Leading Off the Map

written by Kat Bair
7 · 12 · 22

Earlier this week, Ministry Incubators had a group of leaders from the Hood Seminary Congregational Faith and Learning Center on a call. We were working through some discussions around revenue streams for their innovative projects when a participant interjected a question directed at the rest of the cohort.

“Ok, ok, but what if you feel like you have this idea, and that God is calling you towards it, but your congregation, or trustees, or whoever, is just not on board? Has anyone experienced that?”

To summarize everyone’s responses, yes, they had all experienced that. Probably most everyone reading this blog has experienced that, and most any leader who has tried to point a church or organization in any new direction has experienced that. 

“What did you do about it?” 

Here’s where the answers varied. Some leaders spoke of bringing in unsure board members early in the process so they could brainstorm. Some spoke of demonstrating value and success and winning buy-in that way. Some admitted to being a bit, shall we say, subtle with their process to not draw too much attention too soon. These strategies are responsive to the type of environment the leader was working in, and many of us have used some combination of the above and strategies of our own devising. 

Going Off the Map

Each one of these leaders was talking about what strategies it takes to lead “off the map.” In Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains, he utilizes the running metaphor of the Lewis and Clark expeditions to explore what it looks like for church leaders to lead in an environment that is fundamentally different than any of them ever faced. Canoeing the Mountains was written for a post-Christendom, but pre-covid world and its lessons have come into even sharper focus as we have all had to learn to accept the truth that the church landscape we knew in 2019 (even as different as it was from the one a generation before that) was never coming back. 

Bolsinger explains that while Lewis and Clark had maps to follow at the beginning of their journey, at some point, they went totally “off the map” and had to trust that the skills that had gotten them that far could get them the rest of the way. They, unfortunately, discovered that the world off the map looked different than the one on it and that not only were they in new places, they were facing a different set of challenges than they had ever thought to prepare for. Lewis and Clark were prepared for the Appalachians (highest elevation: 6,684ft) and what they got was the Rockies (highest elevation: 14,439ft). 

Bolsinger argues that our church leaders are in much of the same position. Churches have faced seasons of growth and decline, financial swell, and drought, but thinking that learning from church attendance slowing in the 70s prepared leaders for now is like thinking hiking the Appalachian Trail means you’re prepared to scale the Grand Tetons. Both are impressive feats, to be sure, but to take on the second, you’ll need some new skills. 

Leading On the Map

So what does that mean for our cohort and their question of how to point a congregation towards a future they’re unsure of? In Bolsinger’s metaphor, these communities are just stepping off the edge of the map. While their leaders are preparing them for a trek like they’ve never seen, they are hesitant, wondering why they need ice picks when their old hiking boots have always been just fine. 

We at Ministry Incubators are grateful for these leaders having the vision to see what lies ahead. Still, we know that frustration with a congregation that won’t follow them is a standard part of the process. Bolsinger’s advice to leaders in this situation is simple: lead so well on the map that your community can trust you off the map

His advice is to focus on accountable, excellent fundamentals in your “on the map” daily leadership to build the trust you’ll need to lead into unknown territory. If your people can trust you and the way you operate, and you can keep that way of operation consistent, no matter the circumstances, your people will be more willing to follow you into previously uncharted waters. If they know that you will be consistent and transparent in your communication because you’ve proven to be in the day-to-day, they are more likely to trust you in a new adventure because they know you will be consistent and transparent there as well. If you are a good steward of finances, take input seriously, and are true to your word when the day’s business is verifying meeting minutes and negotiating coffee prices. Your community can trust you to do the same in new areas too. 

This isn’t a fix-all solution. I am confident every leader in our cohort is a transparent, excellent, competent leader in their community already, but the community might need to be reminded of how you’ve proven to conduct yourself and assurances that that will not change. In the face of the unknown, the people you lead having something they can rely on is comforting and strange as it is, that anchor point might well be you and the way you lead. 

Change is hard and scary. I’m sure when Lewis and Clark’s party first caught sight of the Rockies or the vast expanse of the great plains, there was more than a bit of fear and resistance. I’m sure there were people who wanted to go back, confident that they had gone far enough. But new landscapes can also be beautiful and exciting and invite us to learn things and grow in ways we would never have before. And that makes it worth doing. 

  • Where have you tried to lead your community “off the map?” 
  • How have they responded?
  • How do you lead “on the map?” 
  • How might you build more trust with your “on the map” leadership?
  • What new landscapes do you think your community might face?

Kat Bair

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