An automated transcript of this conversation can be found below.
September 16 11a (ET) 2021

Amy Schenkel:

Susan is a consultant, a coach and a spiritual director. One thing I appreciate about Susan is that she has both an MBA and an M.Div. When she comes to this idea of what it looks like to manage and to lead an institution, she does so not just with a business mindset, which is helpful in understanding context and how organizations work, but also with a concern about the soul of an institution and the souls of the people in that institution.

And so, as she talks with us today about what it's like to live in this liminal space and to lead in this liminal space, she does that with wonderful credentials and expertise that she gets to share with us. Before I invite her to take the screen, I would like to note that something about this liminal season on page 10 of her book, she says that a liminal season is beginning with an ending. Entry into liminal state always begins with the collapse of order. Something comes to an end, an identity, a program, a structure, or a process. And to help us to begin to think about what the season is like that we are in, I invite you to go to the chat now and answer this question. In your context, what is no longer possible? What have you seen end in your own context? What is no longer possible? ...

When I see this list on chat, I'm sure there's lament, there's grieving, and that's how we enter, I think, into this liminal season and this liminal space. Susan, we are so glad you're with us today to help us figure out how we navigate that in our own congregations, our own settings. Thank you so much. I'll hand it over to you. 

Susan Beaumont (00:05:44):

Thank you, Amy, for your gracious gathering us together and thanks to all of you for allowing me to be with you today, for taking the time to participate in this important conversation. I just have to say as a side note, as I'm glancing through the screen and looking at all of these names on the screen, it makes me feel I'm home, because half of my bloodline is Dutch. And so just seeing a lot of Dutch names just feels very heartwarming to me. Thanks again for being here. I'm going to go ahead and share my screen. Amy, can you just verify that that screen is up? Yes. Okay. I'm going to jump right into content so that we have plenty of time for me to teach you some key concepts that I came prepared to talk about today, and also allow you time for questions and hopefully some answers at the end.

I would just invite you as I'm talking for the next 25 minutes or so, if you've got questions that are emerging in your mind, would you go ahead and put those in the chat, maybe put a cue before what you're writing, so we know it's not just a comment but a question that you have, so that when we get to that Q&A portion, you don't forget some of the things that emerge from you. I want to talk with you today about what it really means to provide leadership in one of these liminal seasons. I want to begin with this small jewel of a poem really from Christine McDougall, because I think it captures the essence of what liminal that word means. 

"It's the space between neither this, nor that, ripe, potent, uncertain, shaky, a dawning, a dusking. The imminent threshold emerging. crossing to what? Slow down, the moment is calling you to pay exquisite attention." Really what we're talking about here today is how do you as leaders stop to pay exquisite attention in a season that feels pressured, right? In a season where there's chaos all around you, how do you settle your spirit and your leadership presence enough to truly be attending to the thing that wants to emerge right in front of you, that new future that's presenting itself, the ways in which the divine spirit is pulling and yanking us into our very own future.

As Amy has already indicated, the concepts I'll be talking about today are from my book, How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going. We're really only going to get to do a very introductory overview of the topic, but there's lots more in the book for you to refer to. We can't talk about liminality without a definition, right? When I first went to the publisher with this book, I called it leading in a liminal season, and my publisher came back and said, you can't call it that because nobody knows what that word liminal means. Well, now that we've been living in liminality for the last 18 months, a lot more people know what this word means, but let's make sure we're all on the same page about this term itself.

When I use this term, I'm referring to a quality of ambiguity. That sense of disorientation that we have when we find ourselves in transitional spaces, when we as individuals or as groups of people are stuck, betwixted and between. Something that has ended and a new thing that is not yet ready to begin. We are neither here nor there. People are asking all the time, how do we operate in the new normal? I just have to take a deep breath, take a step back and say, we're not in this new normal yet. We're in the between times. I don't think we have any clarity on when a new normal will emerge. I think that for many of us, our deep exhaustion and our frustration right now comes from the fact that we thought this fall would be our new normal and we are not here.

There's grief and exhaustion in that. And to the extent that we can let go of the expectations we have, that the new normal will be presenting itself soon, I think the better we can lead in a season like this one, but we'll talk more about that later. The Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr writes a lot about liminality and he says, "It's that space that human beings hate to occupy where the biblical God is continually taking us." I love that imagery because really our entire Christian heritage, our biblical heritage is rooted in liminality from the story, just post creation with Adam and Eve being driven from the garden of Eden, their departure from Eden sets up the human experience as a liminal experience, with the expectation that we don't actually leave liminality until Christ returns again.

