Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review Canoeing the Mountains

When I was a young newly ordained pastor one of the first things I kept saying to myself was, "I never learned this in seminary, I never learned this in seminary, I never learned this in seminary." There's so much that one cannot learn in three years of study. I had no idea how to read a budget or organize a study group. I had no idea about forms and administrative work or how to fix the copy machine. I'm not alone either. Most pastors have the same feeling when they leave seminary too, saying, "I never learned this in seminary."

Ted Bolsinger's new book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2015) is a must read not just for newly ordained clergy but for seminary students as well. Bolsinger is the vice president for vocation and formation and teaches practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His pastoral experience combined with his working with seminary students makes him the best person to write this type of book.

Bolsinger weaves his narrative on Christian leadership around the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 18th century. Sent by Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, together with their team of explorers, set out to map the western portion of North America. Since they were familiar with the colonies and areas of the Eastern seaboard they brought with them canoes and kayaks so they could navigate the many waterways that they would encounter. After all, the Eastern seaboard is full of lakes, rivers, and streams. They assumed that they would encounter the same in the West. They were proved wrong when they hit the Rocky Mountains. They weren't prepared for mountains. They weren't prepared for hiking them. They weren't prepared for mountain range after mountain range. They had to quickly change plans, re-think their original ideas, and get creative very quickly if they were going to succeed on their journey.

Bolsinger takes up the Lewis and Clark theme and applies it to pastors. We are in an ever changing Church, a Church which is now seeing steep declines among middle age and younger members, decline in income, shifting Sunday Church attendances, and also a shift in new coming seminary students who used to be well formed in the Christian faith and more and more have entered seminary not just as a preparation for ordination but to learn more about Christianity in general. Change is hard. Change can seem daunting, overwhelming even. When faced with a challenge or issue one usually falls back ones training. Yet the Lewis and Clark expedition shows us that we cannot keep doing the same thing again and again and expect the same results. Change requires creativity and the humility to learn something new, to become vulnerable to the task at hand.

This book includes short vignettes from the journals and letters of Lewis and Clark combined with other personal anecdotal material. He also brings to the fore basic leadership qualities that are needed in the 21st century Church.

Overall I found this book to be very stimulating and engaging and one which I already recommended to a few of my clergy colleagues. However, being that this book was about Christian leadership written for pastors or pastors in training, and that this book is for the Church at large, I kept wondering how come there was so little Scripture included in it? I fully realize that this book is not a Bible study on leadership, but I did expect a few Scriptural stories that could have been woven through the narrative as examples. There were plenty of people in the Bible who were faced with overwhelming challenges and it would have been great to include a few, perhaps at the beginning of each chapter as a way to highlight our Christian tradition.

I highly commend Tod Bolsinger for writing this book and for brining to light the importance of re-thinking how we lead, pastor, and administer our parishes and congregations.

For more information about Canoeing the Mountain click here