Review: Canoeing the Mountains

Canoeing the Mountains.jpg

Canoeing the MountainsTod Bolsinger. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Praxis, 2015.

Summary: Using the story of Lewis and Clark, Bolsinger explores the kind of leadership needed in the uncharted territory of our rapidly changing cultural landscape.

“Seminary didn’t train me for this.” “Our church is dying and I have no clue what to do.” Over and over, Tod Bolsinger encountered these statements in his consulting work. Pastors are trained in teaching, liturgics, and pastoral care, and often, those tools just don’t seem enough in our changing world. Bolsinger likens this to the moment Lewis and Clark climbed the Lemhi Pass, having canoed up the Missouri River, and instead of expecting to find a river on the other side of the mountain that would carry them to the Pacific, they found…mountains. The needed to exchange canoes for horses, and adapt to an “off the map” situation. In this book, Bolsinger considers the adaptive leadership of Lewis and Clark, and applies it to Christian leaders often tempted to try to “canoe the mountains,” because they don’t know any other way to lead. Often, they may be the greatest obstacle to transformative change in their churches or organizations. The choice they face is between adventure and organizational death.  All of this is part of understanding the “uncharted territory” that calls for a new kind of leadership.

Part Two makes the contention that there are critical “on the map” skills that leaders must demonstrate in order for people to follow them “off the map.” These include competence and credibility in stewarding Scripture and tradition, souls and communities, and teams and tasks. It means leadership that develops “relational congruence” in which one builds trust by showing the ability to be the same person with the same values in every relationship. And it means clarity and embodiment of the core values one hopes to see manifest in the church.

“Leading off the Map” is the focus of Part Three and critical to this is the adaptive capacity of the leader. Leaders must be able to look at systems rather than react to symptoms, to calmly face loss and the challenge of the unknown, leading a learning process expressed in asking questions rather than giving answers. Sometimes rather than doing something, it first means standing still…and then doing something through a process of observation, interpretation, and intervention. In the process, understanding the DNA of the church and not violating that is critical. Interventions should start out modesty and playfully–lots of experiments, and resistance can be expected. In facing resistance, leaders must be absolutely clear and convicted about the mission, which for Bolsinger, “trumps all” and ready to press into mission even when no one else is.

Part Four goes deeper into the issue of “Relationships and Resistance.” Leaders cultivate relationships with six groups of people:

  1. Allies, aligned and in agreement with the mission.
  2. Confidants, who are outside the organization and can give honest feedback.
  3. Opponents who are not enemies but have a different perspective that must be heard and engaged.
  4. Senior authorities, those above one with whom connection and relationship are critical to support one through a change process. Think of Jefferson’s role with Lewis and Clark.
  5. Casualties, those who stand to lose in a change process for whom leaders assume responsibility.
  6. Dissenters who ask the tough questions that need to be asked and responded to without defensiveness because it is not about the leader but the mission.

The real challenge though is recognizing and persisting through sabotage, which Bolsinger believes can be expected when leading in uncharted territory. That was an eye-opener.

Finally, in Part Five, Bolsinger writes about the “transformation” that occurs with adaptive leadership. He observes the leadership transformation in the Lewis and Clark party, where the two share equally in command, where a woman, Sacajawea, leads, where both she and a slave vote, and a soldier is released from regular duty for discovery–long before such practices would be widely accepted in the culture. Bolsinger proposes that just as the most significant blockage may be the leader, so also, the most important transformation to occur in an adaptive leadership process is in the leader.

This seems to me to be a critically important book for leadership teams and pastors. So often our approach when things are not working is simply to double down and try harder, which, as someone has pointed out, is a definition of insanity. The willingness to leave the canoes behind, and learn new skills, to get up on the balcony, and then try new interventions rooted in careful observation and interpretation and not reaction, and to stay relentlessly focused on mission separated Lewis and Clark from other explorers.

I would have liked to see this leadership model rooted in scripture. Lewis and Clark certainly were singular leaders, and the book invokes good leadership theory. I can’t help but wonder what one might draw from the leadership of Moses, of David, of Jesus, and of Paul, each who in some sense led in uncharted territory. The conflict situation of Acts 6 strikes me as a marvelous example of a system that wasn’t working, and of leadership that exhibited relational, and spiritual competence linked to clear missional focus while adapting to problems associated with expansion, resulting in a transformed, rapidly growing church and an enlarged and diversified leadership nucleus.

Nevertheless, there is much of profit here. If leaders can simply stop and realize they are trying to “canoe the mountains” that is probably worth the price of admission. To move from a speaking to a collaborating ministry that leads, not with answers, but is open to questions and learning is an important leadership transformation. It could make all the difference between catalyzing the giftedness within our organizations and churches, and losing it.

