and privilege. It’s all coming to the surface. COVID offers an opportunity for us to address those problems, if we take it. 

There are two phases to a crisis. First is the acute phase, where you’re just trying to survive; this is like a body going into the emergency room. The second phase is the adaptive phase, where you actually use the energy of the crisis to address the underlying issues. As soon as the acute crisis is over, most people want to go back to what’s familiar. 

This is the crisis moment. The question is, will we adapt? Will we help people get through the acute moment with the understanding that the reason for surviving is thriving, and thriving is going to require your growth and change?

It sounds like there’s a risk that people will try to go back to the way things were before as soon as they get out of survival mode.

Oh, more than a risk. It’s what you’d predict. When I’m coaching churches, I say, if you do anything at this moment, get rid of two things. 

One, get rid of the idea that we’re going to go back to normal. “Familiar” and “family” have the same root word. Whenever you get into a familiar territory, you feel like you’re at home. But your normal, what makes you feel good, is not necessarily the world that Jesus wanted us to be in.

Two, get rid of the notion that the church is ever closed—that somehow when our campus is not open, when our programs are not going, we’re not the church. The church has always been a distributed people who are the witness of God to the resurrection of Jesus for the hope of the world. That mission never stopped.

One of the underlying issues that COVID-19 has helped to bring to the surface is systemic racism. Although racial critiques of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark are not new, they have definitely become a bigger part of the conversation. I’m wondering whether you encountered some of these questions as you were researching and writing Canoeing the Mountains.

A lot of my learning during the writing process was about Sacagawea. If you follow the book through, the hero in the book is actually Sacagawea. She was so necessary to Lewis and Clark’s journey that William Clark called her the “pilot that took them through the country.” And I realized that my 11th grade history class didn’t prepare me to understand her. 

When I came to Fuller Seminary [in 2014], I also engaged with many of my colleagues, particularly colleagues of color, who were saying, “Look, the future of the church isn’t in how you save the mainline denomination. The future of the church is already here. It’s alive in the immigrant church, the Latino church, the African American church.” So their perspectives shaped the later chapters of the book as part of my own adaptive change.

It’s interesting that you mention seeing Sacagewea as the true hero of your book. Many historians think that Lewis and Clark wouldn’t have survived their expedition if it weren’t for the native peoples who were already living in the West. And to those people, the West wasn’t even uncharted territory; it was home. They were the experts who enabled Lewis and Clark to succeed. What do you think we should be learning from them about adaptive leadership?

This is one of the conversations happening right now in my doctor of ministry cohort. One of my students, Christine Lee, who is an Episcopal priest in New York City, recently said, “If Tod was writing Canoeing the Mountains from Sacagawea’s perspective now, it would be called ‘My Morning Commute.’” 

I’ve been doing a series of seminars on leading well after the pandemic. And we’re talking about what happens when the Corps of Discovery makes it through the Rocky Mountains and gets back in the canoes. They get into new canoes that the Nez Perce taught them to make, and they are with new people: not only Sacagawea, but also a Shoshone man they called Old Toby. Lewis and Clark are completely dependent upon the Native American peoples. If the Nez Perce wanted to, they could have killed the Corps of Discovery and been the wealthiest tribe in the country. They didn’t. The expedition’s success was built on their generosity and their friendship. And that tone of partnership was then exploited by almost everybody that came after Lewis and Clark. 

You’re alluding to the fact that the Europeans went on to use the very paths that Native people helped Lewis and Clark chart to take their homeland away from them. I wonder what you take away from that part of the story about adaptive leadership.

If you just apply adaptive leadership as a technique for change—so you take with you the dominant mental model of the past that very often was built on power, success, privilege, and wealth—adaptive change is nothing more than how our power structure is to survive. That’s not truly adaptive; it’s just a power move. 

What makes transformational leadership truly transformational is the transformation that the leaders and then the people have to go through in order to complete the mission. That is the moment I think that the Western church is in right now. It’s being absolutely disrupted in a way that none of us could have predicted. I mean, not only could I not have predicted it in 2015; I couldn’t have predicted it in March.

I don’t think anybody saw this coming.

The most helpful metaphor somebody said to me was, “We are in 1918, 1929, and 1968 all at the same time.”

