Book review: Canoeing the Mountains

March 20, 2017 | by Mike Bonem

When a friend gave me a copy of Canoeing the Mountains, it could have easily gotten buried in my never-ending reading stack except for two things. He told me that this was the book that he wished he had written because of how well it addresses the challenges of ministry leadership in a post-Christian era. He also told me that the book uses the Lewis and Clark expedition as the backdrop for explaining leadership concepts.

The subtitle for Tod Bolsinger’s book is Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. “Uncharted territory” is where Lewis and Clark found themselves as they reached the headwaters of the Missouri River, and it’s where most ministry leaders find themselves today. Bolsinger points out that, like Lewis and Clark, our maps and assumptions for that uncharted territory are often inadequate or completely inaccurate.

Bolsinger presents a “transformational leadership model” that can allow an organization to venture “off-the-map.” This model has three components – technical competence, relational congruence, and adaptive capacity. While adaptive leadership – leading in situations where you don’t know the answer – is essential in uncharted territory, Bolsinger explains that we need technical competence and relational congruence to get there. As he says, “No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on it.”

Canoeing the Mountains integrates the best thinking from a variety of experts. It draws on Heifetz’s writing on adaptive leadership, Friedman’s understanding of anxiety in systems and the gridlock that this can produce, Kotter and Wheatley’s work on change management, and more. But he also bases his writing in Scripture and his experience as the pastor of a church that faced the challenge of going into uncharted territory.

Bolsinger defines leadership as “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” Three of my other favorite quotes from the book are:

  • “People need to experience the love of God before they are led into the mission of God.”
  • “Adaptive work pays attention to the deep underlying causes that keep a group perilously perched in a state of inaction.”
  •  “I encourage leaders to escape the expert expectation by becoming an expert experimenter, an expert question asker instead of answer giver.”

I have no doubt that you need to lead in uncharted territory. If you want a guide for the journey, consider Canoeing the Mountains.


Topics: Book Reviews, Leadership, Ministry, Vision


Mike Bonem / Mike Bonem is a consultant, speaker, church leader, businessperson, husband and father, who loves to help ministries and leaders reach their God-given potential. He is the author of Thriving in the Second Chair and three other books on ministry leadership.
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