BY TOD BOLSINGER
ayton Duncan and Ken Burns describe a defining moment in Meriwether Lewis’ life: He was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory, the Continental Divide—the spine of the Rocky Mountains beyond which the rivers flow west. No American citizen had ever been there before. This he believed was the Northwest Passage: the goal of explorers for more than three centuries, the great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States. With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life. From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia and beyond it, perhaps, a great plain that led down to the Pacific. Instead, there were just more mountains—“immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us,” he wrote, “with their tops partially covered with snow.” At that moment, in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of an easy water route across the continent—a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus—was shattered. According to historical geographer John Logan Allen, that moment atop the Lemhi Pass was when the “geography of hope” gave way to the “geography of reality.” A disappointing reality it must have been. When a mental model dies, a painful paradigm shift takes place within us. It is disorienting and anxiety making. It’s as if the world as we know it ceases to exist. Meriwether Lewis makes no comment about that world-rearranging moment in his journal, but Sgt. Patrick Gass describes his reaction some days later, saying that they “proceeded over the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” This is exactly the moment that the church faces today with the demise
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of Christendom and a changing topography of faith. In this new culture, a new missional mental model is needed, and a new way of leading—and learning—is necessary.
Adaptive leadership is about “letting go, learning as we go and keeping going.” This mode of leading raises up and sheds light on the competing values that keep a group stuck in the status quo. For churches, competing values like caring for longtime members versus reaching out to the unchurched, assuring excellence in ministry programming versus increasing participation with more volunteers, giving pay raises to staff versus bringing on a new hire, assuring control and unity versus collaboration and innovation entail conflict about things of equal or near equal value. Because they are both valued, the competition for resources and the decisions that need to be made can put individuals and congregations into a most vulnerable moment. Like a person with one foot on the platform and one in the train, the moment of adaptation exposes the gaps within a system and forces the leadership to ask painful questions: What will we lose if we have to choose one of these values over the other? What must we be willing to let go? Making hard decisions in the face of competing values is what every explorer confronts when they go off the map and into uncharted territory. Through their technical competence, Lewis and Clark led their men up the Missouri River. Because of their relational congruence, the men became a corps, and when they stepped off the map, they were prepared to be a Corps of Discovery requiring adaptive capacity. When the world is different than we expected, we become disoriented. When the tried-and-true solutions to our problems don’t work, we get stuck. When we are faced with competing values that demand a decision that will inevitably lead to loss, we can May // June 2016 MinistryToday 51
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