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canoe and mountain

CBFNC 2019: Canoeing the Mountains

On March 28, I joined other leaders in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) as we listened to Dr. Tod Bolsinger share wisdom he presented in his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (IVP Books, 2015).

Bolsinger’s book had been recommended to me by many when I began my ministry with Ecclesia Baptist in August 2018. I downloaded the audio version and listened to it right away, finding it both insightful and compelling. In Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger uses the metaphor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (in search of a northwest water route in the 19th century) to explore church leadership in the 21st century.*

For today’s church, our “canoes” are practices that have brought us success in the past; our “mountains” are the conditions that were not present at all in earlier seasons of the church. The current frustration of attracting young people to church serves as a great example. Back in the 1970’s, for many of us, church was THE only activity; in 2019, the buffet of extracurriculars is endless. When I was a teen, a church could get a new ping-pong table and attract a crowd of students instantly; today, churches are giving freebies to kids and youth to entice them to go on a free trip to an indoor trampoline park—and even these tactics fail to impact weekly attendance.

So how do we change this? That’s exactly what Dr. Bolsinger discussed at last week’s meeting. First, he noted what does not bring about change.

  • Fear. On the Sunday following the tragedy of September 11, 2001 U.S. churches were overflowing. Just one year later, church attendance was at an all-time low.
  • Facts. Raise your hand if you know how to eat right and exercise. Now keep your hand up if you always do all those things. Exactly. (Same is true for any unhealthy habit. The knowledge that it is unhealthy does not usually bring about lasting change.)
  • Force. Bolsinger shared a fascinating statistic: when told by doctors to change their behaviors or die, 90% of patients do not make the necessary changes. Doctors can’t force us to make healthy choices, no matter how much they threaten us.

Bolsinger then talked about what does bring about change.

  • Relate. Hearing each other’s stories helps us to understand one another and thereby change our approaches accordingly.  (For example, take a person who is highly critical of those who come into the country without legal documentation. Pair them with a person who has traveled that path. As they share their stories, understanding can result, which could lead to a change in behavior.)
  • Repeat. Facts may not bring about change, but they do make us aware of what we might need to do to change. The way to achieve permanent change is to repeat a new behavior until it is a habit. (For example, think of the person who goes to class but does not understand the subject matter. The student keeps going, keeps doing the assignments, keeps asking questions. In time, the student learns the content thanks to repeating it in a variety of ways over time.)
  • Reframe. When we think of things in a new way, we can bring about change. (For example, imagine the church that thinks the only way to grow is to draw people into its building. They decide that maybe they could, instead, go where people are already gathering. By relating to these communities and repeatedly visiting them in their own settings, the church begins to experience new growth.)

Bolsinger reminded us that change typically does not come about quickly. That is, it is more akin to the slow-cooker simmer than to the microwave zip and zap. In that same vein, he said that effective church leadership grows from a mindset that causes us to “Stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”

Bolsinger’s presentation—and his book—contained much more insight than the bits I’ve highlighted here. And, I think all leaders facing unfamiliar circumstances (whether in the church or elsewhere) will find helpful guidance here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

*Lewis and Clark sought a water route through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and were therefore equipped with canoes and the necessary tools for a water journey; instead, they encountered the Rocky Mountains and had to form new plans in order to progress.

About the Author Aileen Lawrimore

Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 28 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.

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