Liminal space



Thanks for the inspiring way that you, laity and clergy, participated in our historic virtual annual conference session. Your cards, letters, texts, and emails of affirmation are deeply appreciated. I have also heard from others beyond our conference. One told me, “My wife and I watched your annual conference, and we want you to know it was a spiritual experience for us. South Georgia did it right.” To God be the glory!

So, now what?

Now it is time to look for the open doors that are around us in this present moment. To get started, I encourage you to join me in reading Susan Beaumont’s book, “How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.” Though I am only a few chapters in, I can see that this book is going to challenge me to pay attention to the in-between nature of our time. Rev. Ben Gosden, pastor of Trinity UMC in Savannah, told me about the book and, since he is farther along in reading it, I asked him to give us his take on it:

Beaumont's book opens with a quote from Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Disney’s Pixar: “There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.”

Liminal thinking might be one of those $25 terms that makes our eyes glaze over as we ponder the vastness of the confusion that such a term could invoke.

But here’s my Ben Gosden $1 definition: “Liminal thinking is the art of questioning the way we’ve always done something with the hope that our questioning could lead us to a better and brighter future.”

This global pandemic has only exacerbated the reality that we, in the church, have been missing the mark for years now. Not having a religion is quickly becoming the fastest growing religious identity in our country. And wringing our hands, gnashing our teeth, and closing ourselves off from this rapidly changing world won’t change that reality.

It’s time to think. It’s time to question. It’s time to engage in some liminal thinking.

And Susan Beaumont’s book is a great introduction to such an adventure!

Thanks, Ben, for pointing us toward a resource aimed at equipping us to lead in such a time as this.

Personally, this book appeals to me because of a pastoral appointment I had several years ago. It was to an inner-city church in Montgomery, Ala. It was in an historic area, in front of the state capitol and across the street from the church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been the pastor. Lots of government workers were there during the day, but there was no neighborhood. No one lived near the church. The migration to the suburbs had been going on for 30 years. After a while I figured out that I could not do ministry the way I had been accustomed to doing it in other areas where people lived near the church. I was in a “liminal space.”

But then I noticed that, as tough as it was, this was a situation that caused me to ask some important questions like: What does it mean to be the church in this context? Where is God at work here? How do you define effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry in an inner city where very few lived? 

Wrestling with these questions also led to the realization that none of my colleagues had ever served in inner-city settings and therefore there was not a reservoir of experience I could draw on in the annual conference.  

But the laity of that church, mostly an older congregation, persevered and found a “sweet spot” for ministry. Five days a week, hundreds of workers drove downtown and filled the state office buildings. What if we offered worship on Fridays in addition to Sunday? What if we offered it during the lunch hour, with 30 minutes in the chapel and 30 minutes for lunch in the fellowship hall? Friday Focus was born. Each week, the congregation ranged from supply clerks to Supreme Court justices.

From time to time we would sit around and try to remember how the idea emerged, but we never could figure it out – even though we had all been part of it from the start. It emerged as those brave church members took time to pay attention to the liminal space and look for open doors.

Look for your next sweet spot in ministry as you join me in reading, “How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.”

Alive Together at the Table,
R. Lawson Bryan