Nobody alive knows how to navigate through that. So we are all learning. But the people who are most familiar with this are people who have been marginalized in the past. So there’s a conversation that needs to happen now between those who’ve been on the margins and those who are at the dead center to find new vibrancy and life in the church.

You’ve emphasized the importance of trusting relationships for adaptive change. And you point to this in the Lewis and Clark story. They were friends before they went on the expedition, so they had a certain level of trust. Like Lewis and Clark, most leaders are going to look to their friends to build a team they trust. But studies have shown that three-quarters of white Americans don’t have a single non-white friend in their social network. How would you encourage white leaders to expand their circle of trust?

I believe in small steps. If you don’t have non-white friends, start by reading non-white authors. Let the voices you read become trustworthy in your brain and then find other people you can discuss them with. Build relationships intentionally through your own learning. 

I will never underestimate the power of a good book. I do think it’s important that you don’t stop there, but it’s a good starting point. I know people of color talk about the burden that being “the token Black friend” or “the token Hispanic friend” can be. And you don’t want to be the white person expecting your non-white friend to explain racism to you. That’s not very fair.

Not fair at all. That’s why you do your own work. You can read books; you can start doing your own work; you can be curious. You don’t have to wait. You can start learning now.

Are there any books you’ve read recently that you recommend?

To better understand the white dominant church where I was formed, there are two books that I’m reading congruently: one is the Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby. And the other one is called Jesus and John Wayne. I’m also reading a book called The Great Influenza about the Spanish flu. And it talks about how science needed to overcome its own biases in order to be able to attack the pandemic. So in every field, there’s a need for growth, change, learning, correction, and repentance. 

We all use stories to help us understand the world. But there can be a danger in relying too much on our own stories to understand others. In Canoeing the Mountains, you quote Chimamanda Adichie who explains that, when we rely on just our own story for understanding, we make assumptions about people who are different than us that can keep them marginalized. What do you think this means for how we write and talk about topics like adaptive leadership?

For better or worse, I think humans always start from what’s familiar. And I think one of the best things we can do is self understanding. When I work with churches, we don’t start with talking about what changes we need to make. The very first thing we do is talk about, who are we? What’s our identity? What is our core DNA? Our core DNA is the values that have been transferred across generations. It’s figuring out, what is the most enduring part of who we are? Then we start asking ourselves, what should endure? 

Just think about how many denominations are built on an ethnic group coming to the United States who wanted to be able to create a church home for other immigrants of their ethnic group. But the gospel is not just about making a home for your own people. You are actually about being the people of God who love God and love neighbor. Confronting that truth disrupts. And that disruption goes right down to the core of the gospel that has often been missed in places where people had enough space and enough privilege and wealth to be able to create an ethnic enclave or a denominational enclave. In denominations with roots in historic European traditions, to be faithful to our deeper identity as the people of God means one of the canoes we might have to lose is our ethnic distinction.

I don’t offer any good news for people who believe that the point of adaptive change is to recover a dominant white church. That part of the canoe’s gotta go. That’s part of what will go. And part of what should go joyfully because we care much more about the gospel. This is where my life is rooted in the gospel of John that says, if a seed falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit. But if it doesn’t, it remains alone. And it’s the fruitfulness of the death of certain parts of the dominant church that is our hope. It’s our hope in resurrection; it’s our hope in fruitfulness; it’s our hope in the gospel.

What happens when it turns out that the core DNA is not what you would hope for it to be? What if it is not the gospel; instead, the ethnic identity or the political identity is actually the thing that is driving the people forward?

It becomes a moment for conversion. What adaptive leadership is about is taking your healthiest DNA and adapting it so it will survive and thrive in a changing environment. You come to the place of realizing a lot of the reasons why we were gathered originally may not have been the best at all. So now the question is, does this need to survive? Or for the sake of the gospel, is this one of the wineskins that needs to be let go? Or even, could this be transformed into the wine of the gospel? 

That’s at the very heart of Jesus’s questions about, what does it mean to be Israel? What does it mean to be renewed by God? This is a conversation that runs all the way through the Scriptures. 

