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Ministry challenges call us not to work harder, but to work wholeheartedly

The Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, an expert on navigating change, opens and closes Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference

by the Rev. Rebecca Mallozzi for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger delivered both the opening and closing presentations during the Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference offered last month near Cincinnati. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

CINCINNATI — “If all you hear today is ‘just work harder,’ you’ve missed the point.”

This sentiment was shared by the Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, whose plenaries bookended the 2021 Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference, kicking it off on Sept. 12 and closing the conference two days later.

The annual Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference is a partnership between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This year, the conference took a hybrid approach with both in-person registrants at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center near Cincinnati and virtual attendees.

Bolsinger, one of several plenary speakers, is the Associate Professor of Leadership Formation and Senior Fellow at the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary.

He is the author of books about navigating change, including “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory” and “Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change.” His opening plenary, “Stewardship and Leadership for a Disrupted World” provided in-person and virtual conference participants with both permission to name the current reality and a sense of hope for the future.

“The world is changing more rapidly than we can imagine,” Bolsinger said. “We’re in a season where it’s tempting to think good stewardship and good leadership are just about us and how to survive. We’ve never been here before. No one has been here before.”

Surviving and transforming

Bolsinger’s encouragement was both to acknowledge that in a crisis, the church needs to survive and to make space for transformation. We live in between the tension of surviving and thriving — what Bolsinger called the acute phase of crisis response and the adaptive phase — and at some point, churches and religious judicatories will need to decide how to move from one to the other. The temptation is to just survive and hope to go back.

“But go back to what?” Bolsinger asked.

At the beginning of the pandemic, things changed so rapidly that church leaders really did just have to find ways to survive. Overnight, churches that may have been on the fence with digital ministry found themselves pushed into a virtual world.

Bolsinger admits this is not what pastors and church leaders trained for, saying, “We find ourselves half-hearted about the work we had to do.”

Learning to give wholeheartedly is an act of stewardship. Bolsinger draws the connection between leadership and stewardship saying, “Stewardship is about caring for those things entrusted to our care. Leadership is about the transformation necessary for our stewardship to make an impact on the world.”

Both stewardship and leadership are necessary ingredients for moving forward.

Living and giving wholeheartedly

With many groups wondering what’s next for the church while still facing so many unknowns about the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants, the comfort and encouragement from Bolsinger was not to work or try harder, but to learn how to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work.

Learning to give wholeheartedly means making space for transformation, Bolsinger said, doing the head and heart work to notice the underlying issues already present in communities and revealed during the pandemic.

Bolsinger’s advice once you’ve done that? Find within yourself the spirit of adventure. He said you can tell you have a spirit of adventure when you realize it requires learning and results in facing loss.

Loss, he added, is what most people fear when it comes to change — not the change itself, but the loss. Adapting to what the body of Christ is becoming does not mean it will be easy or smooth sailing. Sabotage is normal and to be expected, Bolsinger said, as “the result of the human things anxious people do.”

“We get stuck,” he said. “We can’t get unstuck just by trying harder. Be wholehearted, but don’t work harder. See stewardship and leadership bringing us to transformation. It requires us to be wholehearted about not wasting this moment.”

Quoting from Brother David Steindl-Rast, Bolsinger added, “You must do something heartfelt and you must do it soon.”

Being wholehearted by being resilient

In his second plenary, “Forming Leadership Resilience,” Bolsinger quoted from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying leaders are called to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Leadership, he said, is a process. “It’s not found. It’s formed in the crucible of leadership,” Bolsinger said. “You’re in the middle of it before you know what you’re doing.”

Photo by Jonny Gios via Unsplash

Using images of blacksmithing from his book “Tempered Resilience,” Bolsinger offered four ways that resilient character is shaped. He said, “A grounded identity and resilient character is shaped through reflection, relationships, and a rule of life in the rhythm of leading and not leading.”

Paying attention to each of these four areas is how leaders begin to hew stones of hope out of the mountains of despair.

For Bolsinger, it’s about learning to show up authentically and vulnerably. It’s about always being open to being a mentee. He said, “The first habit of a resilient leader is to embrace how resilient you are. Faking it until you make it will break you.”

It’s also about balance within relationships and spiritual practices. Bolsinger said what leaders really need are more relationships, not less. Leaders need relationships with people who are partners (people who care more about the mission than us), friends (people who care more about us than the mission), and mentors (people who care about us for the sake of the mission). The spiritual practices that shape us change over the years and give leaders the tools they need to keep transforming.

With reflection, relationships, and a rule of life comes the rhythm of leading and not leading, which means knowing when to rest. Finding space for rest and the slow release of leadership responsibilities reminds leaders to be grounded in something other than the success of leading.

Most importantly, Bolsinger said, do not do ministry alone. “God chose you for this work,” he said in closing. “And do not go it alone.”

The Rev. Rebecca (Becki) Mallozzi serves as pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.


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