Every one of our great biblical stories is a story about a hero or a heroine who finds themself in liminal space and is transformed by that encounter. Abraham and Sarah leaving the homeland, and journing forth to find a promised land. Noah in the ark. That's a liminal experience, Joseph in the pit and then in prison. Jonah and the belly of the whale. Every one of these great stories is a story of a person who is taken from an old identity into a place they did not want to be, where they were transformed and then set forth into a new identity and a new experience, all the way up through the New Testament where Jesus rises out of the baptismal waters and is driven out into the wilderness, a liminal space for 40 days and 40 nights to discover and refine his new identity.

Paul on the road to Damascus who has a liminal experience of blindness in which he is transformed. The question for us really is, if we know, if we know from all of our faith tradition that this is how God works with us, that this is where we find God, why are we so resistant to pausing in this space and letting that transformation happen? Why are we so panicked to either move back to something that felt like the old normal, or to rush ahead to what feels like the new normal? What we know about liminality whenever it appears, is that it always has a three part structure to it, that there is an experience of separation or ending. Every new beginning stands on the shoulders of an ending. There's a period in time that comes to an end, this liminal period, where we feel like this trapeze artist suspended in midair, stuck between having let go, but not having caught yet.

And there's actually an exhilaration there. It feels like flying, but also a terror. What if I'm not caught? What if this is just a free fall? Before we enter into a period of reassimilation, where we begin to pay attention to emergence, the emergence of the next chapter. We can find liminality in all kinds of different places and contexts. When we send our children away to camp or on a mission trip, we are intentionally setting up a liminal experience for them. We are taking them out of their everyday context, an identity that has been formed by a culture that we want them to stop and pay attention to who they are. We take them out of that. We put them in a context that doesn't have any of the same normative features that their everyday life has. 

And we hope and we pray and we work with them for some transformation in that place that produces a new identity before they reasssimilate back into their previous context. When we send people on pilgrimages, when we send them on mission trips, when we send them to camps, we're intentionally working with liminality. We also have liminal seasons that happen in congregations all the time. Pastoral transitions are a great example of this. One body of people under the leadership of this particular pastor, when that pastor leaves, a congregation has to go through oftentimes difficult, but also exhilarating season of figuring out who they are without the leadership of that particular pastor before they're ready to attach to the leadership of a new pastor.

We know that that transition doesn't happen with one pastor moving out and a new pastor moving in, that transition, that liminal space often lasts for a couple of years in time, as we begin saying goodbye to that pastor before they leave and as we're suspicious about the new leader until they prove themselves for maybe a prolonged period of time, maybe even a year or two after their arrival. We also know that there are liminal eras or epochs. Phyllis Tickle talks about this in her book, The Great Emergence. Where she describes the giant rummage sale that the larger church goes through every 500 years or so. Tickle believes that we are in one of those eras now, where the church institutional infrastructures actually begin to crumble and that's necessary for the rebirth of what the next chapter is. 

And so my thesis in this work is that we are living in a liminal era now, that's been exaggerated by the pandemic. That's part of this liminality that we're paying the most attention to right now, but that this entire era, which feels like the end of everything that we love, it feels everything is at odds with each other and everything is crumbling, that's this ending experience. This is not likely to end anytime soon for us. The sooner we can wrap our heads around that and quit resisting that, the better work we'll be able to do here. This season we find ourselves in requires a non-traditional leadership stance and a different body of leadership work than what we have traditionally been charged with doing. I'll explain more about that a little bit later. 

It's important that one of the things that we pay attention to is that every institutional structure has a liminal tolerance level, whether it's a local congregation and its infrastructure of how it makes decisions and chooses its leadership, how it resolves its conflict and how it makes decisions together, or whether it's denominational body, every institution has a capacity, a threshold, a liminality that it can tolerate beyond which it cannot hold. Now, what does that mean? Well, if we take the pandemic experience, which has been disruptive to all of us, hugely disruptive, that in and of itself is a huge liminal factor for most of us, but many of our organizations can stand against that. We've had to figure out new ways of being, but the infrastructure of who we are as a congregation is holding together more or less, right?

But for others, we find that when we start layering on all the other liminal experiences that we're having, political polarization globally, questions about human sexuality and what we're going to do as a denomination about human sexual preferences, critical race theory and how we fit that into our understanding of what we're doing as Christians, changing ethnic identities within the denomination, a global climate crisis, all this stuff layers on. And at some point every institution will fail if the liminal factors become too severe, much like this space capsule you see reentering the earth atmosphere, where the structure is protected by a heat shield. But at some point, if the stress of reentry is beyond what the heat shield was designed to endure, we know that that capsule will fail. It will disintegrate. Our institutions can do that as well. 