One person often relegated to the margins of the Lewis and Clark narrative whose story I’ve appreciated reading more about is York, William Clark’s slave. You talk in Canoeing the Mountains about how both he and Sacagawea were given a vote when the expedition group was deciding where to camp. Enslaved people were not usually given a vote in that era. You highlight that York had a voice in the group’s decisions during the expedition to suggest to churches that the way forward includes giving people on the margins a vote in the decisions that we make. And yet York didn’t get to keep the vote after the expedition ended. He had asked Clark to be freed as payment for his contributions to that expedition, which were really significant. And Clark turned him down.

I wonder if you think the church today is actually ready to give everyone a vote, or if we’re only ready to give people on the margins of vote when we need them for our survival.

Not only was York denied his freedom when he got back, but William Clark wrote to Meriwether Lewis about it and said, “I had to beat him to remind him that he’s still a slave.” And after York asked for his freedom and didn’t get it, he went to Clark and said, “Well, could you at least sell me to another master so I can be with my wife?” Clark said no and flew off into a furious rage. By the time they got home, it’s like Lewis and Clark forgot everything that they experienced on the journey. 

For the church, if we don’t keep ourselves firmly in the middle of our mission to participate in God’s restoration of the world, if instead what we want is to get home, we will continually revert to places beneath the gospel. It is a giant warning sign.

This is why I don’t hold up these people as models; I hold them up as mirrors. You see stuff in it that is inspiring, and then you see warnings at exactly the same moment. And what it causes me to do is to look to the Author and Perfecter of my faith: Jesus. It makes me look to the power of the gospel to disrupt every system and call into judgment every system. 

And so, do I think the church is ready? I’m not a predictor, but I’m not hopeful at the moment. As one of my students recently observed, “Nobody wants to make any changes in the church, but they’ll all learn Zoom to see their grandchildren.” They didn’t learn Zoom to tutor children who didn’t have access to good public education. And yet the gospel should be totally disrupting our lives. This should be a profound moment of discipleship.

If you had decided to use a metaphor about a Black woman for Canoeing the Mountains instead of the Lewis and Clark story, do you think the book still would have caught on?

I don’t know. In the field of adaptive leadership, there is much more writing today than five years ago by voices of color. It is changing radically. But it’s hard to know what I would have done five years ago when the field is so rapidly changing. 

I think what matters today is that you have the capacity to be critical of your own work. It’s a weird metaphor, but what’s been really helpful for me is to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda deal with the critique of Hamilton. He goes, “that is the conversation; that is the critique; keep it going.” And I feel like that’s what I’m trying to say in a really small way. 

I thought a lot about race and gender when writing Canoeing the Mountains but in a way that was, now looking back, still so centered on the white church. Today, I see the body of Christ in a much more rich, much more vibrant, much more global, and actually, much more hopeful way than I did when I wrote it. I’m also much more painfully aware of how much people cling to power and familiarity. 

I’ve been really impressed by the way Lin-Manuel Miranda has handled the criticism, too. But I imagine it could feel unfair. In some ways, everybody is allowed to evolve except for the creator because your work is already out there. Right now, we’re having a conversation about a book you wrote five years ago, even though you may have evolved significantly since writing it.

I tell a story about speaking on Canoeing the Mountains in New York. There were protests in the middle of my talk. And we were thrown into a holding environment, where we had two different ethnic groups who were disenfranchised with each other and a leader who had not set up for that. It was really a painful experience. And it was also one of the most invigorating real-time experiences I ever had of the church being the church. 

In between sessions, as a leader, I was getting on the phone and calling my cultural humility coach. I needed my coach to walk me through that moment, real time, just like I think many leaders are going to need to walk through the real-time confrontations and challenges that we’re talking about.

A lot of us could probably use a cultural humility coach.

I’d read an article on cultural competency. And I wrote to a person I know who’s really good. And I said, I’d like you to coach me in cultural competency. And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I’m a white, male, middle class, educated guy who’s worked mostly in predominantly white environments.” And he said, “Okay, so here’s your first lesson. You’re a white, male, educated guy; you’re never going to be culturally competent. So let’s instead work on making your goal cultural humility.” 

That approach seems very in line with adaptive leadership but is different than what we typically prioritize. Seminary doesn’t necessarily train you for handling when you’re wrong and somebody else who may have less societal power than you has to be the one to tell you.

