Getting the Church Ready for a New Time

I remember vividly the first time I knew that something was very wrong. It was March 14, and I attended a funeral. COVID-19 had just emerged, and my colleagues and I didn’t know what to do. Several hundred people were at the funeral, no one was wearing masks yet, and I was sharing a remembrance. We didn’t fully understand the gravity of what was to come, but all reports were that COVID-19 had become very real.

That Saturday evening, I sent an email to all clergy in the conference, writing, “I know that it is now Saturday evening and Sunday’s a’coming. However, the rapidly evolving face of the Coronavirus Pandemic means that continual reevaluation of safety procedures is necessary… While it is likely too late to contact people before tomorrow morning’s worship, I am asking that you consider suspending in-person worship services until the end of March or until it is deemed safe.”

I also included recommendations such as no hugs or touch; social distancing; no coffee hour; electronic giving; encouraging social media as one way to communicate; learning how to use YouTube, Facebook Live, or live streaming for worship; using Zoom to lead classes or hold meetings; and reaching out into the community so that people can be connected to resources for spiritual, physical, or emotional support.

It’s now eight months later, and our world is still in an upheaval. “We’ve never been here before.” I’ve heard that from dozens of people over the last nine months. We’re still in an in-between time, betwixt and between. The word for a time like this is liminality. Author, teacher, and consultant Susan Beaumont defines liminality as “a quality of ambiguity and 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.” “Liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, which means “threshold.” A liminal space is a threshold, an in-between space where things pass through and don’t remain.

We’re in a liminal space right now regarding COVID-19, which has changed everything in our world. Last Thursday we had a record 4,562 new cases in Iowa, with 839 hospitalizations. The highest previous daily total had been 2,887. We have now surpassed 150,000 total cases in Iowa. Most of the state is definitely in the “red zone,” and we are strongly encouraging our congregations not to meet in-house.

We’re passing through an in-between space in this liminal time because we have no idea when the coronavirus will abate. All we can do is try to provide the best worship we can, take the strongest precautions, wear masks, social distance, and stay home, if possible. Another casualty of COVID-19 is that a number of our churches are struggling financially. When parishioners lose their jobs and/or are not able to worship in their building, programming and mission decline as well as giving. This is especially the case with congregations that have been teetering on the edge of viability.

 

Of course, we’ve experienced other liminal spaces over the past several years. Our differences over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church have created a liminal space, an in-between time as we await the postponed 2020 General Conference in 2021. In this waiting time, various proposals continue to develop that occasion hope for some resolution and a crossing of the threshold. A further liminal space centers around racism. We are struggling to become an anti-racist country and an anti-racist church. When George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck and ignored his cries for help, protests exploded throughout the country against police brutality and have continued through the summer and fall.

In addition, we just emerged from five days of liminality last week as we waited for all ballots in the presidential election to be counted. Now we will enter another liminal time as we wait for the inauguration of President-elect Biden on January 20, 2021. As we continue to sit in this season, between what was and what is next, we wonder how we arrived at such an unsettled time and where we are headed.

Last week the Council of Bishops engaged in a learning experience with Susan Beaumont, author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. To access an online workbook format of Beaumont’s book, click here. Beaumont reminded us that one of the primary characteristics of a liminal season is disruption. We have a sense of unsettledness and disturbance because we don’t know when, where, or how we will emerge and return to normal. Nor do we know what a new normal might look like if there is even such a thing. Beaumont also shared with us how a pattern of emergence is found in liminal times.

  • There is a disturbance of the status quo.
  • This disturbance causes disruption/disharmony of our practices.
  • We empty ourselves in this liminal space: waiting, vulnerable, silent, and
  • We achieve coherence (integrating what is new into what is already known) by clarifying what wants to emerge and who will do what according to their gifts.
  • The result is a commitment to the adoption of new narratives and innovative practices, avoiding premature solutions and certainty, and using new metrics to evaluate effectiveness.
  • Throughout the process, it is critical to be clear about our core values and missional priorities.

Most important is to recognize that in liminal times of distress, uncertainty, and dislocation, God wants to teach us something new and give us a new identity. In a recent interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks, Beaumont says, “Every one of our biblical heroes is a story of someone transformed – who went from an old identity to a new identity. We can see that in the figure of Moses. We can see that in Job and Jonah, in Abraham and Sarah. Everybody is drawn out of, ‘I was this kind of person in this settled place, and then that identity undid itself and God took me to a new identity.’ Many of us will have ministries entirely defined by liminality, as Moses did.