As we experience that friction and we approach our liminal tolerance levels, it's important to recognize that there will be institutional failure of one kind and another, that not all of the institutional constructs that we have right now are going to be able to endure this. That's not a sign of failure, that's a sign of transformation and transition. It is painful, and there's a lot of grief associated with it, but it is not a sign of failure. Many of you may ask, well, gosh, it feels like we're just talking about change management on steroids. Isn't that what this is? No, this is fundamentally different. Because for all the years that we've been talking about basic change management, we're usually talking about knowing that we're at point A, this is where we stand, and we can describe where we want to get to, here's the ideal vision of how we see ourselves in the future.

Change management practices in theory takes us from point A to point B. How do we as leaders anticipate the barriers that stand in the way of us moving to that desired future? The difference with liminality is that we often don't know where we are. We can't really describe the ground on which we stand with any clarity, just think back to the early days of the pandemic when we made all those bold proclamations about how long we'd be closed for and when we were reopening. And then do you remember the point in time when we gave up doing that? Because it changed every day. You could make a statement and say, as of this point in time, we're going to do this and then realize I can't make a claim about that because I thought we were here, but we're not really here. Right? So we don't where we stand.

And actually we cannot describe the future vision of where we want to get. We have some idealized values and versions of what a preferred future might look like. But so far the absence of an emergent theme means that we cannot negotiate our way from point A to point B. And yet people need us to continue leading. We have to give people meaningful work to do in this season and a meaningful way to belong. We need to help them make meaning of where we've come from in our past and how that's still relevant to where we stand today. That's the challenge of leading in a liminal season. Now, in the event that you are some days trapped into thinking, this is an awful season of church leadership, nobody else has ever had to do this. I want to share a piece of scripture that doesn't come up typically in our electionary series. It's from the book of Ezra chapter three.

Just to remind us of what's happening at this moment in time, the first temple has been destroyed and the foundation for the second temple is being laid and the people are coming together to celebrate this new foundation for the second temple, right? Here's what scripture tells us about this. "And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, they wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of the weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far way."

Doesn't this describe leadership in the season that we're living in? We as leaders are captured by the energy of our people, some of who are wailing to go backwards, just get us back to the normal thing that feels right to us. And some are clamoring for rapid forward movement. Just get us to some new normal that feels better than this. Our challenge as leaders is being stuck in this place of trying to figure out which noise to pay attention to. How much of the free floating anxiety in my congregational system should I even be attending to? When am I supposed to be trying to calm people down? When am I supposed to let them stay riled up so that they can change into something new?

I think that leadership in this season often feels this character standing here on this image on your screen, standing in front of this giant black hole that feels like it's just going to suck us into it, right? And wanting to get the heck out of that space and to take our people with us, to protect them from whatever's in that black hole. And yet what Ed Catmull, who's the CEO of Pixar. He wrote this beautiful book called, Creativity, Inc, which is written to a secular audience, but when you read it, you see that Ed Catmull is a deeply contemplative person. He says this, "There's this sweet spot between the known and the unknown where all originality happens. And the key is to be able to linger there without panicking." 

If it's true that God works with us in liminal spaces to transform us for our next chapter. And if it's true that creativity and new ideas and the new next chapter is born of this space, how do we stand in this frightening place that feels chaotic without panicking, with our people, assuring our people that we're exactly where we need to be, so that the next transformative thing can happen. And there in lies the challenge, right? In a liminal season like this one, there are a variety of wonderful opportunities that present themselves, but also a variety of threats that we have to be careful of. Let me just quickly talk through this list. 

Now, the first great opportunity is something called communitas. No, that is not typo on your screen. It's not community. The word communitas refers to, this is this word is coined by the cultural anthropologist Arnold van Gennep who observed that when primitive tribal cultures found themselves in these liminal spaces, for example, when children went out into the wilderness on some kind of a quest came back as an adult, the whole community would freeze its structures and disintegrate its structures for a period of time while that individual was in the wilderness waiting to come back, so that the person could come back and be received under a new identity.

Communitas refers to a quality way of being within community that happens when we allow the disintegration of some of our leadership structures and our power structures. When the thing that we are so fearful of actually happens and we allow it to happen and that institutionally we start to fail in some significant ways, so some things begin to melt down and the power structures give way. That's when this spirit of great equality within the community emerges, that gives birth to all kinds of creativity and new experiences, new ways of being able to think people are unshackled by the limitations of their old structures and free to imagine new things. It's a thing to take advantage of in liminal seasons, not a thing to fear. 

Liminal seasons are also a prime opportunity to spend some time rediscovering the core identity and purpose of your congregation. Who are we now? Our definition of ourselves has changed a lot in the last year. We don't even actually know who's all with us anymore. Some new people have appeared, right? Who do we serve? Our context have changed. For so long in church life, we defined context by taking out a map, looking at where the church building was and then drawing a three or a five mile radius around the church building and say, this is who we serve. These people here, and then we have some mission projects on the other side of the world. Well, with having to do church online, many of us discovered that we're no longer limited to the geography of where our building is.

