Consultant Susan Beaumont says church leaders need a different set of skills in ambiguous, disorienting periods of transition. In such seasons of change leaders must manage anxiety, embrace the freedom of unknowing, explore new possibilities and avoid acting prematurely.
Times of transition are often characterized by a state of ambiguity or disorientation referred to as “liminality.” A person or group of people in a liminal state are between something that had ended and something else that is not yet ready to begin. Many congregations today find themselves in a liminal space, stuck at a threshold between an ending and a new beginning.
Liminality calls for a different leadership stance
A liminal season requires a personal presence that is different from leadership during stable times. Problematically, however, many church leaders invest their energy in traditional leadership activities: vision casting, advocating for big new ideas, striving for growth, and mastering new skills. These practices may provide a false sense of control and momentum; however, they don’t fundamentally impact liminality.
An effective leader must help individuals and groups remain in a liminal state for the time that it takes to get clear about their identity and to discover new structures that are more appropriately suited to their emerging identity. Leaders must embrace the disordered state. Leading in a liminal season requires managing anxiety, embracing the freedom of unknowing, exploring new possible pathways, and resisting the temptation to reorient people before they are ready.
In traditional seasons of stability, leaders are selected and rewarded for their ability to restore order and reinforce the status quo. Traditional leadership focuses on striving to produce new outcomes and to advance mission. These are the activities that we typically honor when we recognize outstanding leadership. In liminal seasons, traditional leadership activities are exhausting and unproductive.
Leadership in a liminal season rarely looks outstanding to the random observer. In fact, leading effectively in a liminal season is incredibly dangerous work because people are generally not happy with the individual who guides them through the hard work of loss, grief, and letting go. People often want to reject leaders that are doing effective liminal work because those leaders are making them feel uncomfortable.
It is much easier to be the kind of leader that strives to restore what was, the leader who makes people feel safe and happy. But that leader rarely takes the organization any place meaningful in a liminal era. That kind of leader often drags an organization back into its preliminal state, so that no adaption takes place.
Moses led in the liminality of the desert
Moses’s leadership presence during the wilderness wandering was not remarkable for the mileage covered, the growth of the community under this leadership, or the productivity of the community. Moses’ leadership during liminality is remarkable because of the new national identity that he birthed following God’s lead.
Moses does not enter the promised land with the people. His part of the biblical story only involved liminal season leadership. Moses emerges at the end of an era: he watches over the disintegration of the social structure that oppressed his people in slavery. Moses guides them through their liminal era and then turns the leadership reins over to the next generation. There is little in the way of accountable success in Moses’ story, and yet he is one of our greatest leadership heroes.
Leading from a place of open wonder and curiosity
Most of us will not be in leadership on the other side of this liminal era. The congregations we serve may move in and out of seasons of liminality, but the institutional Church will likely remain liminal for some time. Like Moses, we may never enter the promised land. We are liminal leaders, charged with taking the Church through this scary season of disorientation, disengagement, and disenchantment.
We can choose to throw our hands up in despair, but that will not be helpful to our constituents or the institution. We can choose to set audacious goals, cast bold new vision, and wrestle our way toward a new beginning. That approach may provide a false sense of purpose. It will not impact liminality.
Instead, we can approach this era with a different leadership stance, engaging a different body of leadership work. We can let go of our egoic need to look successful and lead instead from a place of open wonder and curiosity. We can be led by the future itself as we discover the mind of Christ for the heart of the Church.
The work of a leader in a liminal season is not easy, and it is almost never pretty. However, it may be the most important and ultimately rewarding work that you do in your lifetime.
The article is excerpted from How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). Used by permission. The book is available at Amazon.
- Discovering God’s Future for Your Church Video Tool Kit
- 7 Ways to Lead When the Way Ahead Is Unclear by Susan Beaumont
- It Used to Work So Well by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.