Here’s a bit of trivia for you: In ancient Roman construction, there was often a stone placed at the threshold of a door that one would have to traverse in order to enter or exit a building. That stone was called a limen.
I tell you that because the word lies behind this year’s trendiest term in church and business circles—liminal. As in: “COVID has rendered suspect all that we used to know and now we are in a liminal time.” It’s a handy word, unusual enough to capture your attention and capacious enough that it doesn’t try to say too much about where or when we are. Everything from the shape of worship to my body shape is in a liminal state these days.
Of course, this all began in the Before Times. Lots of things were uncertain even prior to the pandemic. When Susan Beaumont, a church consultant, coach, and spiritual director, published her latest book in 2019 then, she was a little ahead of the curve in describing liminality. But the book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, seems like it was meant for such a time as now.
Beaumont is familiar with all the organizational gurus that speak to the mainline church scene. How to Lead is populated with references to Heifetz, Scharmer, Rendle, and Alice Mann. But what Beaumont brings with her is a kind of humility and self-awareness born of her interest in spiritual discernment. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers and she’s as apt to drop in a reference to Richard Rohr or Evelyn Underhill as she is to one of the current consultant class.
What she’s after is not a church growth plan but tending to the soul of the institution:
Soul-tending work begins with a basic assumption—that an organization has a soul—a spark of divine essence that represents the true self of the organization. Furthermore, this work assumes that God is invested in the choices that impact the future of the organization, and that God will reveal God’s interest to those with discerning hearts. Finally, this work assumes that discernment is the key to connecting the authentic self of the leader with the authentic self of the institution. (50)–Susan Beaumont
This approach is liberating for pastors who feel the weight of expectations to provide certainty and a clear path out of people’s anxieties about churches in a period of decline and change. Soul-tending resonates with the calling that got most pastors into church leadership in the first place. And trusting God and God’s ways to emerge in the midst of the unknown feels like an important spiritual exercise for us all.
Beaumont’s book provides a helpful guide to doing discernment in liminal times. The chapters here provide examples and exercises that could help any leader, but particularly those beginning in a new place of ministry. She encourages leading with presence, listening, story-telling, and clarifying purpose. And she points the way to engaging with the new things that will emerge. In short, she encourages leaders to lean into the discomfort of this period, to learn from it what we can, and to set our expectations not on glory, but on faithfulness.
“Our effectiveness as leaders is not determined by whether an organization grows on our watch,” she says. “Our effectiveness will ultimately be judged by the extent to which we attend to disorientation, embrace disruption, support innovation, and nurture coherence.” (156) Those are unusual words for leaders to hear in risk-averse churches. But they are important words for liminal times–those times when we are standing at the threshold and waiting to enter.