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Tod Bolsinger wrote a great book entitled, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. The author compares Lewis and Clark’s discovery expedition of the early 1800’s with the modern day church. Bolsinger had no way of knowing that his book would become a guide for pastors, ministers, elders, deacons, key leaders and church members going through the current pandemic.
He offers three key challenges leaders should pursue in times of uncertainty – let go, learn as you go and keep going. These three components form the basis for what he refers to as Adaptive Leadership.
For Bolsinger, a Presbyterian minister and Seminary Professor, the story of Lewis and Clark’s journey had all three components. Lewis had been commissioned by his friend and mentor President Thomas Jefferson to lead a group of men to find a waterway passage from the east to the west ending at the Pacific Ocean. As part of his mission he was to develop maps, determine where the Indians lived, and identify new flora and fauna. Bolsinger and others referred to it as a discovery trip.
Lewis had spent years preparing for the trip. He learned how to live off of the land as a youngster. He enlisted in the military and learned how to command and was dispatched to several of the western American frontier garrisons in the late 1700’s. Lewis served two years as the personal secretary to President Jefferson which assisted with his training. Jefferson wanted to make sure that Lewis had a plan for the mission.
By the time Lewis set out with Clark, and the rest of his crew he had been trained by the most knowledgeable people of that time.
The truth is though that the best laid plans are just that – plans. Lewis and Clark’s team were able to follow the plan of canoeing up the Missouri River until they ran out of river. They were then faced with the Continental divide and the snow covered Rocky Mountains to the west. It was in that moment that the team was faced with the reality that canoes would no longer work as a form of transportation. They had to decide on whether to withdraw and go back or continue on. For them to move ahead they had to let go of the original plan.
Bolsinger reminds the reader that churches, in times of stress or change, will default to what they know instead of letting go. In March, churches were faced with a crisis. Face to face worship was stopped. Meeting together on Sundays, something we’ve always done, was squelched to curb the spread of the virus. Churches were forced to let go of their original plans.
Learn as you go
Most churches transitioned and began learning a new method of sharing the gospel. Pastors and staff learned to Live Stream their services and set up Zoom meetings for small groups. Many enlisted the help of others who were experts in these areas, much like Lewis and Clark who received help from an Indian woman named Sacagawea. She knew the lay of the land, the names of the tribes in the area and how to move the team. All the while the crew learned a new way of doing things. In similar fashion, churches have become accustomed to using new forms of communication. New methods of caring for the community have been employed as people have volunteered to distribute food, check on neighbors, and serve using creative ways to share the gospel. New methods have been employed but the message of the gospel has remained the same.
The final step for Lewis and Clark and churches moving ahead will be, “to keep going no matter what.” As was previously stated, Lewis and Clark and their team could have retreated at any time. They could have gone back and given up. For Bolsinger going back means going back to the way things were. Bolsinger writes “when we get to moments of deep disorientation, we often try to reorient around old ways of doing things. We go back to what we know how to do. We keep canoeing even though there is no river.”
As churches reopen their doors, they must decide what they will do next. Will the local church try to do everything that was done before plus live streaming? Will the local church consider letting go of methods or programs that may hinder the gospel? Will the church be willing to continue to learn as it goes, embracing new strategies that have been working and ministering to the community in practical ways? Bolsinger encourages the local church to be a community of people who participate in God’s mission to heal the world by reestablishing his loving reign, on earth as it is in heaven.