In the first episode of our second season, Prince talks with Tod Bolsinger, senior congregational strategist and associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary. He’s also the author of several books, including Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

In this episode, Prince and Tod discuss:

  • Why success is likely to come after sabotage
  • The problem with “win-win”
  • Advice for leaders who feel stuck
  • Practices for leading and living well
  • And more!


Guest bio

Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and assistant professor of practical theology, and he now serves as senior congregational strategist and associate professor of leadership formation. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993, Dr. Bolsinger served as senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church from 1997 to 2014. Prior to that he was associate pastor of discipleship and spiritual formation at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.

Holding both a Ph.D. in Theology and Master of Divinity from Fuller, Bolsinger taught graduate-level classes in theology for 14 years at Fuller’s regional campus in Orange County prior to joining the seminary’s regular faculty. He has extensive experience in church and nonprofit consulting and executive coaching, and writes infrequent weblogs on church and leadership formation. His faculty role at Fuller includes teaching the Practices of Vocational Formation class and a cohort in Leading Change for DMin students.

Bolsinger has authored three books, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives (2004), Show Time: Living Down Hypocrisy by Living Out the Faith (2005), and Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (2015). Bolsinger has also written a chapter about building community in a virtual world in the book The New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting for Christ (2008) and contributes essays and articles to journals in the areas of leadership, spiritual formation, leadership formation, and innovation. 


Resources


Transcript

Prince Rivers:

What does it mean to lead now, especially in the church, especially in this political and social climate? I’m Prince Rivers, and this is Leading and Thriving in the Church, a podcast from Alban at Duke Divinity. Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. It’s been my privilege to serve as a pastor for more than 20 years, and I absolutely love supporting people who lead congregations. It’s one of my passions. But doing ministry in the post-pandemic era has unearthed new leadership challenges, and it has led us to pay more attention to the need for thriving ministers and congregations. This podcast features conversations with some of the most innovative pastors, leaders, and authors I know. They’re going to help us do church faithfully and effectively, and in a way that is life-giving to those who lead and the people we serve. I’m so glad you’re listening. I can’t wait to introduce you to today’s guest on Leading and Thriving in the Church.

Dr. Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as Vice President for Vocation and Formation and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, and he now serves as Senior Congregational Strategist and Associate Professor of Leadership Formation. Tod was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Tod holds a Ph.D. in theology and a master of Divinity from Fuller, and he has taught graduate-level classes. He’s authored three books: “It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives,” “Showtime: Living Down Hypocrisy by Living Out the Faith,” and “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.” We are so glad to have you with us on the show today. Thank you for being here, Tod. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

It’s really my pleasure. It’s nice to meet you too. 

Prince Rivers: 

It’s great to meet you. So just to get us started, say a little bit about your role at Fuller. What are you doing there? What keeps you busy during the day? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so in 2014, I was invited by the then-new president, Mark Labberton, to become his first appointee. So I was the Vice President for Vocation Formation and my job was to basically help create a culture of deeper formation for our students in the middle of a rigorous education. Really what I was called to do is help really think through how seminary needed to keep adapting to a changing world that we’re in. 

So for six and a half years I was on senior administration, took several different roles, ended up being on the senior executive team. When we finally got our strategic plan passed, which paved the way for our current president, Dr. David Goatley, I said, “You’re probably going to want an administrator to administrate this and really, I’m a change guy, so it’s probably time for me to step down.” President Labberton said, “Well, if you stayed at Fuller, would you do?” I said, “What I would do is I would research change. I would get a grant and do some research on how do you bring change to congregations and institutions? Particularly, how do you do so at scale and in diverse settings?” 

So we created the Church Leadership Institute that I now run. So now I teach only in the Doctor of Ministry program and leading change, and I’ve published a couple more books since then. I spend every day working with faith leaders, helping them thrive as change leaders, and that’s what I do now. I actually now have my own consulting company that works alongside my work at Fuller, and it’s really a great combination for me. 

