By Kim Shockley
The price of Canoeing the Mountains, by Tod Bolsinger, is well with it for chapters seven through eleven, where he gives very practical advice about what it really takes to lead off-the-map. I would like to highlight a few things that impact my work as a CVS in this Annual Conference. These things are behavior oriented, because often we don’t consider or hold ourselves accountable to practical Christian behaviors so that our congregations can have fruitful ministry. The next blog will talk about sabotage, but for now I want to concentrate on the positive behaviors necessary to lead off-the-map into uncharted territory.
When Gary and I traveled briefly in London last summer we used the subway system to get around. The “mind the gap” signs are everywhere to alert travelers to the space between the sidewalk and the train – it is a gap that you must pay attention to as you navigate. Bolsinger says that the attitude of minding the gap is essential to making the steps between where you are and how God wants to use you. He uses fancy words – adaptive capacity – but it really comes down to paying attention to the emotional roller-coaster of change and loss in the people around you, while gently urging them forward. If Christian leaders don’t mind that emotional gap, we will fail to get very far into uncharted territory. He suggests a strategy of defining what will not change and helping people to have conversation around what they feel they are losing. Acknowledgement of loss is important as we move forward. The Corps of Discovery had to overcome momentous loss to take that first step in uncharted territory – they did not know where they were anymore – and all they saw before them were those fierce mountains that are so unlike the Appalachians they knew. Navigating this emotional time is important to taking the first steps – figuring out a shared path forward is important. As Carl Arrington says – “We are all in this together!”
At some point early on in any adaptive process it is important to recognize that the best posture for moving forward is a sense of adventure. The whole Corps of Discovery had to embrace a sense of adventure if they were to take any steps at all! Actually, when they returned east after a winter along the Oregon coast, they actually split the Corps so that they could explore even more uncharted territory before they finished their task. Amazing! Part of that spirit of adventure is permission for experimentation and learning. Uncharted territory means we just don’t know what’s around the corner, so we have to hold it lightly, value the relationships, and have fun with what we learn and how we fail. We also have to acknowledge that it is much easier to stay where we are and continue to atrophy, or to look back and glorify what was – even though what was really did get us to where we are today.
Another of my favorite reads is The Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman because he unpacks the non-anxious presence piece that is so important in having ‘nerve’. Bolsinger refers to this work frequently. We all know that leading through change is an anxiety producing activity. When we are anxious we fight, we flee, or we freeze – all of these things happen in the life of local congregations. As stated earlier, we can quell the anxiety by knowing what won’t change – ‘we will still have the 11 am traditional worship service that you love’. And by listening to the perceived losses – ‘but we won’t know everyone anymore when we have another worship service’. Staying calm is the only answer! Bolsinger states, “To stay calm is to be so aware of yourself that your response to the situation is not to the anxiety of the people around you but to the actual issue at hand.” (Loc 2336 of 4571) ‘Would you be willing to participate in a coffee time so that you could meet your friends and make new friendships with the people who come to the other service?’
Paying attention to the emotional, embracing a spirit of adventure, and staying calm are some of the positive behaviors that will help us lead through uncharted territory. What’s next?
Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015.