Episode 16: Canoeing the Mountains – Interview with Tod Bolsinger

Chapter 1 of Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger is titled, “Seminary Didn’t Prepare Me for This!”  That is a great opening chapter title because that’s exactly how thousands of pastors feel.

When I was in seminary we learned how to study and exegete the scriptures. We learned to read Hebrew and Greek. We learned systematic theology. We learned how to provide pastoral care for church members.  What we didn’t learn was how to lead a church in a world in which Christianity is no longer at the center of culture.

Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains, does an incredible job of helping church leaders understand what’s going on that makes church ministry so much more challenging than before, and how to begin to address those challenges.  In this episode, Tod Bolsinger unpacks the “canoeing the mountains” metaphor and shares the way he himself has struggled as Fuller Seminary (where he serves as Vice President) has learned to adapt to a changing world.





  • Tod Bolsinger is the Vice President and Chief of Leadership Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary.
  • Tod Bolsinger is the author of Canoeing the Mountains.
  • The “canoeing the mountains” metaphor comes from Lewis and Clark. They were searching for the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they found the Rocky Mountains.
  • Churches today assume that everything ahead of us is just like what’s behind us. But we’re discovering that’s just not true. We find we are in a world that we haven’t been prepared for.
  • Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky opened Tod’s eyes to the need for adaptive leadership.
  • In order to lead in these challenging times, pastors and ministry leaders need three things:
    • Identity.  Leaders need to know that their identity is in Christ more than in anything else. Leaders need a strong sense of self that’s not rooted in the anxiety of the group they are leading, but is able to stay connected to the group.
    • Humility.  Leaders need to recognize that we don’t know everything we need to know.
      • We are not the experts in a post-Christendom world. But the experts are out there—much like Sacagawea was the expert once they crossed over the Lemhi Pass—and we need to learn to listen to the experts who are outside of or on the margins of our churches.
    • Resilience.  The capacity to be persistent in the face of resistance. Resistance will come even internally within the organization.
  • Fuller Seminary is also facing challenges. Mainline denominations used to drive students toward seminaries, but most of those denominations are in decline. Which results in fewer students in seminaries.
  • There are lots of entrepreneurial forms of ministry emerging, but the people leading those ministries are not interested in taking on debt and uprooting their lives in order to get a theological degree.
  • To meet some of these challenges, Fuller has started something called Fuller Leadership Platform, which makes all the research and scholarship Fuller provides and making it available to people in a digital format whether they need a degree or not.
  • Fuller Seminary is moving its campus from Pasadena, California, to Pomona, California.
  • People don’t resist change. They resist loss.
  • Tod shares about the sense of loss he felt when the conversation turned toward selling Fuller’s campus.
  • Pastors are great at helping people deal with loss. This is a critical skill when helping people navigate change.



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