What does that mean about the purpose of these buildings and what they serve and who we are meant to serve here? What do we stand for now? How are our values shifting and changing and what is God calling us to do or become next? Liminal seasons are a great time to shed those things that no longer fit. Maybe some of those programs that have been dying for a long time and took a lot of leadership energy to sustain, but some beloved soul still loved him. Some of that stuff disappeared during the pandemic. Let's not be in a rush to bring it back, but to let go of that, which no longer fits us. Liminal season is a great time to work on deepening our capacity as leaders for group discernment, to pay attention to divine movement, how the soul of the institution is connecting with the soul of the leader and the soul of the people.

Many of us default our Western way of thinking to group decision making over group discernment. We've lost big parts of our own traditions around that. But there are threats that can come with the liminal season. The biggest of which is the anxiety that rises within us, right? You may have noticed, I've certainly noticed in my consulting work that when anxiety arises in groups of people, they tend to behave badly. And so much of a leader's energy has to go into dealing with the anxiety, the real work of leadership we want to do, helping people adapt to a new environment. We can never get to because we keep focusing on people's anxiety. Learning what to attend to in anxiety and what to not respond to is a big one of our threats.

Denial, huge problem in a liminal season. Denial looks like two different things. There are those that want to just power through this season as if nothing has really changed and they don't want to enter into the process of grief that endings requires. They don't want to acknowledge that some things have fundamentally changed. I noticed in our chat box when we talked about what is gone now, what has ended, that most of our responses were still pretty surfaced about that. Now, I recognize in a chat, what are you going to put? But there's some profound things we're letting go of here. Some profound things related to running programs that people come to in church buildings. I think there's something fundamentally that's shifting about that and we don't even know how to talk about what it is yet, but we have to let go of that attractional model of, we run programs, people come and that's how church thrives and that's what the church is.

We're in denial when we power through, as if as soon as we get on the other side of the pandemic, we're going to be able to go back to something that feels normal. But the other form of denial we have to be careful about is the notion that nothing remains, right? A woe is us. Everything is gone. This is the end of the church. It's not the end of the church, right? This is the reinvention of the church. We are blessed to be leaders in this season, to be shepherding this in. It's painful, it's hard work, but people will look back on this era as something really significant in the life of the church. And we are blessed with being the sustainers of what still remains in this season. A final thing to really pay attention to and the threats in a season like this one, is the notion that power dynamics within our structures are changing.

Some of our core people are stepping back because they're exhausted or because of what's happening in their personal lives no longer allows them to provide leaders up in the church. We've got new people who are stepping in, who are enlivened by a season like this one. That's both exhilarating, but also a threat, because when we have changes in power dynamics, we're never quite sure whether the new blood stepping in has fully mastered what this organization is about and whether they're going to be safe leaders for a new era. Which takes me to really the final threat I want to talk about, which is something that researchers point to, again and again, that in liminal seasons like this one, there are characters that emerge that are known as the tricksters. 

Now, I'm using the language of trickster as designed by van Gennep and his research work. I know that in native American cultures and in African American lore, tricksters are magical creatures who outsmart and outwit systems. That's not the way I'm using this definition. Trickster in the way I'm talking about it are leaders who appear to be very charismatic, that people are attracted to, who perhaps were hanging on the sides of the organization or the institution, who step in during the liminality, because they have a great deal of charisma and they offer what feels comforting to people. A new idea, a return to the past, a return to some values that people embraced from a prior time.

But the problem with an authentic trickster, is that they feed on chaos and they are not capable of living well in community. They continually sew discord and dissonance. When one of these tricksters is allowed to come into the center of our institutional structures and begin reorganizing, its mam, and a lot of our energy goes into dealing with the trickster rather than dealing with the adaptive work we need to do to prepare ourselves for a new chapter. The final thing I want to say here, and then we're going to open this up to questions and answers, is that, we can talk about liminality and say, oh yes, no wonder we feel so disoriented. This is the season we're in. These are the opportunity that we face now. 

The really important thing and what I write about in the book, is that there is a different leadership stance that's required for a season like this one, that our old models of what effective leadership looks like, models that value things like people who are good problem solvers, who know lots of things, who carry a lot of expertise, who can advocate for right solutions and strive to overcome all the obstacles and just pull people along with them. That model of leadership doesn't work well in a liminal season. Instead we have to do some fundamental spiritual shifts to be people who move out of that place of knowing, out of that place of advocacy. Out of that placing of striving into a deeper place of spiritual surrender, not surrender in the sense of giving up and saying, oh, well, all is lost, I'm just going to sit here until this is over. 

