Inspire by leading people “off the map”


One of the key components to inspiration, at least for me, is content that helps me learn and expand my horizons. I found such content recently in a book titled “Canoeing the Mountains,” by Tod Bolsinger.

The author – the former pastor of large Presbyterian congregations and now the vice president and chief of leadership formation and assistant professor of practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California – wrote “Canoeing” as a means of sharing some principles he believes are important to revitalizing churches and equipping leaders. While the book definitely is written to help churches succeed, the principles Bolsinger shares would be just as helpful in the corporate world.

Bolsinger shares lessons he takes from the adventure of discovery from the Lewis and Clark exploration of the western United States from 1804 to 1806. As a history buff, I would have liked to have seen Bolsinger use more of the Lewis and Clark tale in sharing ideas on leadership, but the author does a good job of using just enough to give a lesson in history, in teamwork, in leadership and, yes, in adapting to change.

Bolsinger hits on four key points that Lewis and Clark followed that can be helpful to churches and to struggling enterprises today:

  • Start with conviction – The explorers knew what they were doing was dangerous, was unprecedented and would be among the most difficult things to attempt up to that time in history. But they believed mightily in what they were about to endeavor. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they knew it must be done.
  • Stay calm – Lewis and Clark had plenty of opportunities to lose their cool, not the least of which being when they looked into the distance and didn’t see a river but rather a huge chain of mountains. They could have panicked and turned back. But they recognized the problem, analyzed the options and turned the circumstance into an opportunity.
  • Stay connected – The explorers and their party could have broken up amid the strain and stress of traveling where no known white men had ventured up to that time. The men took detailed notes, continuously studied their surroundings and maintained a sense of unity. By sticking together, the grueling journey resulted in only one death – Sgt. John Floyd, who died of appendicitis.
  • Stay the course – When they could have turned back or deviated from their desired direction of travel, Lewis and Clark pressed forward, knowing there was significance in their mission.

I don’t want to oversell those points, because Bolsinger doesn’t harp on them. But every other point he makes in the book really hangs off of one of those four points.

As good as those four points are, what really resonated with me was Bolsinger’s statement that mission must trump everything. “Real transformation in a congregation is only going to occur when the mission (and decisions it inspires) begins as a clear personal conviction of the leader,” he writes.

In other words, the mission must be held sacred, and leaders must stay convicted by that mission.

A key to Lewis and Clark’s success is that they were able to lead when the expedition went “off the map.” Of course, the explorers had no reliable maps past a certain point in their journey. They thought they were going to find a water route all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But a little obstacle known as the Rocky Mountains put an end to such a dream.

Lewis and Clark had to adapt. The credibility they gained with their men while still “on the map” made it possible for their team to trust them enough to follow them into what was, literally, uncharted territory. And that’s where churches (and many organizations) find themselves these days. Difficult decisions must be made not just to help organizations survive but thrive – all within the framework of the mission.

For churches, that means identifying each congregation’s particular core ideology, determining the culture of the church (that is, what they actually do, not what they hope to do or once did) and then making “hard, often painful, decisions to fulfill the mission in changing contexts,” Bolsinger writes.

In “Canoeing the Mountains,” Bolsinger shares how Lewis and Clark fulfilled their mission and, in the process, modeled leadership skills. By telling the compelling stories from these brave explorers’ adventure, Bolsinger inspires churches to lead off the map and continue to adapt.

Wrote Bolsinger: “Leadership into uncharted territory requires and results in transformation of the whole organization.”

Bolsinger’s book can be purchased on and other credible online bookstores.

Published by Todd Seifert

I serve in communications ministry in The United Methodist Church. I love to tell stories, share the good news of Jesus Christ and, along the way, play with the camera from time to time. I'm a sinner trying desperately to do this thing we call life the best I can.

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