Canoeing the Mountains: The Speed of Trust and Our Adaptive Challenge



I ended my last column with a phrase I first read in a book written by now-Bishop Bob Farr: “Adapt or die.” I believe what we face in our local churches, districts, annual conferences, and beyond is an adaptive challenge. Ron Heifetz distinguishes two types of challenges — technical and adaptive — and notes the difference as follows: “The technical is defined as those that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, whereas adaptive requires new learning.” 

If we’re facing an adaptive challenge as a Church, then experts with quick solutions are not what we need. We need to learn new things — all of us, from local church lay leaders to pastors to DSs to bishops and beyond. The place where God is leading us next is not already known and understood. This is why I love the book, “Canoeing the Mountains.” We’ve all been taught how to drop canoes in and navigate rivers. But it’s 2018 and we’re staring at mountains. Those canoes aren’t much help now. 

If the first step in learning how to canoe the mountains (as noted in my last column) is identifying the issue — we have problems that need addressing and we’re ill-equipped to address them at the moment — then the second step is a combination of building trust (leading “on the map” as Bolsinger notes) while simultaneously learning how to adapt for when it’s time to lead off the map. Put another way: We need to be studying how to climb mountains while we lead people in canoes because we know, even before those we are charged with leading, that the river will eventually run out and these canoes won’t be able to help us anymore. 

I believe adaptation actually begins in the day-to-day ways we lead. Adaptation comes from having a good sense of who we are as leaders, showing we are competent at leading in known ways, and building trust among those we are called to lead. Bolsinger puts it this way: “Transformational leadership does not begin with transformation but with competence” (51). Good stewardship of what we have — the people, the buildings, the resources currently available — is how we build the trust to lead a transformational experience. 

For too long our system has been built on the notion that title merits credibility (pastors, DSs, bishops are all credible by virtue of their titles alone). Part of our adaptive challenge is to get better at putting meaningful systems of accountability in place and lovingly holding one another accountable. Or, as Wesley would tell us, we need to “watch over one another in love.” 

Leadership in the 21st Century will require all of us learning new ways to lead. It will require us putting down our canoes, no matter how much we love them, and grabbing new gear to help us climb mountains. But we start with being good stewards with what we have and developing the trust that comes with proving to those we are entrusted to lead that we do, in fact, deserve the charge of leadership. And, if we can’t do it, then we vitally need systems that will get the wrong people out of leadership and right people in. The stakes are too high to keep “playing church” much longer. 

Next column: Part 3 - Daring to Go “Off the Map”

The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at