Uncharted territory

The Rev. John Boley encourages The Michigan Conference to embrace the adventure of living in uncertain times.

Clergy Assistant to the Bishop

We are most assuredly living in times of uncertainty. That goes for the direction of our political nation, as well as for the Church of Jesus Christ, as well as for the United Methodist Church. I don’t need to dwell on these uncertainties.

But we are also going forward with confidence, at least in Michigan. The creation of the new Michigan Conference was a bold statement of confidence, akin to Jeremiah buying the field outside of Jerusalem during the Jerusalem siege. We are moving forward despite denominational question-marks and the whole transition of Christendom into new faith forms.

We will be having a staff retreat in August as we all come together in the new Michigan Conference. We will be doing team-building and visioning. One of the resources we will be using is “Canoeing the Mountains” by Tod Bolsinger. I am reading this book in anticipation of the August retreat, and am about two-thirds of the way through it. So far it is a marvelous book about adaptive leadership.

Bolsinger uses as a historical guide and metaphor the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As we all know, Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery were commissioned to explore the new Louisiana Purchase, travel up the Missouri River, and find the water passage to the west coast and the Pacific Ocean. But they came to the point where they had gone as far as they could by river and canoe, and climbing up the hills they expected to see the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. But what they discovered were endless Rocky Mountains. They had to adapt.  “How do you canoe over the mountains?” They had to go off the charts.

We know of course that they finally made it to the Pacific Ocean, and then returned safely. Bolsinger uses this adaptation as a model and metaphor for changes taking place in the church. It is informative, intriguing, and challenging.

How does the church adapt from a time of Christendom – the accepted Christian franchise in the western world – to a new era? How do local congregations adapt to their new, less than prominent and respected place in their communities?

This entire discussion reminds me of the work of Phyllis Tickle and her description of how a new era of the Christian Faith is coming into existence – the Emerging Church.

In the first Chapter, Bolsinger gives his five vital lessons for leadership into uncharted territory:

  1. Understanding uncharted territory: The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.
  2. The on-the-map skill set: No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map.
  3. Leading off the map: In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything.
  4. Relationships and resistance: You can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage.
  5. Transformation: Everybody will be changed (especially the leader).

I look forward to finishing the book and using it at our August retreat. But in Bolsinger’s own words, here is the essence of his overall approach (p. 35):

“We are canoers who have run out of water. There is no good route in front of us, no map, no quick fix or easy answer. 

But… this is good news.           

This is a divine moment. This is an opportunity to express even more clearly what it means to follow and serve the God who is King of the entire world. The church at its best has always been a Corps of Discovery. It has always been a small band of people willingly heading into uncharted territory with a mission worthy of our utmost dedication.”

We are in a divine moment. We are headed into uncharted territory. What an opportunity and a challenge. Can we embrace the adventure?



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