I would say my students have taught me much more about my biases than my colleagues. My colleagues and I were all shaped and trained in the same socioeconomic world. Our students disrupt us. And that alone is a really beautiful metaphor of how I think the church can work. I don’t bring expertise. I do bring life experience and wisdom and maturity. My students bring expertise in this new world. And the more that we can work together as the body of Christ, we can grow together. 

I think my job is to faithfully hand the gospel to them to carry it forward. In all of his complexities, I identify much more with Jefferson than I do with Lewis and Clark. Jefferson was 60 when he sent the Corps of Discovery. And he had a dream about the future and a dream about the American West that almost nobody else had, yet he wasn’t going to live into it. 

You also talked about identifying with Jefferson as a model for those who are currently in positions of leadership in the church when I interviewed you in December. And I struggle with that. Jefferson was without a doubt a talented politician, writer, and intellectual. At the same time, I don’t think you can talk about Jefferson without talking about some significant flaws. And given those flaws, I wonder if Jefferson is really worthy of the endorsement.

The words he is most famous for writing are about freedom and equality, yet he was a man who not only owned slaves but had a relationship with one of them, Sally Hemmings, that began when she was just 14. Jefferson was 44. As a slave, Sally did not have the right to refuse his sexual advances. Jefferson actually believed that slavery was wrong but still kept slaves of his own and wrote legal protection for it into our earliest laws. He apparently thought that it would die off peacefully on its own. We can’t know the sincerity of his optimism, but believing that he didn’t need to do anything to set in motion slavery’s end was definitely personally convenient for him. And we know that he was wrong about slavery ending peacefully.

You won’t find any modern leaders who are looking to reinstate slavery, but on some level, does encouraging people to follow Jefferson’s example give them permission to ignore or overlook the racism that succeeded slavery if it’s personally more convenient?

So everything you just said, I 100 percent agree with except for two words. And the two words are “model” and “endorse.” I don’t think Jefferson is a model; I think of him as a mirror. And I don’t endorse Jefferson; I actually offer Jefferson as both a warning and possibility for people who are older and who have been in positions of power and privilege.

I don’t know what history is going to do with our founding generation. What I know is that we need to be honest about it. And we need to take into account the brutal reality of humanity. 

What has helped me in this is my biblical understanding. One Old Testament professor once put it, “The Bible doesn’t give us models to emulate. The Bible gives us mirrors that we identify with.” Are you going to emulate David, especially the way David treated women? Are you going to emulate Abraham and the way he treated Sarah? The only model to emulate is Jesus. Everybody else is a mirror we can identify with. I see historical figures the same way. It’s not unlike what we do with our own families, our own backgrounds, our own marriages. 

I struggle in that I don’t want to herald or look to people who are hurtful and traumatic figures for others. And at the same time, I think everybody should be able to be wrong about things. We’re all going to be, and there’s got to be grace. It’s challenging to figure out how to balance the need for grace with wanting to hold people to a standard, not just accepting that everything is okay and good because everybody’s imperfect.

I think it’s natural for people to choose role models, whether you personally think of Jefferson as a model or just somebody you can learn from. And when we see somebody as a role model, we often want them to be perfect. We want them to be unproblematic. And yet, do we really want to assume that we’re going to be unproblematic? I know I can’t, because I’ve been problematic. And I’ve had to learn from that. And I’m probably still being problematic right now. I just don’t know how yet.

What I love about that is your ability to say, “I know I’m going to have to learn through this process.” I think that this is what the leadership of the future will look like. It is going to be fraught with experiments and aware of needing to confess, needing to talk about our ignorances, needing to learn. The capacity to learn and particularly the capacity to listen are critical for the future. And that means many times learning and listening from the results of your own actions that are painful.

I mean, it’s one of the hard parts about being a preacher for 27 years. I have sermons that I gave 25 years ago that I wouldn’t give today. And so, would I go back and give them differently? Yes, absolutely. If I preached that text today, I would preach it differently. Do I understand what I was doing then? Yeah, I was trying to be as faithful as I possibly could. To me, what’s powerful about being a disciple is that “disciple” means “learner.” And leadership starts with the necessity of being a learner, including learning through our own confession. 