Surrender in the sense of yielding to what is unfolding in front of us, so that we can pay exquisite attention to how we are being led. This also requires a different body of leadership work. In the book, I talk about four major forms of leadership work that are effective in seasons like now, working on shaping institutional memory, deepening our group discernment practices, shaping the way that we talk about our purpose, clarifying our purpose now and engaging emergence as it begins to unfold in front of us. So many of the things that we're tempted to do in a season like this one, let's create a new linear strategic plan. Let's work on a new mission statement, not particularly helpful work right now, a different bodies of work that involve framing questions, driving questions that we can't answer right now, but if we could answer them, they would actually lead us into the future.

Figuring out how to craft experiments around those driving questions, so that we can learn something about where we are and then analyze what's happening and then design an iteration of those experiments to learn the next thing. Again, we don't have time today to talk about all of that. But I just refer you to the book to learn more about your own leadership stance and what it means to tend the soul of the institution. Let me stop chattering at you. I'm going to turn things back over to Amy, and we're going to open this up for some conversation here.

Amy Schenkel (00:36:02):

Wow. Thanks so much, Susan. I wish we had three days to take this all apart and really invest in it. It is so helpful. Like Susan said, if you have a question, please feel free to put it in the chat and we'll do our best to get to it today. I also have a list of my own in case you just can't come up with anything. Bob has a great question there. What advice do you have for how much time or energy to invest and lament as we look back and hope as we look forward? 

Susan Beaumont (00:36:33):

Yeah. Wow. That is a great framing of a question Bob, because that's exactly the work that needs to happen now, is lament and hope side by side. Right? How wonderful that we have within our tradition lament. Is right there for us in the Psalms, right? That there are Psalms that take us into the grief. You cannot have a new beginning unless you have an ending, right? Amy pointed that out in her opening comments, and you can't have an ending unless you grieve what is lost and what you're letting go of. And so much has been lost in this season. I don't know that I have anything remarkably insightful to say about how much time to spend on the that, because this is why you as leaders get paid the big bucks, right? You have to read your context, you have to know, what are we in the midst of right now? And there are days that are just going to be lament days. 

And different parts of our congregations are ready for different things. Our staff team may need just a month of lament. Staff teams are really hitting the wall right now. They had pinned their hopes on the vaccination and getting through the vaccination, and they were hopeful that coming into this fall was going to be the end of everything and now it's not. A lot of them that just powered through 18 months just feel like they can't do it anymore. And so parts of our team might just feel they are stuck and they need to spend time in lament, but you may have other parts of your system, like some of your lay leaders that need hope from you right now.

I hope that you're hearing in my comments, that a big part of our task right now is framing this as a season of hope, when there is so much loss, that we are standing in this space that has all this potential in it. This is where churches have such a part to play right now. And nobody's looking for us to do this, but this is what we have to do. This is what we are meant to do. To be the voice of this is the meaning and purpose in this moment we're in and it's okay and it's hopeful and let's lament at the same time. Thank you. 

Amy Schenkel (00:38:52):

I wonder if a good follow up question to that Susan and noting a comment that Kara made, we as leaders need to be reminded of the hope that there is in this season, right? And that the church is the bearer of that hope. But in the meantime, how do leaders, and I'm especially thinking of pastors right now, but how do they keep from just getting burned out, trying to hold that all in this season?

Susan Beaumont (00:39:20):

I know this sounds trait, and we always talk about this all the time, but your own spiritual practice is critical right now. Too many of us, I think have been co-opted by that striving mentality that I talked about before, about that need to lead hard and overcome the notion that I'm holding this all together on behalf of my staff, on behalf of my board, on behalf of my people, I'm the only one holding this all together. If you're feeling like that, you are in striving mode and that striving mode comes out of your false self, that's your ego self that needs to be in that striving mode, right? The true self, the true self that Thomas Merton wrote about, that Richard Rohr writes about, our true self is grounded in a more surrendering stance, of saying, you know what, there isn't a whole lot that I can do to overcome, there's nothing I can do personally to change the political divide.

I can make differences in my context in the way I handle it, but I don't have a magic button to turn that off. There's nothing that I can do to resolve questions about human sexuality, about racial tension and racial reconciliation. There's not much I can do individually about a climate crisis, right? The more that I as a leader can just surrender into, okay, we are in this period of disintegration around all these things. If I surrender to that and don't feel like I have to overcome it, then my spirit gets freed up to be able to see what's possible now. What is my, in the book I talk about is the proximate purpose? What is the next right thing to do, the next right step to take that will make a meaningful difference right now with these people in this context? 