Prince Rivers: 

That sounds like a lot of exciting stuff and much needed. It’s certainly remarkable that you recognized your gifts in such a way that you knew you needed to pivot to still continue to thrive and to help Fuller thrive. That’s a special, special gift that maybe not all leaders possess, so it’s great to hear that. As you think about what you’re seeing, you’re teaching in the D.Min. class, so you’re probably connecting with pastors from all over the country and maybe even all over the world: what’s happening in the church these days? I mean, there are a lot of stories out there about what’s going on. What are you seeing about what’s happening in the church? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Well, the biggest thing that’s happening in the church is we’re having to adapt to a really rapidly changing world. I mean, so what’s interesting is I wrote this book, “Canoeing the Mountains,” 10 years ago, came out in 2015. It was all about adapting to what we call “post-Christendom,” where the dominant Western mainline and evangelical church had a dominant place in the culture. It was in the center of the culture, culture-supported. I said, it’s like having a home court advantage, like playing every basketball game on your own home court. All of a sudden after 1,700 years of that, it changed in one generation. In biblical time and in theological time, that’s pretty fast. Then a pandemic hit, it’s like overnight everybody had to deal with disruption. What we began to realize is we haven’t done as good a job, particularly in the mainline and particularly in the dominant evangelical spaces, helping people understand that you have to lead through change and disruption, that you can’t just pine for the glory days or try to hold on to the status quo. Whenever you do that, you end up usually in bad spaces. So that’s the thing that everybody’s facing now is, how do you faithfully navigate change? That shows up in different ways in different places, but it’s common. 

I say, Prince, that one of the most interesting parts of my life is that I work across the church. I mean, I work with three different types of Anglicans and four different kinds of Presbyterians and three different types of Lutherans — now, two different types of Methodists and several different types of Pentecostal. I said I talk to people that don’t talk to each other, but what we all have in common is we are all trying to be faithful in this changing world. We all have that in common and we’re having to figure out how to lead change through that. 

Prince Rivers: 

Which is fascinating, that regardless of our theological perspective, our cultural background, all of these congregations and denominations are dealing with really, really rapid change and that can be quite stressful. This podcast is about leadership and how to be well as a leader and thrive in leadership. I like to think about it as leading well and living well, but let’s establish maybe a working definition and then come back and talk about doing it well. When you talk about leadership, what do you mean? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so the definition I use of leadership is: leadership is energizing a community of people to their own transformation, so they might accomplish a mission. So leadership is the work of helping a group of people become transformed in the way they need to be so that they can take on the mission that God has given them or the mission that’s in front of them, or even for a corporate entity, they might not see God in it, but they have a mission. The entire intention about that is leadership requires transformation. That’s what makes it different than say, management. I’m not a person who thinks management is less than leadership. Believe me, if you’ve ever had a bad manager, you know that management’s really important, but management in the biblical understanding is like stewardship. How do you take care of the things that have been entrusted to your care? As my colleague Scott Cormode likes to say it, and I love that phrase, leadership requires transformation. 

So I always say, if you get on the other side of the Red Sea and you’re Moses looking at 650,000 people that just had this amazing miracle, the Red Sea, the manager would say, “Hey, it takes about six weeks. I’ve checked the maps and I’ve talked to some local folks and got my GPS out. It’s about six weeks to get to the promised land.” The leader knows it’s going to take 40 years because you’re going to have to be transformed to be a people who can enter that promised land. 

Prince Rivers: 

That’s powerful, that is powerful. It sounds like daunting work. 

You lead, I lead, you’re talking about all the change that’s going on. How are pastors and congregational leaders doing? How are they faring in this change? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, well, there’s a lot of statistics about this, but probably we don’t even need them. I mean, if we listen to folks that are like the Pew Research and Barna and the research that’s being done in places like Duke, we know they’re not doing well. Something like upwards toward 50% of younger pastors are all currently thinking, Is there anything else I could do? Almost everybody is feeling the pain of leadership, and if we know this just by talking to people, one of the reasons we know this is that most of us weren’t trained to lead change. We were trained to lead faithful versions of the status quo. So incremental change, deepening change, and trying to make sure we are people of good character, good competence. In the Christian circles, we handle the scriptures well, we handle our traditions well, we handle the souls of our people well, we’re trained for that. 

