Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

‘Tis the [liminal] Season

By Bettina Thiel

We like to refer to Advent as THE Season – the season of waiting, of decorating, of shopping. But for the folks who are working with the Yale Divinity School on visioning, this is also a liminal season. 

“Liminal” means “at a threshold,”  an in-between. Author Susan Beaumont describes the Christian Church being in such a liminal space, where something has ended, but a new thing has not yet emerged.

Many congregations in this day and age face the realities of decline and stagnation. But, as Beaumont reminds us, we do not have to stay there. By seeking a new calling, we can align ourselves with a future that needs and wants to emerge through us.

In her book titled How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, Beaumont describes the challenges and pitfalls that she has seen congregations experience. For example, the liminal phase is fraught with tension – some want to charge forward to implement the values they see as fundamental to their church. Others resist change. 

One of the ways to move forward, according to Beaumont, is to practice the old discipline of discernment. In recent times, churches have replaced discernment with majority votes. Here is the difference:

Rational decision making: We form an agenda. We load the agenda with decisions to be made.  We frame a problem statement, name the underlying issues, propose a solution, argue the pros and cons, deal with the outliers, call for a vote, record the outcome and move on. 

The Discernment process is different. Participants adopt a stance of indifference to anything but the will of the Divine as discovered by the group, setting aside matters of ego, politics, opinion or personal interest. The goal is to tap into the will and movement of the Holy Spirit.

Example: “North Pointe Church” – this congregation entered into dialogue about their social justice platform. Some believed that each member should choose his/her own cause. Others argued that the congregation would be more impactful by pursuing a common cause, such as racism. They decided to have a weekend of discernment – engaging in prayer, song, silence – and they stopped when it moved toward taking a vote. Finally, toward the end of the weekend, they listed on poster boards all the different social justice platforms that people embraced, and attached dots to rank them – it turned out that racial justice was a compelling cause for all.

Liminal seasons are not the same as seasons of intentional change management. 

Instead, during the liminal season, leaders must keep the people moving forward, but the endpoint is fuzzy.

The steps that churches need to work through:

1.     recognize liminality

2.     differentiate personal issues from the issues of the organization;

3.  Tending to the soul of the institution – The soul is the authetic and truest self of the institution; the source of its divine calling, character and destiny; the “protector of institutional integrity.”

4.     Discernment: attentiveness to God that, over time, develops into a sense of God’s intention

5.     Shaping institutional memory (resist the temptation to glamorize the past.)

6.     Clarifying purpose: Who do we choose to be?

We are well on our way in this process, asking for your patience, your openness and on occasion, your feedback. 

Photo | Woodmont UCC working group

This reflection originally appeared in the Woodmont UCC quarterly newspaper Chapel Bell. It is shared here by permission of the author.