In interpreting what we learn, you caution leaders to be wary of survivorship bias: the tendency to draw our conclusions about reality by looking only or primarily at success stories. This bias can mean that the voices of people who are not success stories, perhaps because they are marginalized, go unheard. As a result, we can fail to see the full picture.

In many predominantly white churches and denominational settings, only people of color who have already managed to succeed in the system are likely to be at the decision-making table. And survivorship bias would suggest that their experiences may not really be the norm. But at the same time, they are often expected to voice the experiences of everyone who looks like them. How do you address that challenge in adaptive leadership?

Well, step one is naming it as a reality. Survivorship bias, saying, “because we’re successful, therefore we have got the right thing,” often brings you to the wrong conclusion. For example, many churches in the past believed the reason they grew was God’s blessing and their brilliant theology when it really had more to do with the fact that more people were moving to their area.

We have to be humble about our assumptions. I teach my students to get as many observations and consider as many interpretations as possible before they go to interventions. Many successful, action-oriented churches just go straight to an intervention. They want to try stuff. But if you rush the process, what you’ll try is stuff that reinforces what you already know. 

I think we like to be able to point to results and say, “Look, what I’m doing is working.” And if you can’t do that, you get scared because you’re used to this “I did my experiment and I proved that I’m right” way of thinking.

People think of experiments as “I did this experiment and proved I’m right.” But the point of an experiment is not to say, “Did it succeed?” The point of experiments is to say, “What did we learn?” I believe leadership is about humbly leading the learning. Oftentimes, your adaptation is learning to listen. And your struggle is letting go of your ego. 

Do you think that it’s become harder to learn from your mistakes? Or do you think that how we learn is just adapting to a cultural climate where we are trying so hard to get it right? And people get upset if they think you’re not.

Compared to the pain of many of our brothers and sisters, this is nothing. 

One of the metaphors that we often talk about in adaptive change is turning up the heat in the room to the place where it can actually bring transformation. Almost every person with privilege or power keeps the thermostat where they’re comfortable. Turning up the heat for them means maybe one degree. But it could be a lot hotter, and you’ll still be okay. You’re not being burned. You’re just not used to being uncomfortable. I think we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And you might find transformation happens in the middle of that.

Can you point to any stories or people who we can look to as mirrors for this work?

I have a book coming out on resilience in November. When I was writing the book, I was looking for stories of extraordinary resilience. So I studied Le Chambon, the French village that helped save about 5,000 Jewish folks from the Holocaust, the Lancaster Amish community who forgave the boy who shot their children, and the Mother Emanuel story of this amazing group of people who forgave the person who shot them because of the color of their skin. 

I assumed that at the center of those stories there would be an extraordinary leader who was resilient. But what I found was these communities had long traditions of two things. One, they knew what it meant to be marginalized. They knew the Exodus concept that you will be good to the alien and stranger because you yourself were a stranger in a strange land. And two, they had the capacity to care for their neighbor because it was a normal part of their lives. 

So the thing I’m working on for the next book is: How should my understanding of adaptive leadership disrupt discipleship? Why are we discipling people toward non-change instead of toward ongoing change? 

I used to think to have the faith of a child meant to believe without questioning. Then I went through a period of doubt in my late teens, and part of what brought me out of it was realizing that asking questions could be faithful. In fact, children actually ask a lot of questions. And that’s not the posture most people associate with discipleship.

This is why I think the adaptive change that has to happen in the life of the church will take us all the way back to the gospel. It will require us to go back to the gospel incarnated in a community of people. I think this is going to be generational work. And I see myself as being part of that generation that will die in the wilderness. Even your generation might die in the wilderness.

I’m okay with that. We’re probably due for our 500-year flood of reformation. And if it means we get closer to the gospel Jesus intended, I feel like it’s important enough to risk being in the wilderness for a while, even if we don’t get to witness the turnaround ourselves.

The most disappointment I see in people’s eyes is the pastors who look at me and go, “So the way you’re talking about leadership makes it sound like I may never succeed.” And one of my favorite quotes comes from a rabbi who said, “It is not your job to finish perfecting the world, but it’s also not your job to cease from it.” You’re just going to be in this work until your last breath. And then you want to have other people faithfully carry it on.

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.