What we’re not trained to do is take that group of people through a process of transformation, corporate transformation, that usually requires them to let go of some things that they held onto in the past, which means that we’re always having to face learning, we don’t know what to do. We’re having to face losses, we have to let go of things. This is hard because when you take people through learning and loss, they resist you. They want you to have all the answers so we don’t have to learn and they want you to protect us from losses so we don’t have to feel them. That becomes really, really challenging for leaders who were not prepared for that. 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah, as you well know, Ron Heifetz talks about the fact that people don’t resist change as much as they resist loss, the loss associated with change. I’m sure you’ve seen that to be true in your own consulting work and even pastoral work as well. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah. I spent some time, I got to know Marty Linsky, who’s Ronald Heifetz’s writing partner, and I got to know him recently and I asked him, I said, “Marty, okay, what do you think is the central thing you guys have learned in 40 years of adaptive leadership? 40 years?” He said, “Look for the loss, it’s always at the loss. The resistance is at the loss and the opportunity is usually where you have to face the loss.” He just said to me, “Just keep taking people back to loss. Look for the loss because that’s going to be the crux of your moment, and you’re going to have to take people through it.” 

Prince Rivers: 

A lot to unpack there. When I think about what leaders are doing, I’m wondering what you’re hearing about what they say they need to do this work, because seminary doesn’t always prepare us in this way. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, actually that’s the big line, especially for someone who works at a seminary, is: how many of our alums tell us “seminary didn’t prepare me for this moment, they didn’t.” Seminaries are working hard. I mean, you and I know a lot of folks related to seminaries, we’re working hard to try to do that better, but really, we were trained in a day that was different. So the change that pastors and church leaders and nonprofit leaders are needing that seminary has to move also. 

A huge part of what they talk about is when you ask them what they need, they say they need more support, and that’s not wrong, but what I often say is we can’t solve the world’s problems by everybody getting a sabbatical. When Jesus called the disciples to get out of the boat, he didn’t call them to a three-year sabbatical. I’m a huge fan of sabbaticals. So I think sabbaticals are something that need to be built into the work you do for the long haul, but sabbaticals almost never solve the problem. You have to actually change the way you are leading. 

One of the parts that … I’ve got four new books coming out this summer, they’re on the biggest mistakes that good leaders make. The first one is they just keep trying harder at the old thing that’s still not working. They just want to outwork this problem and instead they’ve got to train differently, instead of try harder. 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah, that is a lot. Oftentimes, I mean, like you said, sabbaticals should be built in and they don’t fix that point at which we hit rock bottom and we’re trying to recover. Which brings me to this issue of burnout because I’m wondering what we can do to meet some of these needs. I mean, one dimension of burnout is a low sense of professional competence or a sense of accomplishment. So if somebody went to seminary and they still feel overwhelmed, what guidance do you have for helping them try to remedy that? I wasn’t trained in project management, employment law, and I’ve had to do all of that. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Right, right, construction, you probably did a construction project along the way. 

Prince Rivers: 

Right, yeah. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so this is one of the things you can do is this. I say to people all the time, the biggest advantage of going to graduate school is it taught you how to be a learner. You thought you knew a lot. Matter of fact, I say that everybody who comes to the seminary, somebody said to them, “You’re the best Christian I know, you should go pro.” So they go off to … I mean, because they’re already people who love the scriptures and love the Lord, and they got a deep spiritual life. They wouldn’t be interested in ministry if they didn’t already. Then they go to seminary and they learn, “Oh, there’s so much more I got to learn.” 

The problem is that most of us come out of seminary and we think, “Oh, I have a master of divinity, that’s almost a superhero.” What they don’t realize is what they actually learned was how to learn. So in a changing world, leadership is learning. The faster you learn, the further you can go. So trying to help people get clear that an ongoing capacity for learning and self-reflection and creativity and being willing to face failure and being able to help people go through those losses is needed all the way through. If we can help people keep learning in real time, even beyond when they need initials after their names and degrees, then we can actually help leaders continue to thrive because we thrive. We know this from the literature that literally says people thrive when they feel like they have growing competence. If you’re learning, it’ll keep you going. If you feel like you’re just stuck, then you start despairing. 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah, that is so true. 

Fuller is a remarkable place and brings people together from all over the world. I imagine that many of those places in the world are, at least from the perspective of the west, somewhat on the margins. As you think about these questions that you’re thinking about, what are you learning from people on the margins and what do maybe pastors listening to this podcast need to learn from them as well? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Well, one of the best quotes that I learned from early on was from a guy named David Gibbons, who’s a Korean American pastor who pastored in a predominantly white section of Southern California, a multiethnic church. He actually said, “The future is here, it’s just on the margins.” The people on the margins are actually in the future. What he meant by margin isn’t people who are less than or less important. What he meant was, you live out of your center of influence. You have your little table with your little group of people, that we all make ourselves the center of our world. If we raise our heads beyond the center of our world and look to people who we’ve not included, we will find that they are already living into the future that we’re resisting. 

