Leadership in a Liminal Time

Church, Frederic Edwin, 1826-1900. Moses Viewing the Promised Land, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.


Over the past several weeks I have been reading for an upcoming Doctor of Ministry seminar on theology and spirituality for leadership.  My teaching partner and I decided to change textbooks for this time around (we’ll see how smart that was), so I have devoted myself to mining their insights.  The task has primarily been to understand more fully what time this is for the church and what kind of leadership it most needs.

Persons who study congregational life tell us that this is a liminal time as we are crossing a threshold into a time when participation in church is less compelling.  The statistics are startling, and we are coming to grips with generational shifts, egregious political compromises, and a fraying sense of community. Those of us who populate the pews on Sunday notice attendance grows thinner, and we wonder if our congregation will be sustainable. Facilities consume too much of our budgets, and most churches can afford fewer ministers and fewer mission dollars.



Individualism and personal preferences shape so much of our lives, and the loss of corporate identity is startling.  A recent essay by Yuval Levin was titled “How We Lost Faith in Everything.”  He argues that Americans are living through a social crisis because we have abandoned “a way to give shape, purpose, concrete meaning and identity to the things we do together. If American life is a big open space, it is not a space filled with individuals.  It is filled with these structures of social life—with institutions.”  Simply put, we have lost confidence in institutions.

Churches inhabit this ethos, and it is ever harder for volunteer persons to carry out their roles that lead to thriving. Retired persons carry more of the load because they have more discretionary time.  Wise congregations are beginning to restructure committees and boards because they are proving unwieldy with fewer human resources.



Hopeful perspectives are still present, and new thinking about leadership is constructive.  Rather than seeing the decline in the church as a problem to be solved, which suggests that we know exactly what it is, leadership takes on a different style of exploring and iterative innovation. It returns to a radical dependence upon the leadership of God through the wilderness.

Susan Beaumont talks about three shifts for leadership in this time in her fine book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.  The leader moves from knowing to unknowing, becoming suspicious of prior thinking; the leader moves from advocating to attending, which suggests that deep seeing and listening shifts spiritual perspective; and, the leader moves from striving to surrender.  In Beaumont’s words, this last move “means accepting the past for what it was, embracing the present reality, yielding to the mystery of the future and the mystery of God in that future.”

Dan Aleshire once remarked that “good leaders never make it to the promised land.”  By this, I surmise that good leaders always know there is more to do, more to learn, and more pilgrimage to make.  A liminal time invites trust and faith like never before.  It is that time.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping Church, and serving humanity and all creation.

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