Growing Churches in Changing Times

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Today’s blog post was written by Rev. Tom Grabill. Tom recently had the opportunity to attend the Navigating Change Together conference hosted by the Regional Synod of Canada. Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, author of “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory” led sessions on the topic of Adaptive Leadership – how to guide our communities with vision and hope through crisis and change.

In the Fall of 1802 Thomas Jefferson informed Meriwether Lewis that he would head up an expedition to find the Northwest Passage from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis chose William Clark as his partner because of his expertise in canoeing. However, what they discovered was that a river did not exist from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, but rather 600 miles of mountains.

Greater numbers of pastors are leaving ministry today than ever before as church membership declines at an unprecedented rate. Leaders are bewildered at the demands of ministry – tired, confused, and uncertain about how to proceed simply because they haven’t been prepared for the work that needs to be done. What happens when the world in front of us doesn’t look anything like the world we are leaving behind? Leaders are realizing that preaching, programs, and pastoral care, that which seminary trained us to do, are not enough to navigate the demands of a post-Christian culture where fewer and fewer people prioritize church participation over a plethora of other options. A new set of skills are needed when the mission field is our own community.

Tod Bolsinger, vice president for vocation and formation at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of the book Canoeing the Mountains, spoke recently at an RCA Regional Synod of Canada event in Toronto about how traditional western churches need to become missional in a changing cultural context to survive. Like Lewis and Clark, who weren’t trained for crossing mountains, many pastors today find themselves ill-prepared for the demands of ministry today. Church leaders today must learn the art of adventure to overcome adaptive challenges following the example of Lewis and Clark who failed to give up but instead learned how to ride horses instead of canoes.

As Edwin Friedman writes in his book A Failure of Nerve, “Conceptually stuck systems can’t get unstuck by trying harder.” Instead they must capture the spirit of adventure, think beyond the control of thinking processes, and learn to see the world differently. Instead of preaching longer, pounding the pulpit more forcefully, bringing back old programs that worked in the past or trying harder to please members so they will stay, something more is needed to guide congregations toward living differently, living missionally.

Today a leader’s primary role, according to Ronald Heifetz, Leadership On The Line, is to “disappoint people at a rate they can handle.” We must lead people in such a way that they experience a shift in values, expectations, attitudes, and habits of behavior to become Christ’s hands and feet to the people they interact with in the rhythm of their daily lives. This requires new learning, results in loss, and exposes competing values that keep the church from moving forward in mission. Even the role and function of pastor must be reimagined and redefined in a changing culture to make room for new ways of leading.

As you can well imagine, a new set of challenges resulting from leading change will surface as members of a congregation resist what is being taught. A growing expertise in helping others grieve loss well and move forward when doing unfamiliar and uncomfortable things will have to be developed. Tod Bolsinger believes that most people don’t fear change, but rather loss and the emotions that accompany such loss. A leader must master the ability to lead an entire system in healthy grief so as to shift toward living on mission in a changing world.

Tod’s insights are timely and encouraging for leadership in a post-Christian context. Not only is his book, Canoeing the Mountains, an important read for pastors and church leadership teams to prepare for leading in uncharted territory, but another book in the works will be relevant for forming leaders for a changing world. To be an effective leader, moving forward will require persistence in the face of resistance and a commitment to on-going personal spiritual transformation which Tod sets forth in the new book. Intervarsity Press is also producing a study guide based on the book Canoeing the Mountains so that leadership teams can process the content about adaptive leadership. If you wish to know more about adaptive leadership in a changing cultural context, let’s connect and learn together.

2 Comments on “Growing Churches in Changing Times”

  1. Having graduated from Seminary 37 years ago, I am finding that very little of the “practical stuff” we learned in those days is of value in today’s church. We’re doing many different things in ministry in our current context and those aspects which are still the same are being approached in very different ways. This is certainly a day in which a one-size-fits-all expectation becomes totally absurd. I read Tod’s book a couple years ago too and found it very confirming in the steps of change which we’ve been taking … so that we can do our best to remain relevant to the people in our congregation and the increasingly unchurched community around us.
    Thanks for reminding us again! I’ll look for Tod’s next book.

  2. Good article! 2 quotes really ring true with me: “Conceptually stuck systems can’t get unstuck by trying harder.
    Instead they must capture the spirit of adventure, think beyond the control of thinking processes, and learn to see the world differently.”
    “aleader’s primary role…is to “disappoint people at a rate they can handle.”
    Churches want to default to what worked for them 10, 20, or 30 years ago – but that’s an exercise in futility. There’s no shortcut for knowing God’s Word, knowing your culture, and doing the work of figuring out how to connect them.
    just my 2 cents worth…

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