So one of the parts at Fuller that we’ve talked a lot about is, I mean, we have been in the center of a white evangelical space. We’ve realized the great gift we have is being international, being multi-ethnic and multicultural. We now have an African American Baptist president — that is completely wonderful and disruptive and enlightening. It’s like an energizing to our space because all of a sudden he walks into conversations and brings friends into conversations who are like, “Look, we’ve already been living in this space. We’ve been living for a long time in a place where we weren’t the center of the world of power, so we know how to be faithful there.” That’s a disruption for some of us who are just used to being at the tall steeple downtown church where it’s always at the head table of the mayor’s prayer breakfast. So when you start realizing that when you have greater breadth and more diverse relationships and friendships that even span the globe, you actually have more resources at your capacity and more partners in the work. 

Prince Rivers: 

So in addition to new relationships and new connections and networks, are there different questions that we need to be asking these days as leaders? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so if you’ve spent any time in Europe, for example, that I don’t even mean this to be controversial, but in most of the rest of the world … Christians were always on the side of government supplying healthcare. Why? Because government has enough power to make sure everybody gets healthcare. In the United States, that’s become a political, polarized question that oftentimes the people of faith are opposed. Now, we can have lots of nuanced conversations about that, but just knowing that there are, oh, billions of Christians who believe that healthcare is a right that a government should supply, like it would offer any other right, at least should cause us to pause and ask some deeper questions. That happens over and over and over again. Anytime you go into another context and you realize, “Oh my gosh, they just look at the world differently and I just need to learn.” We always say we have to help people learn to see problems before they started trying to solve problems, learn how to see them and see them differently from different perspectives. 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah. You’ve mentioned the importance of relationships a couple of times. We know that many congregations, at least in the US, are still only seeing half, maybe, of pre-pandemic in-person attendance, which may impact within the community, within that faith community, the strength of relationships. Can you say a little bit more about the significance of relationships and relationship building and leadership, especially for those leaders who are trying to facilitate real change? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so two ways of thinking about the relationships there, I love the way you said that. We’re seeing what we learned from the pandemic. I would say the pandemic didn’t cause problems, it revealed problems. I think of the pandemic from a biblical point of view, an apocalyptic event, it revealed stuff. One of the things that revealed is, we were building our church metrics and budgets around a group of people who are not as committed to our community as they were committed to consuming our products, our services, and they went away. So one of the churches I worked with, it had about 2,000 people before the pandemic, 2,000. They would say — 

Prince Rivers: 

In-person? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

In-person, on their rolls, whatnot. They came back, they were about 500. 

Prince Rivers: 

500? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Now 500 is still a good church. I said it’s a nice church, but they were grieving the 1,500 who all left. We had to literally consult them through a discernment process of, “Do you believe that what God wants you to do is go get back the 1,500, or is God giving you a mission for the faithful 500?” When you start reframing it that way, “Okay, we’re going to start with these 500 folks who are deeply connected” — then they start asking different questions. The churches that are growing are telling me, and we see this with our clients, they’re growing because they’re getting new people who are coming to what the church is now, not what it was. That’s a slow replacing, the numbers may still not add up, but it actually demonstrates new fruit and new possibilities. Most of that is from people who are faithful reaching out to people in their network of relationships who say, “Hey, you might like to experience what is now going on in the life of our church.” They don’t have any built-in biases from the past so they show up with new energy. 

Prince Rivers: 

So really, we’re challenged to think about evangelism and testimony in an entirely new way, and for some congregations, maybe for the first time in a long time because we just didn’t have to. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, exactly. This is the place where change and disruption actually can … Heifetz and Linsky, we talked about earlier, they have an article called “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis.” They say in crisis, you have the opportunity to hit the organizational reset button. You have the opportunity to actually confront things that we didn’t have the will to confront before. So the most obvious one most of us know is remote work and online education. They were here before the pandemic, they were here, but they’re now a normal part of the operating thinking of almost anybody today. Now, I think we’re going to get better at it and I think we’re also going to learn what things can’t be done remotely or online and they need to be done face-to-face, but what we realized is there’s this reset where almost every church I know has a streaming service or it has the capacity to engage with people over technology. There’s opportunities here for a new day that it’s not quick panacea, it’s just a reset with some new tools. 

