Spare Me the Anvil: Tempered Resilience in a Time of Adaptive Change

If a writer finds a compelling analogy that propels large numbers of pastors to rethink their practice in helpful and creative ways once in their career, I imagine it must be gratifying and sufficient. To do it twice is well-nigh unthinkable.

Tod Bolisinger is still on analogy number 1.

Bolsinger’s last book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, used the model of Lewis and Clark’s 1803-1806 expedition to the Pacific Northwest to help understand the challenges of using old methods in new circumstances, like the canoes that the explorers had used to get up the Missouri when faced with the Rocky Mountains. It introduced a lot of pastors and church leaders to the idea of adaptive change, which was going to require new forms and new tools to guide us through uncharted territory.

Unfortunately, Bolsinger’s latest effort, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change, is not nearly as effective, though some of the lessons are important. I’d rather talk about the positives, so let me dispense with the deficiencies quickly.

Bolsinger clearly hopes that the analogy of forging metal can work as a way of describing how to become a resilient leader. What he shares from his own experience as an amateur blacksmith is quickly lost, however, in a bewildering sea of attributes, practices, rules, and processes. Bolsinger never seems to find a place to ground his book and he moves clumsily from the forge to organizational theory to biblical examples to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I got the sense before long that there wasn’t much ‘there’ there. Near the middle of the book, Bolsinger quotes approvingly someone as saying that “hardship + relationship=resilience.” (124) There were times that I felt there wasn’t a whole lot more that he added to that simple formula. Plus the endless references to hammering (a typical section title: “Learning: Hammering In Humility”) left me feeling beat up long before the finish line.

There’s actually a far more gentle message lurking behind the hammer and tongs. Bolsinger is continuing his emphasis on the challenges of adaptive change by encouraging leaders to accept that they do not have all the answers and are not the experts in this emerging landscape. He urges patience and humility and a rhythm of work, reflection, and rest. He tells leaders they can’t do this alone and asks them to introduce vulnerability, self-reflection, and deep, supportive relationships into their lives.

All of this could be a refreshing antidote to the kind of leadership we’ve been treated to on the national stage in recent years. But Tempered Resilience offers it in a discordant package that seldom relaxes into the kind of reflection that seems appropriate to church leaders. Long before Bolsinger, an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, talks about the joys of his second home in Idaho, I was tuning out.

I’m grateful for Canoeing the Mountains. It remains an important work. Just spare me the anvil.

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