And how do I stand with my people and say, in response to their anxiety, I don't know where this is going. I don't have any answers, but we're going to be okay here together. That's the leadership stance. I think that's how we communicate our hope. 

Amy Schenkel (00:41:32):

Those are words of hope. Thank you so much for that. Paul Hue has a question and I happen to know Paul works with us at Resonate, especially in Asian contexts around the world. He says, as I've lived in the west in the last four decades, I observe that people love or cling to the concept of certainty, as we daily use this expression, making sure. In this liminal period, life is all about uncertainty. How can we as leaders help ourselves and our congregations to embrace uncertainty and that feels very counter-cultural? 

Susan Beaumont (00:42:09):

Yeah. Wow. These are great observations. I love the reference to really the divide between the west and the east in the church, took us in very different directions and how we deal with our own institutional structures. Okay? And the church in the east clung to its practices of discernment and kept those in ways that we in the west did not. Right? Our Western way of being was founded in the Roman rule of law. So that when we talk about one of the ways we get to that certainty piece is in how we go about making our decisions. We start with this assumption, in the church I find even when we use the word discernment, usually what we mean when we say that is, let's think slowly about it. Let's decide slowly, let's take our best, most knowledgeable decision makers and let them think carefully about it. And that's discernment. And we'll throw in a prayer on the side. Right?

As opposed to saying, in this season, and this is how we break the certainty thing, because that all reinforces that certainty mindset. We have control over the situation. We are in control of the problems we face and we can solve them. Right? But we have to let go of that, go back into our own tradition around discernment, which is saying, how can we pay attention to the undercurrent of what God is doing here in the midst of this and how can we join our efforts with that? And when we make that shift in our thinking about what it is we're trying to do institutionally, we let go of some of those old mindsets and embrace the, I'm going to use the word mystical. But if that makes some of you uncomfortable, you decide what word I should be using here. 

But stepping more into the being side of our tradition that says, there is a way of becoming still, so we can be attentive to the movement of God's spirit in a place and attend to what's wanting to emerge next. I talk about it in the book as connecting the soul of the leader with the soul of the institution. But I think all of that work is how we let go of the certainty and that strong, strong desire we all have to return to something that feels certain. 

Amy Schenkel (00:44:32):

I really appreciate that. One of the things I've noticed recently is that a lot of the denominational resources that are coming out from, in the CRC of denominational plan, our journey 2025, it's called, or even some of the curriculum that's coming out from Faith Alive or from Resonate. So much of that has a greater emphasis on discernment than ever before. And taking time to sit and to listen and to be quiet and to dwell. I've noticed in my own work that's been really important the last couple of years, creating that space for silence is just as an important part of the work. Maybe I should have been doing that more before. Right?

Susan Beaumont (00:45:12):

You probably should have been.

Amy Schenkel (00:45:13):

But is a crucial part of getting through this space now.

Susan Beaumont (00:45:19):

In my work, I make the distinction between silence is the condition that we create around us, right? The lack of noise around us, but really to embrace discernment, we have to get to the place of spiritual stillness, which is that internal condition that silence helps us get to stillness, but you all know you can be in a silent environment and your own brain can be talking at you so fast that there's nothing still about your inner spirit. Right?

Amy Schenkel (00:45:45):

So true.

Susan Beaumont (00:45:46):

Yeah. This is where we have to get back to whatever our own practices are that allow us to get to a place of stillness to be able to do that deep attending.

Amy Schenkel (00:45:57):

And they say in the book, the church has replaced discernment with rational decision-making.

Susan Beaumont (00:46:02):


Amy Schenkel (00:46:03):

I feel like leaders have had to make so many rational decisions in the last 18 months-

Susan Beaumont (00:46:08):


Amy Schenkel (00:46:09):

... we never thought we'd have to make. And how have we approached that? Have we approached it with a sense of anxiety, like we have to decide if people are going to have to wear masks or not? Have we been able to do that out of a place of spiritual practice and spiritual stillness like you say?

Susan Beaumont (00:46:24):

Well, and I find, I call myself a practical contemplative. Right? I know that there are some people, some traditions like the Quaker tradition, they embrace in discernment around everything and they just won't take a step forward until there is a consensus about what the discernment is, which is beautiful on its own right. Most of the denominations I work with, we live in a world in which we cannot discern indefinitely. We have to decide, are we wearing masks or are we not. Right? But we can find richer ways of creating periods of discernment and noticing or marking at the beginning of the process of saying, this is the moment at which we will come out of discernment.

And if we're not at consensus, we will then decide and we'll go back to using voting and Robert's rules of order and whatever we need to do, because we need a church budget by this day. But wouldn't it be lovely to have several months of discernment, leading up to that to say, how are we being led to structure our budget? Most of us are engaged in these practices again, where we're doing all rational decision-making and we either open or close with a devotional and then we say we're doing discernment and we're not.

