Some 250 attendees from around the U.S. gathered virtually November 15-16 for the annual Perkins Fall Convocation, “Leading Into Change,” with author Tod Bolsinger of Fuller Seminary and Grammy-award winning gospel music icon Kirk Franklin. Normally held on the campus of SMU in Dallas, this year’s event took place online, with attendees joining from 19 different states, including Alaska and Pennsylvania.

Kirk Franklin kicked off the event on Sunday evening, November 15, with a presentation entitled “Kirk Franklin Speaks from the Heart about Leading Into Change,” followed by an informal conversation with Priscilla Pope-Levison. Monday’s events opened with online worship with global music led by IziBongo. Tod Bolsinger presented three plenary programs: “Leading in Uncharted Territory,” “Trust, Conflict, and Transformation in Uncharted Territory” and “Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.” Participants also had the opportunity to interact with Bolsinger and in breakout groups, and to attend a selected afternoon workshop.

Kirk Franklin

In the kickoff event, Franklin shared his personal story: how he was raised by 64-year old Gertrude, a distant relative who adopted him and took him to church regularly. Despite limited financial means, Gertrude managed to get piano lessons for him.

“I was able to see Gertrude model and mirror what Jesus looked like,” he said. Later, when his career took off, he stumbled into drugs and promiscuity, but Gertrude’s example led him back to faith.

He also talked about his decision to boycott the Dove Awards, after his prerecorded comments decrying police violence against people of color were edited out before broadcast.

“People loved his authenticity,” said Pope-Levison. “He’s an incredibly strong Christian, and that has led him to take some difficult stances.”

Franklin shared the story of his son racing in a relay. One team member dropped the ball, but the team was able to recover and win.

“It’s so easy to look at all the negativity in the world and get discouraged, to lay down the baton,” he said. “But God always saves the fastest runner for the end. You have been called for such a time as this. I’m here to let you know that this can be the most beautiful moment in history, because this difficult time can be the divine reset button.”

“It was just him,” said Edgar Bazan, a United Methodist pastor and breakout group leader. “Not a lecture, not a TED Talk, just himself. It was real stuff.”

Tod Bolsinger

Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) explored the wilderness with the expectation of finding a waterway passage to the western territories of the United States. Instead, he discovered the Rocky Mountains. His planned mode of travel – via canoe – wouldn’t work.

That story inspired Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains.

“How do you canoe over mountains?” he said. “The answer is, you don’t. Trying harder is like paddling a canoe when there isn’t any water. We need to learn a new way of leading.”

He noted that Lewis turned to Sacagawea, a Native American woman, who helped the expedition navigate unfamiliar territory.

“When we go off the map, those who have neither power nor privilege in Christendom are the trustworthy guides and necessary leaders,” Bolsinger said.

Bolsinger talked about how the pandemic has led leaders into uncharted territory – and how it has exposed the “underlying conditions” of the church: a lack of deep discipleship; a lack of deep community that keeps people connected in times of division; a lack of wisdom and courage to speak prophetically, collaborate for justice and serve the common good. But he also sees the pandemic as providing “opportunities to hit the organizational reset button.”

Attendee Shanterra McBride was inspired by Bolsinger’s insights into leadership.

“As leaders, we should remember to say, ‘I don’t know,’” said McBride, who also presented a workshop, entitled Communicating the Why Behind the Change. “Not just for our own benefit of taking off the facade but also for the benefit of the people we are leading. I’ve heard this before but, for some reason, on this day, it was like a huge exhale.”

Rosedanny Ortiz, a Perkins student, wanted to experience the Fall Convocation before she graduates in May. She was also moved by Bolsinger’s plenaries.

“He talked about how combining technical competence, adaptive capacity and relational congruence can bring transformational leadership,” she said. “As leaders, we can expect to experience sabotage, which is ‘human thing that anxious people do.’ But we need to ‘stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.’”

Kelly Graeber, a staff member at Custer Road United Methodist in Plano, complimented Bolsinger’s presence throughout the event and his willingness to answer questions from participants.

“The main takeaway for me is, it always comes down to relationships with other people,” she said. “The human race thrives on relationships. If we do not have them, we will perish.”

Bolsinger’s words also hit home for Bazan.

“I’ll remember what he said: ‘The moment of crisis, you will not rise to the occasion, you will default to your training,’” Bazan said. “We look for safety. There is nothing wrong with that. There’s use for that. But there’s the risk of not using the opportunity.”

Pope-Levison noted that the Office of External Programs, which organized the event, used the Mighty Networks platform to host the event, in the hopes of offering more opportunities for attendees to converse informally. She acknowledged that it involved downloading an app and it was initially tricky for some attendees.

“This is a learning time for us,” she said. “But this platform enables a lot of interaction before, during and after the event. It’s like a closed Facebook group, and it will never close down.”

Graeber noted that she liked the ability to see other attendees. She was pleasantly surprised by the “heavy hitters” who were present, including a few bishops and other church leaders, from all over the country.

“These are people who are in a position to make a change,” she said.