Canoeing the mountains

Canoeing the Mountains

Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory

Explorers Lewis and Clark had to adapt. While they had prepared to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, instead they found themselves in the Rocky Mountains. You too may feel that you are leading in a cultural context you were not expecting. You may even feel that your training holds you back more often than it carries you along.

Drawing from his extensive experience as a pastor and consultant, Tod Bolsinger brings decades of expertise in guiding churches and organisations through uncharted territory. He offers a combination of illuminating insights and practical tools to help you reimagine what effective leadership looks like in our rapidly changing world.

If you’re going to scale the mountains of ministry, you need to leave behind canoes and find new navigational tools. Reading this book will set you on the right course to lead with confidence and courage.

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Seminary didn’t train me for this - book excerpt


Over the last ten years, I have had one church leader after another whisper to me the same frustrated confession: “Seminary didn’t train me for this. I don’t know if I can do it. I just don’t know . . .”

A number of pastors are ready to throw in the towel. Studies show that if given a chance to do something else, most pastors would jump at it. Reportedly, upwards of fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry every month.

A couple of years ago I learned that three of my pastor friends around the country had resigned on the same day. There were no affairs, no scandals and no one was renouncing faith. But three good, experienced pastors turned in resignations and walked away. One left church ministry all together. The details are as different as the pastors themselves, but the common thread is that they finally got worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do. Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges. What all three churches had in common was that they were mostly blaming the pastor for how bad it felt to be so stuck.

“If only you could preach better!”

“If only you were more pastoral and caring!”

“If only our worship was more dynamic!”

“Please, pastor, do something!” (That is what we pay you for, isn’t it?)

And to make matters worse, the pastors don’t know what to do either. As a seminary vice president, I am now charged with confronting this reality head-on. Our graduates were not trained for this day. When I went to seminary, we were trained in the skills that were necessary for supporting faith in Christendom. When churches functioned primarily as vendors of religious services for a Christian culture, the primary leadership toolbox was

  • teaching (for providing Christian education)
  • liturgics (for leading Christian services)
  • pastoral care (for offering Christian counsel and support)

In this changing world, we need to add a new set of leadership tools. And this applies equally well to Christians serving in leadership beyond the parish. The challenges of a changing world come even more rapidly in business, education and nonprofit leadership. And while this book’s primary audience is congregational leaders, I have added some material specifically for Christian leaders in other contexts.

This is a guidebook for learning to lead in a world we weren’t prepared for. Our guides will be none other than the first American adventurers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Lewis and Clark’s expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase was built on a completely false expectation. They believed, like everyone before them, that the unexplored west was exactly the same geography as the familiar east. This is the story of what they did when they discovered that they—and everyone else before them—had been wrong. And how instructive and inspiring that story can be to us today. . . .

From Lewis and Clark we will learn that if we can adapt and adventure, we can thrive. That while leadership in uncharted territory requires both learning and loss, once we realize that the losses won’t kill us, they can teach us. And mostly, we will learn that to thrive off the map in an exciting and rapidly changing world means learning to let go, learn as we go and keep going no matter what.

Adapted from Chapter One: Seminary Didn’t Prepare Me for This

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"When Fuller Seminary decided to launch out in our own uncharted terrain, we called on Tod Bolsinger to join our leadership team. When you read Canoeing the Mountains, you'll immediately understand why. Bolsinger's ability to translate the most important organizational leadership material into the day-to-day challenges of the Christian leader is without peer. His vulnerability and authenticity resonates as he shares his own leadership learning journey. This is the leadership book the church needs today."  
Mark Labberton, president, Fuller Theological Seminary

"A superb book on the need for adaptive leadership in the twenty-first-century church. Bolsinger challenges leaders in the Christian community to recognize the unsettling reality of being 'off the map.' Illustrated with vivid metaphors and real-world examples, resulting in a seminal book on how to navigate this new world. A must-read for everyone interested in church leadership."  
Uli Chi, former board chair, Regent College Board of Governors

"Since the missional church discussion began to develop real momentum, the constant question has been how does this theological vision of the church after Christendom translate into the practice of real congregations struggling with enormous challenges?...Bolsinger's book is a major step forward. It is based on solid missional theology, rooted in concrete congregational experience, shaped by provocative research of many diverse voices and communicated energetically and creatively. Most importantly, it is shaped by theologically informed hope, not just optimism, and takes the risks that must be taken for the sake of faithful witness today. I strongly commend this book!"
Darrell L. Guder, Henry Winters Luce Emeritus Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

"Ministry in post-Christendom is indeed uncharted territory. In Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger cleverly solicits imagery and vocabulary that today's pastors and leaders can cling to as they begin to truly climb the mountain of adaptive change necessary to transform churches to better health. While there are many books about adaptive change, the process takes years to grasp and understand. Tod's retelling of the story of Lewis and Clark provides concrete stepping stones to a fluid journey and repackages these concepts in a way that is digestible, inspiring and thought provoking. I will use this book with my own congregation..."
Theresa Cho, copastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church, San Francisco

"Canoeing the Mountains is a must-read for pastors and church leaders who want to understand the precarious religious landscape in America today. Seasoned pastor Tod Bolsinger draws on his experience as a church consultant and student of contemporary leadership theory in order to tackle the most pressing ministry leadership issues of our day. Employing Lewis and Clark's experience of exploring the Louisiana Purchase as a driving metaphor for the leadership that is needed in the church, Bolsinger issues a bold challenge to contemporary pastors to learn how to lead all over again..."
Thomas K. Tewell, executive director, Macedonian Ministry

"In a most winsome and engaging way, Tod Bolsinger weaves together the best of current leadership research?adaptive change, systems theory, organizational transformation?with the real-life challenges of a pastor/practitioner who has spent years trying to put all this together in a congregation ...Like a master storyteller, Tod also weaves in the story of Lewis and Clark as a historical parable of the change and challenge in which we find ourselves today in the church. This is a book that you simply must read!"
Jim Singleton, associate professor of pastoral leadership and evangelism, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

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