Review: Jefferson’s America

Jeffeerson's America

Jefferson’s AmericaJulie M. Fenster. New York: Crown, 2016.

Summary: An account of how Jefferson used the efforts of four teams of men comprising less than a hundred total to establish America’s hold on the lands west of the Mississippi River.

Most of us, if we remember anything of early U. S. History remember the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the explorations, up the Missouri and to the Pacific coast, of Lewis and Clark. What I didn’t realize was that while we had purchased these lands from France for $15 million, our grasp of these was tenuous, especially because of the ambitions of Spain to hold the lands west of the Mississippi. I did not realize that there were four teams of explorers and that the success of their efforts played a key role in staving off the ambitions of Spain as well as confirming the wisdom of Jefferson’s bold move in acquiring these lands. Julie M. Fenster’s account of these explorers and their expeditions showed how four teams of men with a combined total of about one hundred men, plus Sacajawea, in the case of Lewis and Clark, fended off the challenges of the Federalists and the ambitions of Spain.

The book begins with America in the 1790’s and into Jefferson’s administration, as the country sought to get on its feet, occupy the Northwest Territory, and stay out of conflicts with the superpowers of Spain, France, and Great Britain. Soon, with westward settlement, Americans were on the banks of the Mississippi. West of this was mostly land claimed by the Spanish, and the native peoples who held it first. Louisiana, and New Orleans were the place where the tension was greatest, as Americans sought to ship goods through this port, held by Spain, and then through complicated maneuvers, yielded to France, from whom Jefferson acquired the land in 1803. In truth, Spain had not given up its ambitions for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and certainly was the dominant power in Texas and the lands to the south and west. Add to this that the purchase never decisively determined the western borders of these lands.

Jefferson faced opposition from Federalists who questioned Jefferson’s constitutional power to acquire these lands, and the wisdom of an acquisition that might lead to greater international confrontation over lands of unknown worth. This book shows how four teams of explorers led by Lewis and Clark (the Missouri), Hunter and Dunbar (the Red, Black, and Ouachita Rivers), Zebulon Pike (the upper Mississippi), and Freeman and Custis (the Red River) both asserted the presence of the United States in these newly claimed lands, and furnished, through journals and materials sent back to Washington, incontrovertible evidence of the riches of these lands. Fenster follows each expedition, including the trials faced in contending with various river conditions, negotiations with Indian tribes, the reaching of the Pacific by Lewis and Clark, and the climactic confrontation between Freeman and Custis and their forty troops with over a thousand Spanish on the Red River. Here is her description of this last:

    “Viana [the Spanish commander] started by warning Freeman that if the expedition continued, his orders were to open fire.

Freeman replied, ‘The object of my expedition was, to explore the river to its source, under the instructions of the President of the U.S.’ He request the objections in writing, but Viana refused, giving his word of honor instead. Freeman had done his duty.

    The juncture had been reached at which Freeman’s control over the situation would vanish with one more move, one more word. He agreed to leave the following day. Before turning to leave, however, he thought Viana said something in Spanish to one of his men about placing his soldiers on what had become the American side of the river. Freeman told his interpreter ‘that if a Spanish guard was placed near us they should be fired upon.’ He was offering battle to a force vastly superior. A moment went by and then Viana abandoned the idea. Freeman had done what a hundred diplomats failed to do. Spain and America had a border, and it was the Red River” (p. 342).

Fenster skillfully reproduces the vast tapestry of American exploration. She weaves in figures like General James Wilkinson, a slippery character who probably acted as a double agent on many occasions, and Aaron Burr, whose plots in the southwest eventually led to Jefferson’s unsuccessful prosecution of him. She helps us understand the personal character of the explorers including the struggle with depression Lewis faced whenever he wasn’t exploring, ending in his apparent suicide en route to Washington, though this never could be definitively proven. She portrays the drivenness of Zebulon Pike, who nearly lost his feet in the exploration of the upper Mississippi, and who later pressed on in a failed attempt that nearly cost him and his men their lives to reach the peak that bears his name. As a modern historian, Fenster also observes both the exploitation of and lack of understanding of the native peoples these explorers encountered in their journeys.

Most of all, she shows the decisive role these explorers played in confirming the United States’ hold on these lands, vindicating a president who saw the opportunity offered him even though he did not have the military to sustain a fight against France or Spain at the time. Through the reports of these explorers, the way was paved for a new wave of westward settlement, and an often besieged President was confirmed in the wisdom of his bold act and these men would ever after be known as “Jefferson’s men.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.