Diagnosing Leaders’ Atychiphobia, Heresyphobia, and Tropophobia
Atychiphobia is the fear of failure. Heresyphobia is the fear of challenges. And tropophobia is the fear of change.
Do leaders have the emotional intelligence to recognize their proclivity towards these phobias? If not, can they step back to measure if they avoid activities, opportunities, and people that might create an unsuccessful outcome or their tendency to resist deviating from things that might result in radical shifts and changes? In turn, what opportunities for formation and maturation are critically bypassed?
In Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change, the senior congregational strategist and associate professor of leadership formation, challenges readers to embrace challenges and difficult moments to better their ability to lead.
“Leadership, therefore, is always about the transformation and growth of a people—starting with the leader-to developing the resilience and adaptive capacity to wisely cut through resistance and accomplish the mission of the group,” argued Bolsinger. 
Bolsinger uses the metaphor of a blacksmith to illustrate a leader’s capacity to be strengthened and developed through a craftsman’s forming, heating, pounding, and shaping. Finally, leaders are urged to embrace the moment of crisis, contending that leadership is forged under challenging experiences.
“Adaptive change only occurs when the work is ‘given back to the people,’” stated Bolsinger.  In many ways, Tempered Resilience is a congregational and spiritualized translation of Ronald Heifetz’s Adaptive Leadership. In fact, Bolsinger’s follow-up to Canoeing the Mountain includes numerous citations from old Ronald.
Heifetz urges leaders to hone their natural impulses in responding to challenges and change. Actually, acknowledging and working through conflict is challenging. “That’s why most organizations respond to conflict, or potential conflict, in other ways that are simpler, but not effective, such as do nothing, react by flight or fight, or look to authority to resolve,” argued Heifetz.
Bolsinger argues that resilience requires creativity and innovation to find an adaptive solution amid an intractable problem without violating our core beliefs and mission. As Heifetz adds, “Everyone has a particular capacity for tolerating conflict. Some people are comfortable working through conflict, while most avoid it entirely or try to get through it as quickly as possible. But surfacing the relevant conflicts is essential when an organization is falling short of its aspirations.”
So what? How do leaders become emotionally prepared to face challenges, knowing that, as the scriptures argue, it is a joy to face trials of many kinds because you develop perseverance and maturation (James 1:2-4)?
In turn, are leaders avoiding conflict, challenging ideas, and creatively new practices resisting healthy change and innovation? For congregational leaders, could it be that avoiding the crucible of change actually be an act of unfaithfulness to the new thing God is doing?
I’m reminded of Acts 16, where Paul and his companions had been sent off by the discerning vote of the Apostles to encourage the churches he had already established. Except God would not allow them to move forward. That night, Paul received a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to come to his people. Unexpected change and faithfulness to face new challenges brought about the expansion of the church into Europe.
“Adaptive leadership is not finding a new inspiring vision but reframing an original or enduring vision of the organization that allows everyone to see a new, compelling future for their beloved organization that is worth sacrifice and commitment,” encouraged Bolsinger. 
 Tod E. Bolsinger. Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 4.
 Heifetz, Ronald A., et al. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 150.
 Ibid, Heifetz, 150.
 Ibid, Bolsinger, 174.
12 responses to “Diagnosing Leaders’ Atychiphobia, Heresyphobia, and Tropophobia”
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You hit the nail on the head with pointing out leaders’ fears of change, challenge, and failure. The Church in America has become focused on doing what’s safe, mediates risk, and self-preservation. I have never been a lead pastor with dwindling weekly giving, changes in the culture, staff dependent on his or her church payroll, and a family to feed. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic was the opportunity in the midst of tragedy for re-evulating what we do.
Something I have recently observed is one pastor at a church focusing on the preservation of the church, and another pastor willing to take risks, make changes, and lead the church towards what he believes God is guiding the church towards. The difference? The denominational leader under whose leadership the second pastor submits to, let him pastor know “I don’t care if your church burns to the ground. Do what God is calling you to do!”
Unfortunately, many denominational leaders do not give local pastors this permission. Rather, the marker of success continues to be growing attendance and giving, or, at the very least, self-preservation rather than faithfulness to God and going where God leads. Thus, it seems this is a systemic issue with church institutions.
With your experience and background, what do you propose are some solutions to shifting this in our church culture Andy? Or are we too far gone?
I think I have a fear of phobias: “Phobiaphobia” perhaps. I do OK with change and I have a hunch you do too since you and your family just underwent a big one. This book can help people who don’t do so well with it. Has there been any bad surprises since your change in job and location?
Change is inevitable. Preparing ourselves to deal with it and navigate it is one of our primary tasks as organizational leaders.
I was hired for one job in April, only to see that job description change in May, even though I didn’t begin until June. I’m grateful that I’m working in an organization that has embraced the mentality that we do not know as much as we used to, so we need to listen, discern, try, fail, and try again.
Heresyphobia! What a word. So the etimology of heresy is choice, which connects to the definition of heresyphobia as being fear of change.
My sense is that concretized theological assumptions can perpetuate heresyphobia. How do you believe Christian leaders engage in change at a theological level? Particularly when a theological framework has ceased to be helpful or illuminating to the human experience?
I suspect Heresyphobia also has roots in the desire to be right and fear of being wrong.
One of the best books on the idea of combatting rightness as Christians is Peter Enns’ “The Sin of Certainty,” in which he calls out the church’s mistake of believing our role is about being “right” consistently over the posture of being open that we do not know it all.
Andy, thanks for expanding my vocabulary! You mention the fears of change, challenge, and failure. What do you think presents the greatest challenge for pastors? For congregations? I’m curious if you think they both share the same fear or a separate one? Great post.
Fabulous questions that demand a better answer than what I’m about to provide.
From one angle, pastors’ fear in these matters is rooted in our desire for institutional longevity. The church and how people relate to it are changing rapidly. Displacing blame on culture is a ruse from admitting that our construct of the institutional church needs to change, which might mean something drastically different for our vocational finances.
For the church, it’s not too far off from pastoral fears. People of the church know that the map has changed but do they have the fortitude to explore uncharted territory and make the sacrifices needed to go on the journey?
Good summary, Andy. I like this question you pose:
For congregational leaders, could it be that avoiding the crucible of change actually be an act of unfaithfulness to the new thing God is doing?
As a denominational leader, how do you see that to be true (or not true) in your context? Also, in the context of the many leaders you interview on your podcast?
If you were to give an affirming charge to the Church, what would it be?
I attempted to answer this in my response to Troy.
My affirmation to the church goes back to my post’s reference to Acts 15-16. The church has shown it has the capacity to respond to the new thing God is doing with faithfulness and innovation. That same Spirit is at work in our lives together. The only question is, are we willing to be faithful to the Spirit’s beckoning and power?
Andy: Great post. My initial question is if there’s an opposite of tropophobia – someone that desires constant change that their organization doesn’t have any stability chasing a moving target. Interested in your thoughts.
I also listened to your interview with Bolsinger – was there anything in that conversation that stood out to you in a different way while re-reading the text this week?
You challenge my vocabulary!
Your questions about congregational leaders avoiding the crucible of change is intriguing. Do you think it is willful or from a place of ignorance? Alan Hirsch would say that it is because most of our congregations are led by Pastor/Teachers, who are prone to gather, protect, and care for their people. Could this be a contributing factor?
Andy, in what ways might Erin Myers concept of communication impact the ways our communities handle conflict?