Prince Rivers: 

I’m going to get really granular here. Are you seeing, in terms of the online church communities, are you seeing churches actually staff that function in their congregations with some minister of online ministry or online discipleship minister? How are churches managing that part of the world? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so some do, some do. I’m not going to say that I advocate for it necessarily or not, because here’s the work that we do is built on this: adaptive leadership is all about adapting your core values, the things that you would not change because they’re your identity, to a changing world. So for some churches, the core value, say, of, “Hey, we’re a church that’s always trying to have a big open door, we want to reach in the community, we want to engage people at the margins” — for them to have an online space that includes a person who engages with people who are very nervous and tense, it makes sense for them. But for other communities, if they say, “Look, our core value has always been, we’re a deeply knit communion, we care deeply for each other, every worship service is like a family supper, and we are deeply connected” — well, then to actually spend a lot of time and energy on folks who aren’t going to get deeply connected right away might not be missionally aligned. 

So I do see some churches trying it. I see some churches trying it, it’s what I’d call a technical fix for an adaptive challenge. They’re hoping it’ll be a quick fix: “Hey, we used to have 300 in worship, but now we have 100, but we have about 200 that bop in and out, and we call it 300 and it feels better,” and it’s probably not. 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah, yeah, great insight there. Let me shift gears and just say something about change. We’ve talked a little bit about it. In “Canoeing the Mountains,” you say you can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you survive the sabotage. Tod, I didn’t like to read that, I’ll be very honest with you. So at a time where words like “burnout” and “trauma” and “triggering” have become a part of everyday descriptors for ministry and for life in some ways, what kind of reaction do you get when you tell ministers that success is likely to come after sabotage? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, yeah. So here’s the weirdest part about this. So the most recent book I wrote a couple of years ago was a book called “Tempered Resilience.” It was a book that was entirely on how do you develop the resilience, the wise tempered resilience, the flexibility and strength to face resistance from your own people? Because what I got, when “Canoeing the Mountains” came out and I started speaking on it, I didn’t talk about sabotage at first. I was like, it’s part of the issue, but that’s not what I wanted to say. Everybody wanted to talk about sabotage. I mean, literally everybody who invited me said, “Make sure you do a section on sabotage.” Then when I started listening to leaders, that’s because that was the most soul-sucking thing, way harder than a pandemic or secularism or anything else that we might be facing. Way harder is when we feel called by God to address the pain of the world and your people around you go, “Yes, pastor, yes, God has said we should do that.” Then you start and then they go, “No.” That is the thing that just sucks the life out of people. 

What we discovered as the more we looked at it, as I say this all the time, sabotage is not the bad things that evil people do, it is the human things that anxious people do. When people get anxious, it is human to want to go back to what’s familiar. It’s what we see on the other side of the Red Sea. In six weeks, six weeks after the miracle of the Red Sea, the Israelites were saying, “You know, slavery: they killed our children, but we did have leeks and onions for lunch every day. We’re hungry, maybe we should go back.” What you realize is this is what’s happening. This is what I tell people: it’s normal, it’s natural, it’s to be expected. 

Take it one step further. Edwin Friedman, who wrote the most about this, said the most important aspect of leadership, most important is preparing for and responding well to sabotage, which of course is why you and I had a year of it in seminary, right? 

Prince Rivers: 

Of course. Of course. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

We never heard about it, and that’s exactly what people were telling me. It’s like, wait a minute, where did this come from? I’d say, is it real? Of course it’s real, but nobody ever talks about it. Now, I mean, everything we do in our work in our consulting, our work in our center, is really about how do we prepare people to take folks through the kinds of changes, understanding that it is normal and natural, and to be expected that they will be resistant, and that there will be sabotage? 

Prince Rivers: 

So maybe this connects to the whole win-win, win-lose idea that you bring up. Why do you think that in the case of adaptive change, win-win is actually lose-lose? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah. 

Prince Rivers: 

Did I say that right? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah. Oh, you said it perfect, yeah. That’s because Heifetz and Linsky said it first, and I believe them, but also because I’ve experienced it. So I always tell people, almost all of us, the first leadership book we were given was Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I said, it usually happened right after we thought we were doing a really good job at running some program and the details were a mess and we weren’t very effective, and someone gave it to us, and one of the principles is think win-win. Almost all of us love that idea. I would say this win-win works when what we’re doing is talking about technical solutions. If what we’re trying to do is figure out how to compromise, divide up the budget, make sure the space is well used, and everybody agrees, win-win works, if you can get to win-win. 

