Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Canoeing the Mountains

If you’re a church leader, especially a pastor, hands up if you’ve muttered in the past year, “They didn’t teach me this in seminary”?

For me, it became a mantra as the reality of the pandemic set in, along with the first round of lockdown, back in March of 2020.  Not long after that, I was given a copy of Canoeing the Mountains, and I thought it sufficiently intriguing that I would read it, if for no other reason than to give me a break from watching YouTube videos telling me how to do some of the things that seminary didn’t teach me.

The title itself beckons the reader to pick up this book.  Whoever heard of canoeing the mountains?

Exactly.  That’s why this book needed to be written, and why it needs to be read by Christian leaders, especially in these days.

The book is premised on the expedition of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  For us Canadians, that has an almost solely academic meaning, but to the average American, especially those living west of the Mississippi, the heart skips a veritable beat when these names arise.  They are woven into the fabric of American history in the years after the Revolution.

But this is not a history text.  I will admit, however, that as a Canadian, I learned more about the Lewis and Clark expedition in this Christian leadership book than I ever knew before.  Illustratively, Tod Bolsinger, a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, makes masterful use of Lewis and Clark to help church leaders realize that what seminary prepared them for is not what they’re navigating today.

When Bolsinger wrote this, he did not anticipate a global pandemic that would change the face of the world – and the church – forever.  By God’s grace, the principles he writes about, while entirely applicable to pre-pandemic leadership, are going to be doubly applicable in mid- and post-pandemic leadership.

Leaning heavily on the writing of Edwin Friedman, particularly in A Failure of Nerve, Bolsinger applies, and demonstrates through the relation of personal experience, family systems theories to the process of change in the church.  

He makes good use of the research of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, noting that “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb” (124).  I remember sharing that quotation and getting a prickly reaction, but I think there is some wisdom in it.  As Bolsinger later states, those people whom you disappointed at a rate they could absorb will later be your strongest allies.

This book is both a comfortable read and (in a sense) an uncomfortable read, well worth the time for anyone in Christian leadership.  I’m glad I took a break from tech-ed YouTube to read it!

Canoeing the Mountains:  Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger

(Downers Grove:  Inter-Varsity Press, 2015).  ISBN #978-0-8308-4126-4.