Tempered Resilience:
How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change

A Book Review by Rev. Martin Homan

In 2015, Bolsinger wrote Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.  He was a pastor of a large church at the time.  Over the next few years he discovered that what he wrote was and is important for helping churches and institutions to bring about change. Yet no pastor could survive such a change process. As he writes, “The question I find myself asking is not, ‘Can I learn the skills I need to lead change?’ but rather ‘Can I survive it?’” (p. 2).

In this book, Bolsinger goes on to discuss the significance of resistance in the change process. How does the leader deal with the human need for stability and continuity?  How does the leader come to terms with resistance and rejection? Throughout the book the author works with the metaphor of the blacksmith and a workshop he and his spouse experienced.   How does the leader become tempered in the change process?  How does the leader develop resilience?  “Tempering a leader is a process of reflection, relationships, and practices during the act of leading that form resilience to continue leading when the resistance is highest.  It includes vulnerable self-reflection, the safety of relationships, and specific spiritual practices and leadership skills in a rhythm of both work and rest” (p. 5). The resilient leader is “one that is grounded, teachable, attuned, adaptable, and tenacious” (p. 5).

In chapter one, Bolsinger discusses the crises of leading change for pastors during a time of changing  leadership.  The author draws on Bowen Family Systems Theory and Adaptive Leadership.  What are we saving the church for?  As the author asserts, “…when a changing world or changing needs require that the church, school, organization, or institution change to keep being relevant to the real change that is arising, it becomes clear that the internal  organizational change needed – and the losses that must be faced by our people to become more missionally focused – is an even more difficult leadership challenge than the external reason for changing.  And when leaders experience the resistance of their people, failure of nerve or failure of heart begins to take root” (p. 18).  As Bolsinger aptly points out people do not resist change, they resist loss. “When a leader raises awareness of the need for change, the natural result is for stakeholders to resist that change and the loss of that change. That resistance soon turns to sabotage” (p. 22).  Sabotage is normal. Acts of sabotage are the human things that anxious people do.

Bolsinger draws on Edwin Friedman’s posthumous book Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Bolsinger defines “Failure of nerve as caving to the pressure of the anxiety of the group to return to the status quo.  Failure of heart is when the leader’s discouragement leads them to psychologically abandon their people and the charge they have been given” (p. 21). Friedman’s premise is that we are in the midst of rapid change unlike anything else since the time of the printing press.  Failure of heart is a term coined by the author.  Bolsinger goes on to define “Failure of heart is the ‘emotional cutoff’ that occurs when the leader’s discouragement leads them to psychologically abandon their people and the charge they have been given” (p. 28). Resilience is a key for coming to terms with failure of nerve and failure of heart.  “Resilience in the face of sabotage is the antidote to the leaders’ failure of nerve and failure of heart” (p. 29).

What is resilience?  Bolsinger continues this conversation on resilience with chapter two, “Resilience: The Raw Material of a Tempered Leader.”  For the author “Resilience for faith leaders is the ability to wisely persevere toward the mission God has put before them amid both the external challenges and the internal resistance of the leader’s followers” (p. 34).  Bolsinger asserts that  “. . . the characteristics of transformational leaders and organizational change leaders make up a list of attributes for a tempered, resilient leader:  one that is grounded, teachable, attuned, and tenacious” (p. 36).  The author discusses in depth the importance of the grounded leader in parish ministry.

With chapter three, Bolsinger develops the metaphor of the blacksmith. The analogy of the blacksmith comes from a workshop that the author and his wife attended. They learned the work of the blacksmith and the author compares the work of the leader with how a blacksmith crafts metal.  The author emphasizes that “When the focus of the leader is on concepts instead of context, and when resistance leads to a lack of reflection, very soon the swirl of anxiety that accompanies organizational challenges leads to the failure of nerve and failure of heart that occurs when resilience has not been developed for the leadership challenge” (p. 53).   We used to talk about change as episodic.  Now change is continual.  How the leader deals with change is significant today.  “And the key difference between leadership today and leadership roles of the past is that the frequency and speed of change means that leaders are almost constantly in a crucicble moment” (p. 55).  The leader lives in this grounded identity that is teachable and attuned.

The blacksmith workshop continues as the backdrop to the final chapters of this volume.  Each of these chapters beginning with chapter three utilize a different metaphor from blacksmithing.  The graphics offered by Bolsinger help emphasize the conversation offered in each chapter.  So how does one develop in leadership as a pastor?  Here is what the author develops in each of the following chapters:

Chapter 3, Working: Leaders are Formed in Leading

Chapter 4, Heating: Strength is Forged in Self-Reflection

Chapter 5, Holding: Vulnerable Leadership Requires Relational Security

Chapter 6, Hammering: Stress Makes a Leader

Chapter 7: Hewing: Resilience Takes Practice

Chapter 8, Tempering: Resilience Comes Through a Rhythm of Leading and Not Leading

The author does not offer any simple solutions or easy answers. Each of these chapters offers the reader helpful tools and conversations for pastoral leadership in the twenty-first century. The author uses story as well as graphics to illustrate what he has to offer to the reader.

Bolsinger uses the epilogue and the question “Why Is This So Hard?”  to bring all that he has to offer in this volume together.  Why is developing as a leader so important to Bolsinger?  The author writes: “Leadership is born not of the desire to lead but – at the center of our being – out of a call to service in light of the brutal facts of the world.  It flows not from a desire to achieve, succeed, or accomplish, but to serve at the point of real need and experiencing that need as one’s own calling” (p. 210).

A second major truth the author offers the reader concerns the role of adaptive change.  “Adaptive change only occurs when the work is “given back to the people.”  If leading change in a Christian context means that all effort and energy is as much about the transformation of the people in the change process as it is the organization or institution you are endeavoring to change, then that clarifies our ultimate challenge” (p. 215). For people to change they need to change their hearts as well as their behavior.  What happens if the change process is impossible with the congregation you as a pastor are leading?  You find a new group and start a new change process.  Another way to say the same thing:  Be open to firing yourself.

The author wrote this volume to offer the pastor in the twenty-first century an extremely helpful process for change.  He intricately weaves together Bowen’s Natural Family Systems theory, Adaptive leadership and other change processes for the reader to work through and to utilize for their work in the church.  You will find no easy answers here.  This book is an extremely helpful guide for the twenty-first century pastor.

Tod Bolsinger. Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Tod Bolsinger (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) 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 Seminary. He is the author of Canoeing the Mountains, which was named Outreach Magazine Resource of the Year in Pastoral Leadership, as well as the Christianity Today Award of Merit recipient It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian. For seventeen years, he was the senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church in San Clemente, California. A frequent speaker and consultant, he serves as an executive coach in transformational leadership.

Review Author: Rev. Martin Homan has been an ordained pastor in The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod since 1981 and has served as an Intentional Interim Pastor since 1995. He has served in pastoral size churches to very large churches in The LC – MS and specialized in churches with multiple staffs, schools and in after pastor churches. He served as the newsletter editor for the LCMS Interim Ministry Conference newsletter. Rev. Homan has a distinguished record of service to the Interim Ministry Network. He has been Chair of the Research Committee, elected to the Board of Directors, member of the Executive Committee and Vice-President. He is presently retired from full-time ministry.