How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

In the Doorway
In the Doorway, by Erik Pevernagie
Wikimedia CC-BY-SA-3.0

How do you lead an organization stuck between an ending and a new beginning—when the old way of doing things no longer works but a way forward is not yet clear? I call such in-between times liminal seasons—threshold times when the continuity of tradition disintegrates and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt and chaos. In a liminal season, it simply is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. But leaders can still lead.

Liminality: Neither Here nor There

Liminal seasons come often in a congregation’s life: The interim time between established pastorates. The beginning of a new pastorate, when trust in the new leader is still forming. The months after the completion of a strategic plan, when leaders are left wondering where the next big idea will come from. The time following the death of a matriarch or patriarch. Most liminal seasons are resolved within a matter of months or years.

However, in our time the institutional Church is experiencing a liminal era that will not be resolved any time soon. The models and structures that have defined the Church are crumbling around us. New ways are emerging, but we do not yet know what, if any, institutional church structures will remain. The disorientation and disengagement of this time are exhausting all of us.

Feeling stuck “in between” fuels anxiety. People try to return to the comfort of a previous era’s status quo or look for ways to leap dramatically forward. They hope their leaders will ease their discomfort, and when a leader can’t restore equilibrium quickly, they doubt the leader’s ability. During liminal times, people often attach themselves to tricksters—charismatic figures who make empty promises, thrive on chaos, but are incapable of leading well in institutional settings.

As dangerous as liminal seasons can be, they can also be transformative. A malleable situation invites experimentation and risk-taking. We are free to question tradition, which can make space for originality, generativity and creativity. All truly great innovations are incubated in liminality. God’s greatest works occur in liminal space.

Leading with Presence

Many of the practices associated with “good” leadership don’t work well in a liminal season. Casting a clear vision isn’t advisable when we can’t see the future with reasonable certainty. Expressing personal conviction isn’t possible when we don’t know what to feel convicted about. Strengthening others through delegation can be dangerous when we don’t know whom to trust. Building commitment to action and achieving small wins—again, not helpful if we don’t know which wins would truly benefit the organization.

In place of the pursuit of “wins,” liminal times require leaders who can practice presence. Such leaders help people to manage their anxiety and embrace the freedom of not-knowing. We must be deeply suspicious of prescribed solutions that worked in other settings. We must yield to the uncertainty of the moment and truthfully acknowledge what is not working. At the same time, the leader must inspire confidence in the organization and in her leadership. She must help the organization to learn.

Attending to all that is arising, the liminal leader is deeply connected to God and the soul of the institution, and helps individuals and groups to embrace the liminal state for as long as it takes to get clear about identity and to discern new pathways forward.

A Different Body of Leadership Work

In addition to manifesting presence, the liminal leader must offer meaningful work for the organization to pursue. Followers tolerate ambiguity and inactivity only so long before attaching themselves elsewhere. There are four bodies of organizational work that help people stay productively engaged during a liminal season:

  1. Deepening Group Discernment. Communal discernment is an attentiveness to the movement of the Holy Spirit that over time generates a shared sense of God’s intention for us. Unfortunately, many of our congregations have forgotten the ancient spiritual practices of discernment. A liminal leader helps the congregation rediscover these core practices and reconnect decision making with the soul of the institution.
  2. Shaping Institutional Memory. In liminal seasons we tend to glamorize our glory eras by creating thin narratives about how wonderful things were “back then.” Or we censor our memories to block out experiences of pain and shame. Memory-shaping helps the organization to remember true stories from the past that can help heal past wounds, teach important values for the present, and shape a hope-filled future.
  3. Clarifying Purpose. Determining what is ours to do is at the heart of the liminal experience. The leader must help the organization determine what is worth preserving, what can be released, and what must be adapted. This requires framing a meaningful purpose centered on four basic questions: Who are we? Who are we here to serve? What do we stand for? What is God calling us to do or become next?
  4. Engaging Emergence. Eventually liminality gives way to resolution. Communities reorient themselves; it is natural for coherence to emerge out of chaos. But emergence can’t be forced or managed. Many traditional management activities can suck the life out of emergence. Instead the leader must nurture a climate of disruption, innovation, risk-taking, and synthesis.

Leading with Wonder and Curiosity

During the liminal experience we may feel drawn towards passivity, tempted to throw our hands up in despair and simply wait it out. But a passive stance will not help our congregations move through the murkiness. Or we may try to set audacious goals, cast bold new visions, and wrestle our way towards a new beginning. That approach may provide a false sense of control and momentum, but it avoids the discernment work that liminality requires.

Instead we can approach this season with a different leadership stance, engaging a different body of leadership work. We can let go of our egoistic need to look successful and lead instead from a place of sacred wonder and curiosity. We can be led by the future itself as we discover the mind of God for the heart of the Church.

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation. She is co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.

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