There is good reason to be optimistic about the start of this program year. People are back from a summer of traveling and reconnecting with loved ones. Staff are rested and brimming with new ideas. Many children have been vaccinated, and a more predictable school year seems likely. We are coming out of pandemic mayhem. However, a more robust start up to the new program year is not a signal that we have arrived at “the” new normal. We are still in a liminal season—and need to lead accordingly.
Liminal seasons have three distinct phases:
- Separation: A period in which order is stripped away from organizational structures, practices, and identity. The old way stops working.
- Liminal Period: A disorienting period of non-structure that opens new possibilities. New identities are explored, and new possibilities are considered.
- Reorientation: A re-forming period, in which new structures and practices emerge that are better suited to an emerging identity.
It is tempting to believe that we completed the whole liminal cycle during the pandemic, and that we are ready for reorientation now.
Remember, this liminal season began well before the pandemic arrived and it is driven by other disorienting forces. We are amidst a climate crisis, a racial justice reckoning, political polarization and a host of other factors causing institutions to deconstruct and reorient. We are living through a cultural transformation, the outcome of which is still unknowable.
This does not mean we can’t be energized and hopeful. There is much to be excited about. At the same time, we cannot naively return to the old ways of being church. This is a season that calls for ongoing disturbance, continued innovation, and the discovery of new coherence.
Modulate the Level of Disturbance
People are weary of disturbance in their lives. They expect their church to be a place of respite while everything else is in flux. Church leaders often ignore or try to settle disturbances—to keep people calm and happy.
Unfortunately, calming every disturbance prevents adaptation. It postpones reorientation. Leaders who keep things calm unwittingly promote organizational failure. Instead, effective leaders modulate the level of disturbance.
If things get too calm or people drift back toward the old status quo, an effective leader will unsettle things. You can do this by breaking your own habitual patterns of responding, letting some things fall apart, and refusing to fix emerging problems by applying old solutions. You can highlight the dangers ahead rather than covering them up.
When people become too unsettled and conflict rises to dangerous levels, an effective leader looks for ways to calm some of the disorientation so people can stay engaged. Spend more time listening. Fix a small problem that is bothering people. Reassure people that not everything is changing—and emphasize the core values that will always be protected.
Experiment and Learn
Ongoing innovation is always important—especially in a liminal season.
You can help people imagine the recovery of a long-forgotten practice. Sometimes, the good old days really do offer us practices that can be reimagined for a new day. The key is to adapt the old practice for the current environment.
Consider bringing something from the margins into the mainstream. Perhaps there is an experiment underway, something carried out quietly below the radar. Bring that practice into the center of things and introduce it to a broader population.
Import a new practice from someplace else. Don’t mindlessly replicate practices that worked for someone else. Study your context and theirs, and then adapt their practice to fit your environment.
As you innovate, learn to distinguish between repetition and iteration. Repetition is doing the same thing over and over without change, hoping that the practice will suddenly produce better results. To iterate, run an experiment, then stop to process what worked and what didn’t. Make a slight adjustment in the experiment and run it again to see what happens. Fail quickly and often, but don’t ditch your failures without learning from them.
Innovation calls for many low-risk experiments. Don’t take risks so large you can’t afford to fail, but normalize failure as an inevitable part of discovering new pathways. Encourage people to take responsibility for what they love and give them permission to experiment. Stop trying to staff old volunteer positions that people are no longer interested in. Encourage people to pursue their passions and give them freedom to step outside the box.
At first, experiments will feel random and disconnected. You will wonder if you are accomplishing anything. Over time, as you learn from your failures, your actions will grow increasingly focused. Your experiments will become more purposeful and begin to coalesce into something meaningful. New learning will integrate into what is already known.
As you notice new patterns arising, stop to clarify what is being birthed. Ask yourself and others, “What longs to emerge here?”
Make meaning out of what you see happening in the organization. Shape new stories and narratives about what people are discovering and how that fits or doesn’t fit with existing core values, identity, and priorities.
Analyze factions as they emerge. Who are the innovators and early adopters? Who is resisting change initiatives? How is the organization responding to resistance? Become a cultural anthropologist in your own organization.
Most importantly, avoid drawing premature conclusions about new learning. Appreciate the mystery in all that is unfolding and encourage a culture of curiosity.
Eventually, this liminal season will resolve itself—but perhaps not for a long time. You are running a marathon, not a sprint. Burnout is a real thing that threatens to devour us in seasons like this one. Take time for self-care and renewal. Engage in practices to sustain your spiritual center.
Richard Rohr reminds us that faith is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame.
Rest in the assurance that you and your congregation are right where you need to be—embracing the disorientation and engaging new discoveries. You are in liminal space.
Susan Beaumont is a coach, educator, and consultant who has worked with hundreds of faith communities across the United States and Canada. Susan is known for working at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual vitality. She specializes in large church dynamics, staff team health, board development, and leadership during seasons of transition.
With both an M.B.A. and an M.Div., Susan blends business acumen with spiritual practice. She moves naturally between decision-making and discernment, connecting the soul of the leader with the soul of the institution. You can read more about her ministry at susanbeaumont.com.