Leadership is difficult under the best of circumstances. Under the worst of circumstances — say, a global pandemic combined with state-mandated lockdowns — it can push leaders to the breaking point. To avoid breaking, leaders need to develop resilience.
According to Tod Bolsinger, resilience “is not about becoming smarter or tougher; it’s about becoming stronger and more flexible.” In his new book, Tempered Resilience, Bolsinger outlines for Christian leaders “a process of reflection, relationships, and practices during the act of leading that form resilience to continue leading when the resistance is highest.”
Bolsinger is a speaker, executive coach, former pastor, and author who serves as associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
He begins the book by defining leadership as “the transformation and growth of a people — starting with the leader — to develop the resilience and adaptive capacity to wisely cut through resistance and accomplish the mission of the group.” This is a helpful definition for two reasons.
First, in the context of a local church, this understanding of leadership reminds pastors their job is to accomplish the mission of the community they lead. Their job, according to Ephesians 4:12, is to “to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service.” Leadership, in other words, is not so much what the leader does, but what others do because of what the leader does.
Second, Bolsinger’s definition emphasizes the development of character, especially in the leader. Leading people through change is not a connect-the-dots picture. Anyone can draw a line from 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and so on. Real life is not that simple. There are neither numbers nor dots. So leadership must focus on the development of the character of the leader.
That character is tested when the people begin to resist change. And people always resist change. When they encounter resistance, leaders often experience “failure of nerve” or “failure of heart.”
Bolsinger contrasts those two failures this way: “If failure of nerve is being too soft and accommodating to lead change, then failure of heart is becoming so hardened and brittle that leading the change process is changing the leader for the worse.” Resilience is the ability to bend but not break
So, how do leaders develop that capacity?
Using the forge as a metaphor, Bolsinger describes resilient leadership development as an ongoing, fourfold process of “heating, holding, hammering, and tempering.” If you’ve ever seen blacksmiths at work, this process is easy to picture in your mind. Blacksmiths place an ingot of steel in the fire, grab hold of it with tongs to pull it out, hammer it against the anvil, then stick it back in the fire. Then they repeat the process.
Applied to leadership rather than steel, the forging process looks like this:
- heating “through leading and reflection”;
- holding “through personal and professional relationships”;
- hammering “through spiritual practices and the practice of leadership”; and
- tempering “through rest and slow release of leadership responsibilities.”
Notice that in the heating and hammering phases of the process, resilient leaders emerge “through leading” and through “the practice of leadership.” There are some things you can only learn by doing them. Leadership is one of them. Resilient leaders lead by leading and then by learning from their successes and failures.
This past year has been difficult for many reasons: impeachment, pandemic, civil unrest, natural disasters, a presidential election. It has left many hoping next year will run its course more quickly and smoothly.
Without claiming the mantle of a prophet, however, I wonder whether American churches will face different but equally challenging circumstances in the coming year. What if church members have grown accustomed to not attending church and don’t come back? What about the increasing numbers of “nones” who have neither a formal religious affiliation nor a felt need to get one? What about a culture that seems increasingly post-Christian, and in some cases even anti-Christian?
How will all these challenges — and many, many more — affect the cause of Christ in America?
I can’t answer that question. But I can say with a high degree of confidence that those churches that thrive in challenging times will be led by resilient pastors who bend with the circumstances, but never break from the gospel. Those churches will adapt and grow.
That being the case, you might want to read Bolsinger’s book.
Tod Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).
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P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.