Most of the hardest challenges, the challenges that require change — like adaptive change, shifts of values, attitudes or behaviors — means someone’s going to experience that as a loss, like I lost something. I think this is one of the things that’s happening in the church right now. When the dominant church is being told, “Hey, you are leaving a lot of capacity on the sideline because you’re not listening to women or people of color or people from the other parts of the world, you’re going to need to make space at those tables” — the hope is we can just make a bigger table. The problem, though, is in leadership, oftentimes you’ve got to make decisions about, “We need the right amount of people to make this decision,” and that means there’s less seats and that’s loss. It just — it’s going to be loss, there’s no other way. 

So when you tell people “find a win-win,” what you’re often telling them is, we’re actually not going to solve this problem. If you say there’s going to be a win-loss, and the win may be one, 1a, or one-two, you’re now our second priority, not our first. Or, it might be today we’ll do this and tomorrow we’ll do that, because for yesterday we did it all the same way. When you start doing that, people will experience that as loss, and you have to actually take people through that loss. 

Today, I just was coaching a woman leading worship at a church, and one of the questions I asked, I said, “Has anybody told the bad news to the choir that they’re part of worship but they’re not the center of worship?” She went, “I think so.” I said, “As soon as you say, ‘I think so,’ the answer’s ‘no.’” Somebody actually needs to tell that beloved choir that you were for a generation the center of our worship. Now, because we are trying to get multi-generational and multi-ethnic forms of worship, and your traditional choir is still important here, but you’re no longer the center, you’re just one part of the team, and that’s going to still feel like loss. 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah, and that ties to something a friend of mine told me, which is that so many of the issues that are hard to overcome in our congregations come down to honor and shame. I’m hearing this choir process as a sense of shame. If we’re not the center, then who are we? I found that to be immensely helpful. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Oh, will you tell me a bit more about that? I hadn’t thought of it in that context, but that makes a lightbulb go off for me. 

Prince Rivers: 

I mean, I was having a challenge at a church and he said, “Look, Prince,” he said, “You’re always going to be dealing with honor or shame.” The more I’ve talked to people in crisis, the more I’ve tried to lead churches through change, the more I can prepare myself for what the reaction might be based on whether someone is going to feel honored or disrespected, which comes out as a sense of shame because if you disrespect me in this faith community where I’ve always been the center either individually or the thing I like to do, then I don’t have a place anymore. So now, who am I when I come in this space? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

I love this because I often talk about how we have to respect people and have to care for them, but we can’t necessarily always appease them, we can’t please them. What you’re saying is for folks who have always been pleased the world worked for them, they experience that as a shame, like you’re rejecting me entirely, “you don’t value anything I’ve done,” even if what you’re trying to say is we value it so much, we’d like it to continue, but just not in the same way. “If you’re not respecting me or honoring my past, then you’re actually shaming me, right?” 

Prince Rivers: 

Yeah, it gets down to the core of our identity, who we see ourselves to be. In churches — I serve a predominantly African American church where the church community has been such a central part of people’s identity in a world where they were marginalized outside of the church, there’s a high level of anxiety about disrespect and shame and honor. So really careful attention has to be given to how you talk to people, how you navigate adaptive change, because you can tap into some things that are so deeply held that you don’t even know where the resistance is coming from. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Oh, actually this just makes… Oh, now I need a whole other hour with you where I can actually hear input on this because part of what you’re helping me think through, and this is really important, is when we’re taking people through loss, I know it’s an identity loss. You’re saying in certain environments where this was the only place our identity was affirmed, that identity loss is even deeper and even more painful. 

Prince Rivers: 

“Where do I go? I can’t go anywhere.” 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Oh, that’s so helpful. That’s really, really helpful. I love that, that’s great. Thank you for that. That was great. 

