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‘Leading in a Liminal Season’

September 29, 2021

Susan Beaumont believes that most Christian congregations in the United States and Canada find themselves in a liminal space — an ambiguous place where traditional ways of worship and ministry are going away and a new, uncertain future is emerging.

Affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as well, churches today are facing a full range of difficult issues such as human sexuality matters, politics, and the exodus of younger people from the church — and all of this is causing turmoil and upheaval.

“What we're talking about here today is, How can leaders stop to pay exquisite attention in a season that feels pressured . . . in a season where there's chaos all around?” said Beaumont.

“How do you settle your spirit and your leadership presence enough to truly be attending to . . .that new future that's presenting itself . . . in which the divine Spirit is pulling and yanking us into our very own future.”

The first speaker in a fall series provided online by Vibrant Conversations, Beaumont, a Baptist pastor, has helped hundreds of congregations that are in that often confusing, in-between, liminal space.

Amy Schenkel, a midwest regional leader for Resonate Global Mission, introduced Beaumont and fielded questions for her to answer.

In her introduction, Schenkel said. “Susan is known for engaging the best of business practice, filtered through the lens of careful theological reflection. She moves easily between discernment and decision making, and nurtures the soul of the leader along with the soul of the institution.”

Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, and Inside the Large Congregation. She is also a coauthor of When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations.

In discussing what it means to provide leadership in a liminal season, Beaumont said that this is a tough place to be — it is also a time to lament all that has gone before and to wait attentively for God to show the way forward.

"It's the space between neither this, nor that — ripe, potent, uncertain, shaky, a dawning, a dusking,” said Beaumont. “The imminent threshold is emerging, but . . . leading to what?”

Church leaders and members likely feel anxious and fearful as they start to see that the way they have been teaching and worshiping at their church no longer works as well as it once did. But, said Beaumont, don’t panic. “Slow down, the moment is calling you to pay exquisite attention" — to what God has in store for you.

Beaumont went on to explain further:

The term liminal refers to a quality of ambiguity — a “sense of disorientation that we have when we find ourselves in transitional spaces, when we as individuals or as groups of people are stuck, betwixt and between.”

This is a way to describe the unsettling time when something you relied on and loved has ended and you are waiting for a new thing that is not yet ready to begin, she said.

“We are neither here nor there,” said Beaumont. “People are asking all the time, how do we operate in the new normal? I just have to take a deep breath, take a step back and say, we're not in this new normal yet.”

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months — and the needs of church members — has caused many leaders to stop leading, said Beaumont. Assaulted by so much upset, they just don’t know where to turn, she added.

“We're in the between times. I don't think we have any clarity on when a new normal will emerge. I think that for many of us, our deep exhaustion and our frustration right now comes from the fact that we thought this fall would be our new normal and we are not here.

“There's grief and exhaustion in that. And to the extent that we can let go of the expectations we have, that the new normal will be presenting itself soon,” the better able we will be tolead in a season like this one.

Many great Bible stories feature people who find themselves in a liminal space and are transformed in the process, she said.

For example, Abraham and Sarah leave their homeland, following and trusting God to take them to a new land where he will make them “into a great nation” (Gen. 12:3). And Joseph languishes in a pit and then is sold into slavery; later he is thrown into prison, but then he is released to become a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37-41).

“Every one of these great stories is a story of a person who is taken from an old identity into a place . . . where they were transformed and then set forth into a new identity and a new experience,” said Beaumont.

The question churches face, she added, is, Why are we so anxious and resistant to change when Scripture shows us that God is always sending us on a journey into the unknown? God sends us into a liminal space.

And, said Beaumont, at times we might wonder, “What if this is just a free fall?” But eventually, as we follow the leading of the Spirit, “we enter into a period of reassimilation, where we begin to pay attention to emergence, the emergence of the next chapter.”