Surprise! The old ways of doing church are no longer leading to the outcomes we’ve been conditioned to expect. Instead, numbers in most congregations have dipped (well, at least the ones that are easiest to measure). Churches are so desperate to stop the skid that they often tell God to take a backseat and lean on strategies more suited for the corporate world. The result is that congregations no longer feel so much like sacred centers but frantic, fractured gatherings of people who’ll do anything to avoid looking mortality – the congregation’s and their own – in the eyes.
There’s no denying that the “Big C” Church and many congregations are at a crossroads, or what seasoned consultant Susan Beaumont calls a “liminal space.” The old is in the rearview, and the new is not yet in sight. There is no easy path forward. This is not a situation that churches can strategically plan their way out of or pour more resources into until the trend rights itself. Instead, this season calls for a new kind of leadership, one that lets go of attachment to outcomes, tends the soul of the gathered body, and notices what emerges.
What this transition time requires, in other words, is true spiritual leadership. In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, Beaumont lines out what this leadership looks like. It requires the ability to live with discomfort. Every congregation wants to know now what the future will look like now, and that simply isn’t possible without experimentation and discovery. Humans in a world geared toward instant gratification will buck against this purposeful not-knowing, and the leader must point toward the faithfulness of this stance and the opportunities in it. Liminal leadership also necessitates the willingness and capacity to tune into who the congregation is at its roots, what God is up to, and what the Spirit is nudging it to do and be. It invites the church as a whole to join in this untangling of its DNA, this discernment, this identification of purpose. In the process, dependence on God’s timing and attentiveness to God’s presence bring about spiritual transformation for those who engage in this challenging work.
Beaumont’s book offers as much of a guide as we have available for how to navigate this weird, wild time. It outlines the postures a liminal leader must take. It points to where the soul of each congregation reveals itself. It teaches the spiritual practices that add up to discernment. It helps leaders detect and elevate new, more helpful narratives about their churches. It highlights what congregations do (e.g., core values) and don’t (e.g., a 10-year plan) need to move ahead with faithful purpose. And it reassures and emboldens leaders and their churches by emphasizing that it is good and right to stand in wonder rather than on certainty.
I recommend this book to pastors and lay leaders who are stymied about how to put one foot in front of the other. It offers a balance of spiritual and practical, realism and hope that I believe can move churches from liminal languishing to empowered, impassioned purpose.