Adaptive Leadership

Denise UtterBlog, NCCL Board of Directors

Adaptive Leadership, a few thoughts from Denise Utter.

Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.

~ Tod Bolsinger (Canoeing the Mountains)

Last week, I participated in a webinar that gave me a new perspective for ministry, for NCCL, and for the changing climate and culture we all navigate today. The webinar, titled Adaptive Leadership: or How to Canoe a Mountain, walked through the problem of facing new challenges armed with tools and solutions meant for another time, another place. 


The metaphor the facilitator used came from Tod Bolsinger’s book: Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.  In it, Bolsinger addresses those of us in ministry, “Christian leaders, you were trained for a world that is disappearing… What we all have in common is that our old strategies no longer work.” Many of us have read Forming Intentional DisciplesGoing, Going, GoneDivine Renovation, and numerous studies from Barna, Search Institute, Pew Forum, CARA and more. It’s not that we aren’t aware of the changing dynamics, we’re just trying to figure out what it all means for us. 

It’s like Lewis and Clark and their journey westward, says Bolsinger, as they reached the Continental Divide. “And at that moment everything that Meriwether Lewis assumed about his journey changed. He was planning on exploring the new world by boat. He was a river explorer. They planned on rowing, and they thought the hardest part was behind them. But in truth everything they had accomplished was only a prelude to what was in front of them.” They had assumed the geography was the same. They knew there would be mountains, but they thought of the mountains that were most familiar to them, the Appalachian Mountains. They had never seen anything like the great Rockies. All of a sudden, they realized that everything they knew about the expedition had to change. What they did before, did not prepare them for what came next. They needed new skills, new tools, new perspectives.


We have to get reoriented in the new world. We have to assess the situation and realize we know more about where we’ve been than where we’re going. Bolsinger says, “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.” 

Our conversation in virtual small groups during this webinar led to reflections on what resonated with us, what challenged us, and how we might become more comfortable with letting go to move forward, with understanding the need to explore, to try new things in order to make new discoveries, which ultimately means understanding we’re going to fail, and thus knowing we need to keep trying, keep moving forward. Some of us spoke to the new approaches in faith formation, the idea that when faced with adaptive problems, in order to move forward we must engage the people most affected by the changes. To come in to a community demanding change (top-down) without building a foundation, a vision, without sharing the problem, or getting buy-in for a solution, is to assure failure. Those most affected must be a part of any change, every step of the way.  


Leadership is different than management, says Bolsinger, and many of us are just managing our ministries: 

Leadership is not running good meetings, keeping good books, overseeing good programs and making good policies (as important as those are!). Management is a kind of stewardship. Management cares for what is. Leadership is focused on what can be or what must be. Management is about keeping promises to a constituency; leadership is about an organization fulfilling its mission and realizing its reason for being. 

Church leaders today need to be adaptive leaders, ready to meet the needs of adaptive challenges, those that don’t just require technical solutions, those that do require us to make hard decisions, that “require us to learn and to change”. We need to move forward no matter how overwhelming the Continental Divide might look. And Bolsinger reminds us we need to focus on our own transformation, not just on the Divide. We need to look to what’s ahead and not what we’re leaving behind. “Focus continually on learning, not on what you’ve already mastered.” Lewis and Clark had to seek the input of those familiar with the geography, familiar with the landscape. We must do the same. 


I sought Bolsinger’s book immediately after the webinar because so much of what I heard in the webinar resonated with my experience. Here are just a few of the lessons I take away from this read:

  • The world in front of us is nothing like the world behind is.  
  • If we can adapt and adventure, we can thrive.  
  • Exploration teaches us to see the familiar through a new frame. 
  • Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical.  
  • Exploration requires us to become expert experimenters. 
  • In a Christendom world, speaking was leading; in a post-Christendom world, leading is multidimensional: apostolic, relational and adaptive. 
  • Leadership in the past meant coming up with solutions; today leadership is learning how to ask new questions we have been too scared, too busy or too proud to ask.

We are a conference of leaders, people who come together to be energized, nourished, resourced, empowered, and equipped, so that we might energize people toward their own transformation. In our catechetical, evangelization, and pastoral ministries, we all work toward that end – transformation. What new questions are you asking? What are you being called to let go of? These are questions I’ll be pondering in the coming weeks and months.

NCCL has made a lot of changes recently, beginning with our ends policies, one of which states “Members of NCCL will be aware of changing dynamics and landscapes in ministry.” To be aware is a first step; what comes next will define us. I believe our Board of Directors, our Representative Council, our forum leaders, project leaders, committee chairs, members and partners, have all experienced some of the change that is happening within the organization. There will be some growing pains, but if we are to thrive we have to figure out how we as a membership organization cross that great divide, how we energize “a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” In this kind of leadership everyone will be changed, says Bolsinger, especially the leader.