A church's destiny lies in its gifts and history

03.09.21 | New Faith Expressions, Congregational Development

    By Melissa Lauber

    Overnight, COVID-19 might have done more to change the church as any reformation of the past. Leaders are still trying to discover how to see this moment as an opportunity, and maybe a revolutionary chance, to act as co-creators with God in creating a new future for their congregations.

     This was the challenge delivered to church leaders at the online nation-wide Fresh Expressions Conference Feb. 26-27.

     Todd Bolsinger, the author of “Canoeing the Mountains,” and the new book, “Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change,” shared a keynote address to reassure leaders that they didn’t need fancy gadgets or expensive programming to move their church into the future. Rather, what is needed, he said, is strong adaptive leadership, a creative examination of a church’s best gifts and strengths, and a heart for listening deeply to the needs of people and the community.

     The pre-COVID world will not return, Bolsinger said. The church has entered uncharted territory for which there is no map. In this unprecedented time, Bolsinger offered this definition: “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.”

     He explained that leaders may be experiencing resistance as they help people understand how to be church in new ways. However, he warned, it is essential for leaders to gain the proper perspective. “People don’t resist change,” he said, “they resist loss.”

     To move into the future well, churches need to build on their history. “Your true destiny lies in your history,” Bolsinger said.

     For most, this means building on what they do well. Bolsinger introduced the idea of “charism,” a power or gift given by God to people or churches that works for the good of the church.

     “I believe each congregation has a ‘charism,’ a gift, that they offer to their community. If the charism were to go away the community would be at a deficit,” he explained. “What churches need to do in this time of deep disruption is to recover the confidence and clarity about their charism and claim that sense of purpose or uniqueness – the gift – they offer to the community around them.”

     Care must be taken that these are actual gifts and values, and not just aspirational ones, said Bolsinger, who shared that his church prided itself in being a disciple-making congregation until they look honestly at their history and discovered it had been several years since they had an adult baptism.

     His congregation had to do some soul-searching and discovered their real gift was providing inter-generational ministry, and so they worked on nurturing that charism.

     Leaders must help the congregation recognize their authentic gift and contextualize it for the changing community inside and around the church, Bolsinger said.

     To do this work, they need to realize that change and breaking free of the gridlock of tradition will never be accomplished by just thinking more about the problem or just trying harder. This, he said, is where deep adaptive leadership comes in.

     “Nothing changes until there is a change in behavior,” he said. “Nothing changes until people start functioning differently.”

     To nurture this change in behavior, Bolsinger recommends adopting a spirit of adventure and a strong quest for learning. In this new environment, “leaders will need to learn their way to the next place,” he said. He also encouraged leaders to remember their history and why they love the church, while at the same time refusing to get bogged down by the past.

     “Move into the imperative mode as soon as possible,” he said. “The indicative tells you what is. The imperative is what should be. The path to the imperative is to start with what is. Start with the honest reality about who you are. There are things that can caution us in that reality, but the fuel for going forward is embracing what is most valuable to us.”

     To discover what is most valuable, Bolsinger recommends telling stories.

     “Stories are data with soul,” he said. “When we tell honest stories, we start experiencing longing. That longing will clue you in to the changes that need to be made. We’re not doing this for bored Christians; we’re doing this for the unchurched.


    “We need to adopt a spirt of advent that enables us to be open to serendipity and new learnings that help us see new things,” Bolsinger concluded. “We can only go as fast as we can learn.”