Prince Rivers: 

So, let’s tie this up a little bit. I mean, this has been great, this has been great. I’m thinking about that church leader that’s trying to make some change and wants to do it incrementally, but may be working within a system that’s not so sure about experimentation, which can be a way to move things forward incrementally. Any advice you have for that person who feels stuck? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

Yeah, so there’s a lot of conversations about being agile or experimental or innovative, and there’s actually books that have now criticized that. I just want to put it this way. When you think about doing anything that’s experimental, just think two things. One, think of a prototype. You know what a prototype is? Prototype is just a cheap, modest, safe, small experiment. Do the smallest experiment possible. Don’t tear down your worship center and don’t fire the choir. Come on, do the smallest change possible, but do the change based not on the question “did it work?” Get rid of that question. Get rid of big changes and get rid of “did it work?” Instead, do small changes around the question “so what did we learn?” 

Prince Rivers: 

That’s great. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

So what did we learn? By doing that, what you can keep saying is, then we’re going to do as many small experiments, we’re going to learn our way forward. 

I was asked by a group of folks in Texas to lecture at a conference called Texas 2030, like “what do you think the future is going to be?” I said, I actually don’t believe you can predict the future. I’m not the only one … the old Wayne Gretzky hockey thing, “skate to where the puck is going.” I said, “We live in a world with 14 pucks, you don’t know where it’s going.” You can’t predict the future but what you can do is prototype. So you don’t predict your prototype, you do small experiments. The point of the prototype is the learning. If you’re learning, you’re not failing. 

So one of the things I have my clients do is, say, put a big whiteboard up in the office or someplace and just make your goal to fill that whiteboard with learnings. Here’s what we learned. So today I’m going to go put on mine: I learned, think about honor and shame, not just loss. I’m going to put that on there as a learning today and what I can do from that. You’ll learn how to experiment more when you make it not about “we’re trying something, we hope it works,” but “we’re going to try something small and we’re going to see what we learn. Then we’ll do another one and another one and another one, until we learn our way forward.” 

Prince Rivers: 

My whiteboard is filled with ideas, so I’m going to go back and erase half of it and keep half the ideas and then the other half are learnings. So, that’s great, I appreciate that. 

Last question, Tod. So this is heavy work for a lot of folks, heavy work for a lot of folks. What practices are you cultivating or do you encourage other leaders to cultivate, to help them both lead well and live well? You’re out there in sunny California, how do you do this and keep a smile on your face? 

Tod Bolsinger: 

So in “Tempered Resilience,” which is where I was really working on “how do you develop the resilience in the midst of resistance?” — what we learned is we had a few things: reflection, relationships, a rule of life, a set of spiritual practices, and a rhythm of leading and not leading. But the first two are the most important. One is, leaders who go the long haul are reflective. They take time to get away. They take time to be able to reflect, ask good questions, pray. Like Jesus, you see Jesus’ ministry. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never unsee it. A big thing happens, he goes away; a big thing happens, he goes away. So reflection is a really important part. 

But the second part is relationships. You heard me say this before, I mean, I think the statistics say that most leaders don’t have nearly enough relationships. If you’re getting older, you have less relationships than you need because if you’re going up an org chart, you get less relationships. If you’re a man, you probably didn’t start off with enough to begin with. So right at the moment of the most amount of change and trial, we don’t have enough relationships to hold us. We spent a lot of time talking about, “You need partners in the ministry, you need friends who are outside that ministry who care about you, and you need mentors.” Everybody needs a coach. If LeBron James has a coach, you need a coach. Everybody needs a coach, a therapist, a spiritual director. I said, “If I was a bishop” — and I’m a Presbyterian, we don’t believe in bishops, but if I was a bishop — “and you were leading anything and I had spiritual authority in your life, and you don’t have a therapist, a spiritual director or a coach or just a mentor to talk to, I’m going to consider that leadership malpractice because you’re dangerous.” So, reflection and relationships, those are the two big things. 

Prince Rivers: 

Tod, this has been a great conversation. I’m so glad that you could spend this time with “Leading and Thriving in the Church” today. I wish you all the best on all of your writing. You got some new books coming out this spring, and I’m anxious to read them. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you today. 

Tod Bolsinger: 

I enjoyed it very much, and I learned something too. I’m really, really thankful. Thank you, Prince, very much. 

Prince Rivers:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church. This podcast is produced by Emily Lund and recorded in the Bryan Center Studios on the campus of Duke University. I’m your host, Prince Rivers. If you want more great leadership content, be sure to check out our website alban.org, where you can sign up for the Alban Weekly newsletter, and make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your preferred podcast platform so we can keep you informed as we release new episodes. Until next time, keep leading.


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