Amy Schenkel (00:47:46):

Yeah. That's a good word. Dave has a question about the soul of this institution. I think these spiritual practices get to that. What do you see as significant ways that institutional souls get toxified or enlivened?

Susan Beaumont (00:48:04):

Yeah. Wow. That's a complex and brilliant question. First of all, I would have to define what I mean when I say the soul of the institution, because I think we probably all mean slightly different things by that. For me, it's the divine essence that something more with the institution, within the institution that knows who it is or what it is. Right? It's the true self of the institution that runs deeper than, it's deeper than the voice of a gathered current leadership body. It has a history. It's grounded in a time and a place. So it's not like holy spirit movement. It lives, it dwells in this place. Right? Now I've got myself so tied up, I've forgotten the essence of the question.

Amy Schenkel (00:48:48):

He wondered, what happens to get that? How does that soul maybe become toxic or how does it actually become healthy?

Susan Beaumont (00:48:57):

Yeah. I do think that in congregations, the soul is on a journey with the institution, right? In most congregations at the time that the congregation is founded, the divine essence is maybe in its purest form when you had a founder or a group of people that had an idea or a set of values and then attach some resources to that and an institution is born. But then that soul gets wounded or strengthened throughout the course of its own journey. We have leadership transitions and each of those leadership transition shapes the soul in a little bit different way. We have seasons in congregational life where the soul is wounded, right? We have a leader who's sexually abusive within the church, or fraud happens within the church. That soul gets wounded and there needs to be some healing that happens around that, intentional healing to bring us back.

But there are also blurry eras in the church, when a congregation is thriving, when it feels like we are so connected with the soul of this institution, to this community and there's just all this vitality that's happening. And so there are so many things that I don't understand about institutional soul, does it die if the institution dies? Where does it go? What happens when you have a merger? What happens to the soul then? But I think there's so much that we can do as leaders that can either bring light to the soul or darkness where it gets disconnected, where we ignore the essence of who we are or where profound things like, I worked with a congregation whose one of the stories from the early chapters is the day that the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the church in their robes. And the doors of the church were thrown open to welcome them in.

Okay. So this is part of that congregation's history, and it's that story wounds the soul of that congregation every time they have to acknowledge that part. There's restoring that has to take place there to help with some of that healing. I feel like I'm talking all around that question [crosstalk 00:51:27].

Amy Schenkel (00:51:26):

I think those are the helpful points. That's really good. What's interesting about having the soul of a congregation, is that it's something that lives on even through pastoral transitions. Michael has a question about, I think a lot of our churches right now are in pastoral transitions, or have a vacancy where the pastoral role is. What are some steps that lay leaders might be able to take to guide the congregation during this luminal space when they don't have maybe the senior pastor who's the one leading them through this?

Susan Beaumont (00:52:00):

Yeah, well, I think all of the things that I talk about as worthy work to do in a liminal season, there's none of them that require a divinity degree or ordination to do. Right? There's nothing in the process of shaping institutional memory, the paying attention to the stories, our own stories and how the stories of a previous season are limiting or enlivening us now. But lay leaders are oftentimes better equipped than clergy leaders to do that work because they have a longer history and it's their stories, right? Clergy leaders just learn those stories and borrow them while they're there, the story belong to the people. Work around discernment, there's nothing within deep discernment work that requires religious training, right? Gaining clarity about our purpose now, great work to do in a pastoral transition season, re-imagining the quote, who are we without this leader?

And I'm not asking that question in a despair sense. I'm asking that question and an enlivening sense to say, what is the same now and always about who congregation has been? Great work to do when you're in a pastoral transition. This great project I'd love to do with congregations, is to gather people together and tell the story of the church, era by era. I do it by decades. Go into a fellowship hall, set up the big wall with different segments, different decades, and assign people to do some research on those decades and just teach one another the collective story. In that era, how did the leaders sitting in the pews in that era describe who they were, who they were serving and what they thought God was calling them to do or become? 

And then let's move to that next era. How did the way they answered those three questions changed? And what about the next era? When you sit and listen to the congregation tell its own story, you can hear how the soul has sustained the congregation over time. You can hear the things that have remained constant. You can hear the things that have dropped out over time, the things that have layered in, but what has sustained us decade after decade after decade, that's part of that grounded in our very being here. I think there's a lot of work that the lady can do. Attending the soul.

