When the COVID-19 pandemic thrust churches and pastors into uncharted waters, I reread Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains, one of the most practically helpful leadership books I’ve read in recent years. Bolsinger distinguishes three key components of effective leadership during seasons of change or disruption. His first category is technical competence: applied knowledge and skill developed over time through practice, assessment, and development. Next up is relational congruence: the ability to navigate relationships with integrity, maturity, emotional health, and authenticity. Those two categories felt familiar and logical to me.
But Bolsinger’s third and final component, adaptive capacity, was both illuminating and convicting. As a church leader navigating the pandemic, I’d hoped that my competence as a pastor and the relational equity I’d developed over the years with staff and congregants would be enough to guide us safely and smoothly to the far side of the disruption. But as days and weeks turned to months and years, it became increasingly clear that without the ability to adapt, we’d be sunk.
As Bolsinger defines it, adaptive capacity is the ability to calmly confront the unknown by leading a process of learning while maintaining one’s core convictions and values. In other words, adaptive capacity is the ability to surf the waves of change without being dragged down into the undertow. As I’ve pondered this idea in recent months, I’ve come to realize adaptive capacity is a necessary skill not only for leaders but for every person who longs to live a life of devotion to God.
Walking Is Adapting
New Testament authors liked to describe a life of following Jesus as “walking.” Paul says, “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:10), and in another place, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). John says, “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).
Adaptive capacity is a necessary skill not only for leaders but for every person who longs to live a life of devotion to God.
This metaphor wasn’t spun out of thin air. We find it all throughout the Old Testament as well—from Enoch and Abraham to Moses, the psalmists, and the prophets. The Jewish rabbis also favored this metaphor. The Hebrew word halakhah, which means “the way” or “the walk,” was and is often used in rabbinic tradition as shorthand for a life lived in committed devotion to God’s law.
When I hear the word “walk,” what comes to mind is a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood, walking that happens without much thought. But several years ago I was hiking a trail down the Grand Canyon, and I was surprised to find there were no guardrails. With death steps away and surrounded by a cavalcade of other newbie tourists, I was intensely mindful of my steps, ready to pivot, turn, and adjust at a moment’s notice.
This is what walking with God through the unknown trails of life can feel like, and this is where adaptive capacity matters so much for Christian growth. In my early years as a believer, I devoted my energy to developing skill and know-how (technical competence) and deep, meaningful relationships (relational congruence). And yet, time and again, I got frustratingly stuck, wondering if biblical knowledge and Christian community were enough.
What I’ve come to discover is that these elements of our Christian walk are critically important, but they must be expressed in motion. Technical knowledge of the Bible and deep relationships within the church shouldn’t be seen as static, fixed realities, lest we become ineffective and atrophied. We experience life through the Word and our church community as the Spirit leads and guides us, as we walk together, ready to adjust.
Keep in Step
So, what does adaptive capacity look like practically in Christian formation? Is it merely learning to be flexible? No, it’s learning to be sensitive to God’s Spirit and willing to adjust when he moves even if we’re uncertain and uncomfortable. If a desire for and willingness to change is untethered from the twin foundations of God’s Word and a committed Christian community, it’s not healthy adaptive capacity but yet another form of reckless autonomy—the sort of “you do you” approach to personal growth that’s pervasive in our hyperindividualistic culture.
What Paul encourages us to embrace is different. He says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). This means both knowing the Bible that the Spirit inspired and being faithful to a church community that the Spirit indwells. It means exhibiting spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22–23) and being willing to move as the Spirit moves.
Here are some questions to help you confidently approach changing circumstances in a way that’s anchored to both the Scriptures and your local church:
What does the Bible say about this circumstance?
What has the church said historically?
What does my local church say?
What do the mature Christians who know me best say?
What’s the most loving, joyful, peacemaking, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled thing to do in this circumstance?
Answering questions like these will help you traverse the uncertain terrain skillfully and safely.
Technical knowledge of the Bible and deep relationships within the church shouldn’t be seen as static, fixed realities.
When our daughter was young, she was frightened of escalators. She’d just managed to get a handle on walking. Then we asked her to step onto stairs that move! She’d plead for us to take the elevator. Instead, we gripped her hand tight, and let her know she’d be fine. Mom and Dad were experts at taking the escalator, and we’d be alongside her every step of the way.
Intuitively, she trusted our technical competence and our relational congruence. Though she didn’t have the skill, she knew we did. She trusted us too. As a result, my little girl adapted and stepped on that escalator. She was unsteady at first, but soon enough she found her footing. So it is with Christian formation. Let’s step out and keep in step with the Spirit, knowing he’s faithful to lead us through all life’s uncertainties and unknowns.
The Gospel Coalition