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Flourishing Update - January 22, 2020

Providing Adaptive Leadership

In addition to promoting the emotional health of the congregation, leaders must provide and promote adaptive leadership. They must be able to anticipate direction and prepare members for the transformations that will be required for the challenges of that direction. Tod Bollinger calls this task, “leading off the map.” It is leading the congregation into unexplored territories that will require adaptation of the competencies that have served us well “on the map,” but might be inadequate for new challenges.

Adaptive leadership requires continual recommitment to our core ideology, a continual reframing of our strategy, and to new learning [1]. Adaptive leaders are shaped by the contours of the land. They know their mission and sharpen their skills, but every leg of the journey is unique and requires continuous innovation.

Adaptive leadership is, “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” [2]

As mentioned previously, for some marketplace leaders, the adaptive challenges of congregational ministry may be very different from their normal leadership context. They might be more accustomed to organizations with a more operational nature, “relatively stable environments where maintenance and development of current programming constitute the core tasks of leadership.” [3] In these environments, technical challenges can often be solved through existing knowledge and existing resources and processes.

Congregational leadership involves a much greater adaptive dimension. Leaders perennially find themselves in situations where there are simply no easy answers, but where action is nonetheless required. In these situations, our capacity to process new and alternative solutions becomes vital.

Adaptive leadership inevitably involves complexity and change. Solutions always involve new realities, not simply preserving existing realities. Heifetz and Linsky state, “adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges people’s habits, beliefs, and values. It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures.” [4] Bolsinger describes it as, “letting go, learning as we go, and keeping going.” [5]

Alan Hirsch, citing the work by Pascale, Millemann, and Gioja, calls this “surfing the edge of chaos.” [6] This suggests, as with living science, that the church must not simply tolerate chaos, but it must live near the edge of chaos, where productive change is fertile. Bolsinger suggests five helpful questions in helping leaders stay the course amidst the turbulence of adaptive challenges:

“What furthers the mission?

What principles are at stake?

What value are we expressing?

What pain must we endure?

& How will we support those who are experiencing loss?” [7]

Providing adaptive leadership requires transformation of the leaders and the whole community. The church has always surfed the edge of chaos, courageously facing the future with hope. In this journey leaders are not so much focused on changing the church as they are changing themselves.

Congregational leadership involves these two tasks: caring for the body of believers, and leading the mission of the church. This inevitably involves stress and risk. But this is not by failure—it is by design. In fact, it is our high calling as congregational leaders. As we work to develop our leadership capacity in these areas, we begin to realize something important. We realize that we are actually at our best when we are challenged. We are at our best when we are drawn together to work interdependently. We are at our best when we are adapting our competencies to new areas. By the grace of God, the whole church will grow deeper in Christ and further with him in mission.


  1. Canoeing the Mountains, 94-97.

  2. Ibid, 120.

  3. Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) 286.

  4. Leadership on the Line, 30.

  5. Canoeing the Mountains, 88.

  6. The Forgotten Ways, 260.

  7. Canoeing the Mountains, 179.


What We're Reading

In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed

Carl Honore

This book captures the “slow movement” – a movement that encourages individuals, groups, organizations, and entire societies to embrace a slower pace. Topics range from food to work, leisure, family, and more. Honore pushes readers to think carefully and critically about their own lives/organizations and those around them, and offers practical steps forward to those who wish to live slower lives. Building on Tim Keener’s piece, “slow” may enable congregational leaders to become more attentive to where and how they might adapt their leadership, and congregations to adapt their ministries to the changing world around.

- Dr. Joel Thiessen, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute


Upcoming Opportunities

  • Do you want to:

  • Identify low-income areas and see which churches or ministries are present to serve those families,

  • Visualise where specific cultural groups are living and whether there are helpful ministries located nearby that can connect with that culture,

  • See graphs representing the Christian and demographic information of an area they select

  • And much more. Checkout WayBase by clicking here.

  • Course with Dr. Roger Helland, Plunging the Depths of Spiritual Renewal. To register for the Saturday February 22 seminar or 1-credit course, click here. To register for the 3-credit modular course February 18-22, click here.

  • View the workshop YouTube Promo with Mark Buchanan, click here.

  • Global Leadership Network Canada next Event Series with Jason Dorsey and Nona Jones, February 4. For more information, click here.

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