Leading in Uncharted Territory: The Future of Church Leadership

“Over the last 10 years I have had one church leader after another say to me: ‘Seminary didn’t train me for this.’”

The success of a unified vision had given birth to an overly centralized institution. The very unity, discipline and alignment needed to bring the church together to rebuild the campus around our vision were now stifling creativity, passion and energy. In an entrepreneurial culture like that of south Orange County, California, we had become too corporate. And less people were interested in being part of supporting what they saw was a growing religious institution.

When our consultant, Kevin Graham Ford, laid this out before me, I grimaced.

“So what’s causing this? What’s at the heart of the problem? What do we need to change?” I asked.

That’s when he said the word that changed my life: “You.”

I felt a little queasy.

Kevin continued,

Tod, don’t get me wrong. These people love and respect you. They appreciate your preaching and they trust you. In fact, we have never had a church talk more about a senior pastor than this church talks about you. And that is the problem. It’s not your problem, at least not yet. Nobody thinks that you are trying to build the church around you, but that is in fact what is happening.

Unconsciously, the message going out is that everybody here thinks it is their job to support the ministry that you are having here. And that model of leadership is out of date. It’s a model from the past that is unsustainable in a changing world, and is slowly sapping the passion from the church.

Kevin gave me three hard options: (1) Do nothing and trust that the church would bounce back, (2) resign and let the church have a new leader, or (3) I could learn to lead differently.

I chose option 3. I loved my church and wanted to remain their pastor, and yet I knew something needed to change. Relearning how to lead wasn’t easy.

And even now in my role with Fuller Seminary, I have been relearning what it means to lead ever since.

My story is not unique. For the past decade I have consulted with leaders in a wide variety of contexts: once great urban churches who are now close to closing their doors, small town congregations who are becoming older and smaller, growing immigrant congregations who are struggling with growing pains, denominational leaders facing one rapid-fire crisis after another, nonprofit boards struggling to stay afloat and find new funding, seminary leaders facing questions about whether they are even relevant anymore.

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What we all have in common is that our old strategies no longer work.

Leadership for a Changing World

Today’s leaders are facing complex challenges that have no clear-cut solutions. These challenges are more systemic in nature and require broad, widespread learning. They can’t be solved through a conference, a video series or a program. Even more complicated, these problems are very often the result of yesterday’s solutions. They are what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive challenges.”

Adaptive challenges are the true tests of leadership. They are challenges that go beyond the technical solutions of resident experts or best practices, or even the organization’s current knowledge. They arise when the world around us has changed but we continue to live on the successes of the past. They are challenges that cannot be solved through compromise or win-win scenarios, or by adding another ministry or staff person to the team. They demand that leaders make hard choices about what to preserve and to let go. They are challenges that require people to learn and to change, that require leaders to experience and navigate profound loss.

Today, I consult, coach and am on the senior leadership of a seminary dedicated to forming leaders for this changing world. But for me it all began almost 10 years ago with understanding that for our church mission to win, I had to lose. The changing world around us and even the success we had experienced had brought us to a new place where we would need a new strategy. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “What got us here wouldn’t take us there.” So, I had to lose some of my status, power and control. I had to lose “say” over certain aspects of the mission, and mostly I had to lose my identity as the resident expert and learn to lead all over again.

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The culture is changing, the world is changing rapidly, and churches are facing change on an unprecedented scale. Churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even marginalized. Shared corporate faith is viewed with cynicism at best, downright hostility at worst. The cultural advantage we experienced during the 17 centuries of Christendom has almost completely dissipated. Seminary training for the Christendom world is inadequate to this immensely challenging—transformation-demanding—moment in history.

We have to learn to lead all over again.

But the church is also at an exciting crossroads. We are entering a new day, new terrain and a new adventure. We are not alone. The Spirit of God goes before us. The mission of Christ will not fail. A day will come when the “kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

The next steps are going to be demanding. More than anything, this moment requires those of us in positions of authority (and even most of us who are not) to embrace an adventure-or-die mindset, and find the courage and develop the capacity for a new day. We are heading into uncharted territory and are given the charge to lead a mission where the future is nothing like the past.

Taken from Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger. Copyright (c) 2015 by Tod Bolsinger. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com

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