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Leadership for a Church on the Edge: Wisdom from the Lewis and Clark Expedition


The church finds itself on the verge of uncharted territory, a geography that is unsettling and unfamiliar.

No one knows how the future is going to unfold. Our answers are partial, at best.

Sometimes it seems like we standing at edge of a cliff, but, for me, it feels more like the opening of a vast new territory that calls us to exploration and adventure - and I am excited for it.

I recently took heart in this from reading Stephen Ambrose's excellent book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, which tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806 to find a route to the Pacific coast.

It was an epic journey, one with great lessons for the church as it finds itself thrust into a new age of exploration. 

Here are six pieces of inspiration and wisdom I took from Lewis and Clark for church leadership now:

The expedition was the brain child of Thomas Jefferson and led by Meriwether Lewis. They set out after Thomas Jefferson had just completed the Louisiana Purchase, but no one knew exactly how much territory that covered. St. Louis only had 1,000 residents. Only three exact points (longitude and latitude) were known west of the Mississippi with: St. Louis, the Mandan Villages (today's Bismark, North Dakota), and the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Coast. Everything else was pieced together with sketches, maps, reports, supposition, myth, and legend.

Be Not Afraid

Ambrose imagined what Lewis and Clark and their they must have been thinking before they set out for the unknown: "Surely as they sipped their whisky ration at the end of the day, they stared at that river, talked about it, and thought about it. They were not daunted by it. Rather they were drawn to it. What adventures awaited, what sights they would see, they knew they couldn't even guess, which only made them all the more eager to get going - so they could find out" (131).

We should enter into this time with a spirit of discovery and not fear. Things will look different and unfamiliar. Relish the challenge and savor the adventure as we enter into the unknown. Lewis called his band of explorers "The Corps of Discovery." We should think of ourselves in the same way. 

Observe and Report

The journals of Lewis and Clark have been called "'perhaps the most important account of discovery and exploration ever written'" (431). Lewis and Clark kept highly detailed journals, chronicling the expedition, their progress, events, geography, flora, fauna, and natives. It was a roadmap for everyone else who came afterward.

Unfortunately, it took 10 years for the journals to be published, so this knowledge was not passed on as quickly or as well as it should have been. Today, ministry leaders should be journaling in real time using social media. In my opinion, every ministry leader should blog in some fashion, even if its short form, in order to contribute to the larger body of knowledge and aid other explorers.

Ambrose, quoting James Ronda, "'The Enlightenment taught that observation unrecorded was knowledge lost'" (421). 

Diversify Your Skills

Meriwether Lewis trained extensively before embarking on the expedition. He started life as a Virginia farmer, served in the Army, lived in the White House with Thomas Jefferson as they planned the expedition.He trained with members of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. "In short…Jefferson gave Lewis a college undergraduate's introduction to the liberal arts, North American geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and ethnology" (77).

The primary goal of the expedition were to find a water route to the Pacific for the purposes of trade, but there were also goals to understand native cultures, the geography, technology, plants, and animals. Of Lewis, Ambrose writes, "His talents and skills ran wider than they did deep" (482).

We too need to diversify our skills beyond what we learned in seminary about the classic model of ministry. To navigate the future, we need to spend time developing a broader skill set and nurturing our own unique talents. It is often these other skills and talents that lead to personal growth and offer great promise for the church.

Listen to the Natives

Unlike much of the story of the American west, the Lewis and Clark expedition was remarkably respectful to Native Americans. There were only a couple of minor run-ins. It was a complex relationship, which Ambrose captures well, but Lewis and Clark had to spent time with the native populations of the West, in order to establish relationships, trust, learn about the territory, and about other tribes. They were often rewarded for the respect they showed and their efforts to understand.

We need to do more listening to the digital natives and cultural natives of this time, those who may be in our congregations, many of whom may not. They will our guides in this new time. Those should be face-to-face conversations, but understood in the larger context described by the Pew Forum report on the Rise of the "Nones" which every ministry leader should read.

Plan Ahead and Be Ready to Improvise.

Lewis was absolutely meticulous in his preparation for the journey, pouring over books and reports on the West, determining the level of manpower and needed supplies. He designed the ship they would take to the end of source of the Missouri River. But there was much that he could not anticipate, and for that he had to think on his feet. He was skilled at both.

Ambrose writes, "To make that journey required a frontiersman's expert knowledge combined with an understanding of technology and what it could do to make the passage easier and more fruitful" (80).

Entering into unchartered territory will inevitably bring us to moments for which we cannot prepare. We have to plan ahead as best we can and then be ready and able to improve.

Stick Together

Despite the great challenge, the only time the expedition was in real jeopardy was on the return journey when Lewis divided the expedition into several small parties. The smaller parties found themselves nearly overmatched by elements and enemies. They were extremely fortunate to have all joined up as they did near the intersection of the Yellowstone and Missouri in August 1806.

Of course, we shouldn't all cover the same exact path. This is a time for wide experimentation and exploration, but we do need to stick together in spirit, across denomination and tradition. We need to encourage one another, share information generously, so that we can form the "Corps of Discovery" of the early 21st century church.

What wisdom would you share for this age of exploration? Please share it in the comments.

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