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Keynote speaker talks leadership development at VC annual gathering

Internal resistance and sabotage a natural progression for organization leaders. Persistence is the key

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Tod Bolsinger

LOUISVILLE — “If you’re a leader expect sabotage, because sabotage is the experience of every leader trying to bring change. If you’re trying to lead a vital congregation and you haven’t experienced the sabotage of your own people — you will.”

Dr. Tod Bolsinger shared his thoughts on the challenges of leadership during Wednesday’s keynote address at the Vital Congregations virtual gathering to more than 150 participants via Zoom. Bolsinger touched on any number of topics related to leadership challenges, particularly from within the organization, and how leaders can become resilient toward the resistance they will ultimately receive.

“The thing we have to do (as leaders) is understand sabotage. Sabotage is normal, is natural, it’s to be expected,” said Bolsinger. “We have to recognize it’s part and parcel of the leadership process. It’s the challenge always before us.”

Bolsinger, who is vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary, was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1993. He holds a doctorate in Theology and Master of Divinity from Fuller and has authored several books on Christian leadership. His presentation Wednesday focused on the challenges of trying to lead change that every vital congregation must go through.

Noting how significantly our lives have changed since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic became our new reality, Bolsinger sees this time and space as an opportunity to address underlying issues that the Church finds difficult, or was not willing to confront before the current crisis.

“This is an opportunity to seize the moment and hit the organizational reset button,” Bolsinger said. “There are a number of us who know we have underlying conditions and issues that have been facing our congregations that we’ve not had the will to confront. But today we have an opportunity to bring the change that people have been resisting.”

According to Bolsinger, the natural inclination of institutions is to become internally focused over time. Thus they prioritize what’s good for the organization and forget what’s good for the people they serve. Overcoming this “internal vs. external” challenge is at the heart of why change is so difficult.

“You’ve got to spend more time listening to the very people you want to care for,” he said. “The true challenge in leading is not the challenges outside the organization, but the resistance within the organization.”

The notion of resistance is found throughout the Scriptures, notably in Exodus 14-16. A mere six weeks after the parting of the Red Sea — the most significant miracle before the Resurrection, according to Bolsinger —  the whole congregation of Israelites complain against Moses. And Moses continues to lead in the face of that resistance.

“Internal resistance is often the cause for a change leader’s failure of nerve or failure of heart,” said Bolsinger. “One of the first things we can do as an agent of change is recognize it for what it is – sabotage. As you think about the work you’re doing in Vital Congregations, the Seven Marks and the opportunity for this moment to address underlying conditions to try and bring vitality, dealing with sabotage is the critical skill set many of you will need.”

What does one do to overcome this natural resistance? Bolsinger suggests as a faith community, as an organization, as a church, to deepen your sense of conviction about your missional reason for being and to discern as deeply as possible your existence, what you’re about, and how to prepare for the moment in front of us. Stay calm, manage your own anxiety, and stay connected —  even to the people who are resisting.

“If you have a deep sense of conviction that is shared together by a group of people who have developed a sense that this is what God has called us to be in our neighborhoods and our world, then stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course,” Bolsinger said.

Leaders engaged in the VC initiative continue to adapt and find  new creative ways of doing the work in covenant with the Office of Vital Congregations, housed in Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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