Navigating the Changing Topography of Faith

(© iStockphoto/AlexSava; standret; flas100)

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns describe a defining moment in Meriwether Lewis' life:

He was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory, the Continental Divide—the spine of the Rocky Mountains beyond which the rivers flow west. No American citizen had ever been there before. This he believed was the Northwest Passage: the goal of explorers for more than three centuries, the great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States.

With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life. From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia and beyond it, perhaps, a great plain that led down to the Pacific.

Instead, there were just more mountains—"immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us," he wrote, "with their tops partially covered with snow."

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At that moment, in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of an easy water route across the continent—a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus—was shattered.

According to historical geographer John Logan Allen, that moment atop the Lemhi Pass was when the "geography of hope" gave way to the "geography of reality." A disappointing reality it must have been. When a mental model dies, a painful paradigm shift takes place within us. It is disorienting and anxiety making. It's as if the world as we know it ceases to exist.

Meriwether Lewis makes no comment about that world-rearranging moment in his journal, but Sgt. Patrick Gass describes his reaction some days later, saying that they "proceeded over the most terrible mountains I ever beheld." This is exactly the moment that the church faces today with the demise of Christendom and a changing topography of faith. In this new culture, a new missional mental model is needed, and a new way of leading—and learning—is necessary.

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is about "letting go, learning as we go and keeping going." This mode of leading raises up and sheds light on the competing values that keep a group stuck in the status quo. For churches, competing values like caring for longtime members versus reaching out to the unchurched, assuring excellence in ministry programming versus increasing participation with more volunteers, giving pay raises to staff versus bringing on a new hire, assuring control and unity versus collaboration and innovation entail conflict about things of equal or near equal value. Because they are both valued, the competition for resources and the decisions that need to be made can put individuals and congregations into a most vulnerable moment. Like a person with one foot on the platform and one in the train, the moment of adaptation exposes the gaps within a system and forces the leadership to ask painful questions: What will we lose if we have to choose one of these values over the other? What must we be willing to let go?

Making hard decisions in the face of competing values is what every explorer confronts when they go off the map and into uncharted territory. Through their technical competence, Lewis and Clark led their men up the Missouri River. Because of their relational congruence, the men became a corps, and when they stepped off the map, they were prepared to be a Corps of Discovery requiring adaptive capacity.

When the world is different than we expected, we become disoriented. When the tried-and-true solutions to our problems don't work, we get stuck. When we are faced with competing values that demand a decision that will inevitably lead to loss, we can get overwhelmed. At exactly the moment when the congregation is looking to the leader to give direction, the leader's own anxiety and inner uncertainty is the highest. But this is the moment when the transformational leader goes off the map and begins to lead differently. This is when the transformational leader mobilizes a group toward the growth they will need in order to face the disorientation and find the capacity to reframe their shared identity in a new expression of their shared mission. This adaptive capacity is the crucial leadership element for a changing world.

As Meriwether Lewis approached the top of the Continental Divide, something within him had to be preparing for what he was about to see. Though he wrote of being sure he was about to crest the hill and find the Columbia River, ample warning signs had already suggested things weren't going to go exactly as he hoped.

Lewis exemplified what happens to most of us when we are confronting rapidly changing circumstances: Even though the evidence is around us, we cling to the previously held assumptions as long as possible. Now, to his credit and as an exemplar for us, Meriwether Lewis wasted no time in casting off that assumption once the brutal facts of his situation were clear. There was no water route, there were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them, they had no trail to follow, food was scarce in this rugged terrain, and winter was coming.

This is the canoeing-the-mountains moment. This was when the Corps of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage, no navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean.

History is defined by this moment and all they could have done. At that moment, without even discussing it, Meriwether Lewis simply "proceeded on." In so doing, he offers us some ways of considering our own adaptive moments and the capacities we need.

Recommitment to Core Ideology

First, by continuing on, they recommitted to their core ideology. At the core of adaptive work is clarifying what is precious, elemental—even essential—to the identity of an organization. The core ideology of any group functions as both a charter and an identity statement. This is who we are, we say. If we stop being about this, we stop being.

This moment forces us to face and clarify our own core beliefs. When we recommit to our core ideology, we are claiming—no matter the circumstances—an identity that is larger than our success or failures.

Reframing Strategy

Lewis and Clark reframed their mission. While it was no longer about finding the Northwest Passage or water route, it was even more so about exploration.

For church leaders facing this missional moment, the reframing of church strategy from a sanctuary-centered, membership-based, religious- and life-service provider to a local mission outpost for furthering the kingdom of God enables our congregations to discover a faithful expression of our corporate identity in a changing world. No longer will we be the center of or have a monopoly on cultural conversations regarding moral life and spiritual values. No longer do social structures support church life or give preferences to Christian tradition. But, in a more pluralistic public square, where there were many different voices and perspectives offered, we have an opportunity closer to Paul's at Mars Hill (Acts 17), engaging the philosophies of the day, or to the early Christians', whose movement gained credibility (and converts!) at least in part because of the way Christians cared for people during some of the worst epidemics.

But a reframe itself is only a new way of seeing and describing the problem. A reframe, while vital, isn't enough to bring the deep, systemic changes necessary.

Relying on New Learning

The moment Meriwether Lewis went over the Continental Divide was when the Corps of Discovery started discovering. As they entered the uncharted territory, they had to start learning all over again, adjusting their expectations, reconsidering their strategies and forming new alliances and partnerships.

In moments of uncertainty and disorientation, leaders own internal adaptations; that is, the work that leaders themselves have to do to clarify their own motives, identity and mission is the necessary precursor to the work that the entire community will have to do. When a leader and a people together resist the anxiety that would lead to throwing in the towel or relying on the quick fix, but instead look more deeply—recommitting to core values, reframing strategy and relying on learning—this enables them to gain the just-in-time experience necessary to keep the expedition going.  

Tod Bolsinger is the vice president for vocation and formation and assistant professor of practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. A former pastor, he is an author, speaker, consultant and blogger, and serves as an executive coach in transformational leadership.

Taken from Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. Copyright © 2015 by Tod Bolsinger. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.

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