Book Summary

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

by Tom Bolsinger

Summary by Jeff Dunn-Rankin

If you are reading this in hopes of implementing somebody’s perfect model for building disciples, you might be disappointed. 

The world in front of us is nothing like the world behind us.

Tom Bolsinger, author of “Canoeing the Mountains,” says the Church of 2018 is like Lewis and Clark as they searched for a route to the Pacific.  They were paddling along fine until they encountered a massive challenge that they never anticipated – the Rocky Mountains. The skills that brought their Corps of Discovery to this point would not take them any further. How do you canoe over mountains? You don’t.  They had to adapt to a new terrain that they had never imagined. 

Likewise, Bolsinger says, the American church has to admit that we are living in a world where the cornerstone of society is no longer Christendom. On the old map, a disciple-maker had one essential responsibility – to bring people back to a faith they had once learned but no longer prioritized. Repentance and restoration. 

But that world is rapidly disappearing, and we are off the map. 

In familiar territory, churches can be led by a seasoned expert. The battle-scarred veteran says, “Here’s what worked for me five years ago. Let me bring that model to your church.” But in uncharted territory, we don’t need a new model; we need a new kind of leader. 

Before you start blowing up the old structures, though, keep this mind: 

No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map.

Bolsinger says that transformational leadership does not begin with transformation. It begins with competence. Before a team will follow a leader into uncharted territory, there needs to be a sense that the leader has already done a good job stewarding the resources on the map.

So, while you are still on the map – taking care of Sunday school, youth group, Bible studies, etc. – build the credibility, connections, and culture that you want to carry with you off the map. 

Tend to your relationships. When there is no trust, there is no travel.

In Uncharted Territory, adaptation is everything.

Bolsinger says that ministry on the map is about solving “technical challenges.” Their solutions are based on best practices, offered by an expert. For example, how to lead a Bible study or set up a fund-raiser. 

But “adaptive challenges” cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge. They arise from a changing environment, and they have no ready answers.

So adaptive leadership is all about leading the learning experience. It requires the capacity to calmly face the unknown, refuse quick fixes, and ask deeper questions

Like Lewis and Clark, we must stay on course with the same goal, but be ready to change how we’re going to get there.  

Therefore, the adaptive leader is always asking three questions:

  • What DNA is essential? What must be preserved?
  • What DNA can be discarded? What can we stop doing so we can free resources and energy for new forms of ministry that are connected to our essential DNA?
  • What DNA needs to be created through experimentation?

Adaptive leaders don’t simply impose their own “great idea.” Instead, they observe the new reality, collectively develop multiple hypotheses about what is going on, and try possible solutions. 

Then, they learn from their inevitable failures and try again. 

Be ready for resistance. 

Bolsinger says people don’t dislike change nearly as much as they mourn loss. As youth pastors, we need to shepherd people through the grieving process as they lose programs and traditions that are dear to them. Meanwhile, expect some sabotage on this journey. 

Everybody will change in this new, off-the-map experience, especially the leader.

So, let go. Learn as you go. And keep going.
This review originally appeared in Group Magazine. Visit them at