Amy Schenkel (00:54:34):

Great. Thank you. Kara has a question here and I will read it and insert a little comment here. I've heard liminal associated with a pandemic, like COVID gives us a chance to re-envision ministry. I appreciate how Susan suggests with Phyllis Tickle that the church is in more broadly a liminal era, not only due to COVID, but also related to questions of sexuality and racism and climate change. And from a Resonate perspective, I also want to highlight the comment that you said that the church is just changing in relation to its context, right? That the church, the space of the church, the role of the church in its community is changing significantly and that requires different behaviors from us. 

Can Susan or anyone else point me to a web-based, a succinct resource that articulates this broader sense of liminality for the purpose of sharing with fellow leaders? Are there other things you would point to Susan that would help us bring this concept maybe to council rooms or at decision-making tables?

Susan Beaumont (00:55:37):

Yeah. Nothing is popping to mind quickly in terms of an easy resource to move to. Phyllis Tickle's book obviously. I think Diana Butler Bass, a lot of her writing reinforces this liminal space stuff in the way she talks about church history. So there might be something there. I imagine there's a lot more people on the call where something is on this Zoom platform, that something is coming to mind. I'd encourage people to go ahead and put that. But in that larger comment, I think what I really want to lift up here is the notion, as soon as we can get through our headset for a lot of the people in this meeting right here, we are going to end our ministries in liminality. Just get your head around that. Right?

If what you're hoping to do as you think about your vocation and how you envision your vocation unfolding. I think the panic for a lot of us, a lot of people right now, my colleagues are saying, I couldn't retire this. I want a nice boat to wrap up my last chapter. Right? I want to leave a church that I showed growth, and I accomplish these things and I leave these things tied up. We have to get rid of some of those ideas to say, we are here as shepherds in this era, and there's going to be some painful work. It's probably only the much younger people on this call I think, that will have the gift of seeing the promise that Moses didn't get to go in. Right?

And yet we consider Moses one of our greatest faith leaders, but he has very little to show in the way of metrics and accomplishment about what he did. Entirely what he did was help a body of people reshape their identity over a long period of wilderness wandering. That's what we're here to do right now. To be those wilderness pastors here in this season, and we're not going to be able to wrap it all up with lovely metrics that show, I grew the church by 10% and I baptized this many new people. I'm not saying that growth is not important. I think it's important to pay attention to those things, but when our whole identity is wrapped up in that stuff, then we're investing again in that false self leadership, because God doesn't really care about any of those markers the way we do

Amy Schenkel (00:58:10):

Wow. That comment that the pastors on this call will probably finish their career in this space took my breath away. I don't think they told me that in seminary.

Susan Beaumont (00:58:23):

Well, you're younger Amy, that might not apply to you.

Amy Schenkel (00:58:26):


Susan Beaumont (00:58:26):

I'm speaking more out of my age range, to get out of this notion that if we can just wrap up this pandemic, then I can be back to something that feels productive again.

Amy Schenkel (00:58:39):

It's huge. That's huge. 

Susan Beaumont (00:58:39):

Listen to all those other things that are are in liminality, political polarization, climate crisis, racial reckoning, none of that stuff is ending anytime soon.

Amy Schenkel (00:58:51):

Well, there are a few resources that people are mentioning in the chat, maybe they are helpful. I can also mention that this particular webinar or whatever this is, is being recorded. And as soon as it goes through the editing process, they will post that on the Vibrant Congregations website. Often Larry sends out a Vibrant Congregations newsletter and lets you know when that's available or you can just keep checking that website for that. Because I'm from Resonate Global Mission, I can also say that there is a workshop we offer and it's an online workshop and it's called the world has changed. It's looking at all the different ways that our context has changed, that's affecting the church today. You can go to the Resonate Global Mission website to look for more information about that.

Thank you so much, Susan, for joining us today. This has been such a gift and given us so much to think about. I know for myself, I have a staff retreat coming up for a day and I think what you've said here and shared is reformulating some of the conversations that we'll have. I hope that's true for others on this call as well. I want to mention that in October there will be another Church Now Conversation, and that is on the book, The Great Sex Rescue. I don't know very much about that at all, but I wanted to mention it and invite you back for that conversation as well. I'd like to pray us out if I may. Lord, you have given us each a calling, whether we're a lay leader, a pastor, a church staff member, a denominational leader, you have called us to to be present even in this space, in this season.

Lord, you promise that you will provide us with the resources that we need to do the work that you're calling us to do. And so Lord, we pray that you will open our eyes to those resources. You will open our eyes to where your spirit is already at work among us, and you will give us the spiritual practices to be still and to see and observe where those places are that you're calling us to join you. Lord help us to be non-anxious people as we put our trust and our hope and our faith in you and lead us well. We pray for a blessing on our churches and on these leaders, in Jesus name we pray. Amen. Thank you again, Susan. And thanks to everybody that has joined us today.

God's peace to you.