I just returned from attending The Young Clergy Women Project Conference, an annual gathering sponsored by an international, ecumenical organization that works to support younger clergywomen. One hundred and eleven of us gathered in Boston to build relationships, grow professionally, and be reminded “You are not the only one.”
Our keynote speaker was Susan Beaumont, a consultant, author, coach, and spiritual director. She spoke to us on “Leading with Presence,” a rich topic with many facets. As I reflect on the experience, I find I keep coming back to her opening presentation on “liminality.”
Liminality is defined as “a quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in transitory situations and spaces, when a person or group of people is betwixt and between something that has ended, and a new situation not yet begun.”
It’s different from an ordinary situation of change, when you know what’s going on now and where you’re going to end up. Liminality is the threshold moment between the old and familiar, which cannot continue, and the new and unknown, which is somewhere on the horizon.
Susan explained that there are liminal seasons in the lives of individuals and institutions, whether it’s the stage when a couple is engaged and planning for the changes of married life, or the period of a pastoral transition, such as many churches are in now. But she also offered that she believes the institutional church (and perhaps all of our society) is in a longer liminal era, when old ways of being and doing church are not working so well, but it’s still unclear what the church is going to become.
Liminality, this standing at the threshold of a great and uncertain change, can cause feelings of disorientation and anxiety, can lead to breakdowns in the functioning of systems and organizations, can cause shifts in power dynamics, and sometimes sparks a reaction of denial.
But to balance these potential threats, liminality also offers great opportunity: as the old structures fall away, there can be a sense of communitas, that we are all in this together and have the freedom to discover a new way of being; there is the potential for great creativity, at the individual and congregational level; there is often a rediscovery of core values, of what we really believe in and want to stand for; and a corresponding shedding of what no longer fits.
As someone who has been through many personal and professional transitions in the past several years, I know firsthand the discomfort of the threshold, the liminal season that seems never to end, but just to keep changing forms. If you have felt anxiety about your church’s future, or about the wider Church, as the world changes around us and we try to figure out what to allow to change and where to hold firm, you are not the only one.
But I found great hope in learning the positive side of liminality last week, and I hope it offers you some reassurance as well. Because I believe that God is not done with us yet, not by a long shot.
The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr wrote, “Liminality is that space that human beings hate to occupy… where the biblical God is continually taking us.”
And if the church of 2026, or 2056, or 2116, looks radically different from the church of 2016, I trust that God our Creator, Jesus Christ our Liberator, and the grace-filled Holy Spirit will continue to guide and lead us forward into the as-yet-unknown future. May it be so for all of us!