We are living through a very interesting time. Many of the things we previously took for granted as normal’ have been swept away. This pandemic, and the future beyond it, has thrust us into uncharted territory. Huge changes can lead us into periods of doubt and inertia, or we can choose to view them as a season of new opportunity where we can think differently, form new collaborations, and do some spiritual and missional exploration.

In times of change and upheaval, the certainties of praxis and the priorities have to change. 

In his book On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, Victor Turner explores the concept of liminality and discusses ritual rites of passage. In a time of transition, there is always a period of suspension – a time when individuals or groups are cut off from their old social order and have yet to find a new identity. They are in an in-between place where the certainties of where they are have gone. The rules and boundaries by which they have always lived and the cultural norms that shaped them no longer exist.

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Consider a teenager who leaves a village as a child and heads into the jungle, waiting until he can return as a man. He has left the boundaries of childhood behind him as a memory that has shaped him thus far, but these no longer work in his new setting. He has also not yet returned to a new set of rules which come with adulthood – he is in the in-between. He is in a threshold time.

Limen is the Latin word for threshold. It is the time when there are no rules to follow and no set arrows on the floor to walk on. It shakes our thinking and our emotions and can be extremely unsettling as we move into the time before we can extend into the new. It is an unstructured state. We are used to structure, order and control. However, the circumstances that lead into liminal moments by their very nature mean that these structures are no longer available. This can lead to a sense of loss, disorientation and frustration.

While the loss of past structures and social certainties can be frightening, it can also be a hugely creative time – one of new energy, fresh ideas, and new collaborations. If we can move beyond the original separation and shaking, then there is the possibility to move into transformation and renewal.

Let me suggest three steps that could take us away from the uncertainty into places of less certainty but more possibility.

We need to listen to a much wider set of voices and try to discern what God is saying in the midst of them.

Listening to unexpected voices

The voices that were the most significant in the past and more settled days may no longer be the most useful in the liminal pace. We are often surrounded by those who have been brought up in the same structures or those who have the same mindset as us –guardians of the structure that we previously found successful. Now we may need voices that challenge our perceptions of what we should do and why. These voices may come from the edges of our communities of faith, or even beyond them. They may be voices that we would not have heard before, but in this liminal moment, we must acquire the skill of listening.

We need to listen to a much wider set of voices and try to discern what God is saying in the midst of them. We must discover ways to engage with those who we would not normally go to. So many of our trusted voices are deeply imbedded in the old normal’; they are struggling to think of transformation. So look out for voices that understand the cultural times we are living in and have a sense of the direction in which we should travel. Some of these voices may be found in the church, but some may come from public life, the arts, politics and so on. A liminal time is one where we need to be actively searching widely – reading, listening and becoming more aware of the voices around us. This could be a time when possibilities of the unknown become the place where God can meet us and lead us into the new.

Living in liminal leadership

Building unexpected collaborations

In times of change, new or unexpected relationship has often helped me map out or understand the landscape around me. I found partnerships with people who shared my desire for a better community without sharing my faith, and I built collaborations that encouraged transformation.

In times such as these, when going back is no longer feasible, the opportunity to create unusual coalitions begins to develop. Looking around, praying and engaging with people takes on a new priority in a liminal season. We may find that there is the possibility of new partnerships if we can move away from the place of inertia into the place of discernment.

Discovering new leadership

In these threshold times – where we have been moved from what was but don’t yet know what will be –leaders must change the way they lead. In a very helpful interview, Susan Beaumont, author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going, writes on liminal leadership:

In liminal seasons, it is important to adopt a leadership of presence – an orientation of openness, awe and wonder. This requires three fundamental shifts in our thinking: from knowing to unknowing, from advocating to attending, and from striving to surrender.”

While discussing the role of pastor leadership in a liminal time, Alan Roxburgh in his book The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality, reflects:

Pastors must interpret their role not primarily as caregivers but as poets… The poet is the listener and observer, sensing the experience of the body and giving that experience a voice. As a poet, the pastor needs all the skills of pastoral care, but these skills are the servant of a larger end, rather than ends in themselves.”

The style and priorities of leadership change in this in-between season. Bold decision making may not be appropriate in this time of change and flux. Now it will be a time of listening, of creating discerning groups, or waiting and reflecting. It will be a new balance of having to make some decisions but recognising the place of vulnerability and uncertainty and the need for different voices to feed into the conversation.

Everything has changed; this makes us all feel anxious. When many of our praxis markers as a community have stopped, this can shake us even more. It can move us to a place of inertia and longing to go back to a place we can no longer inhabit. Yet, with courage, a different style of leadership makes it possible to move from the threshold to a place of creative transformation. A place of daring, risk and advancement.

In his book on Shackleton’s leadership, Leonard Sweet comments:

He listened to the soundscapes of nature, the vibrations of the air, the creaking of the ice, the voices of the animals. He could tell the world was different because it sounded different, and he studied the sounds to learn the difference.”

It seems to me that part of the leadership gift Shackleton had was that he became attuned to his environment and everything that was happening around him in a way that enabled him to slowly discern feasible options and eventually move forward, taking ground a little at a time. That is what I believe God is calling us into, if we have the courage to listen.

Questions

  1. How would we create a discerning group to help us hear from God in this season?
  2. How can we begin to listen more clearly to the voices around us?
  3. What will be the biggest challenges to us in finding a new path forward?
  4. Where might we look for new collaborations?

It is nothing short of beautiful when we come together.