“If we can contextualize what we’re experiencing now in light of that instead of looking at this period of time as a ‘woe is us’ period of time, we can come out of it with a deep sense of hopefulness and expectation about what God might be doing with us and the identity that we are being drawn toward. This is not that somehow we have failed the church, but that God is getting the church ready for a new time and we’re key players in it.”

In this liminal season in our world, clergy and laity together are called to actively lead our churches and engage our communities in new ways. At the same time, we must care for ourselves and each other. What unique activities/programs can we offer for our communities right now that will bring people together and enhance cohesiveness and solidarity? How can we engage disturbance by innovation and experimentation? How can we embrace this liminal season to learn new ways of living out our faith that reach far beyond the walls of the church?

How can you and I get the church ready for a new time?

5 thoughts on “Getting the Church Ready for a New Time

  1. Thank you for your insightful challenge. Our Lord’s message of love should be, certainly for all Christians, paramount. I remember that armband some of us were wearing some time ago that read WWJD, “what would Jesus do?” This is quite a question, particularly in times like these. Let’s pray we don’t answer that question to fit our own personal agenda.

  2. Never has it been easier to preach on God doing a new thing. Just because we don’t know what it is an ongoing adventure.

  3. Re: November 9th article: “Getting the Church Ready for a New Time”

    Ms. Haller,

    The author Stephen Covey teaches to ‘begin with the end in mind’. Upon reaching the end of your article, I am left with one question:

    Are you utilizing your position to push a narrative, or are you insensitive to your audience? Before taking offense or making assumptions, I’d ask that you honestly consider the question.

    Your resume indicates an educated and empathetic leader yet your article would indicate otherwise. Your congregation is vastly diverse yet your article is based upon assumptions that only a fraction of that congregation would accept as gospel.

    Yes, the country and the church are in several liminal states at once. Yes, we face challenges of a magnitude and consequence that are unprecedented in a generation. However, your mistake is assuming (or promoting) a foundational narrative as the root cause of these liminal states upon which you build a case of how we get the church ready for a new time.

    Have you considered that perhaps it is the church that should be directing their congregants to drive truth into the hearts of men, and thereby shift the national conversation towards a paradigm that values people, freedom, and religious liberty based upon the doctrine of God?

    Have you considered that more than half of your audience is looking for answers as to how they can save their country and their church communities, thereby rejecting the very system of beliefs of which you appear to subscribe?

    Have you considered that this article should be career ending for you?

    I for one vigorously challenge your assumptions as follows:

    – COVID-19 ‘statistics’ are not accurate: Daily total infection rates parallel daily total testing numbers as expected. Hospitalization numbers are the real concern however a virus boasting a 99%+ recovery rate doesn’t match up to reported hospitalizations and death counts. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that illnesses and death attributed to COVID-19 are grossly inaccurate, and this becomes even more evident when noting that every other infectious disease and cause of death has plummeted this year. If you intended to be persuasive, using this data is a sure-fire way to fail and is the first of several critical errors in your writing, unless you know that you’re relying on junk science and are using a bully-pulpit to establish a “new normal” … your words, not mine.
    – That America and the church is racist: This statement is SO blatantly false that I would immediately call for your dismissal. If this is how you feel, then you should resign and apologize. Your failure is in the assumption that the majority of your audience would even begin to entertain the suggestion that their behavior is anything but inclusive. You should be ashamed of any suggestion otherwise.
    – That there is a President-elect Biden: Again, I would hope that someone in your position could restrain you obvious, partisan exuberance. Joseph Biden is NOT the President. He isn’t even the President-Elect. Not a single state has certified the election for a variety of reasons, primarily being mountains of corroborated evidence of voter fraud thrust upon the American people, hundreds of witnesses, sworn affidavits, and testimony from brave Americans stepping forward to fight for RELIGIOUS LIBERTY among our other Constitutionally protected rights, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion; paramount to the function of the Christian church. The election cannot be certified until December and January by law, and even that would presume an outcome of which more than half of your congregants are closely watching and are clearly praying for a different result. Your presumption is indicative of a tone-deaf author or an abuse of position, and on the heels of calling the church and the country racist is particularly rich.
    – The assumption that this liminal space leaves us waiting, vulnerable, silent, and that a new narrative is necessary. Does not your position of leadership require a strict commitment to the Word of God? Is not His narrative paramount to that of the State? Did Jesus not face his own challenges with the Chief Priests, Scribes, Pharisees and other Roman sycophants desperately seeking power and position? Why would you assume that the word of the state, media, or any other earthly entity wrought with corruption and sin is worthy of our attention? You write as if the Methodist congregation should accept the perversion of our society, the corruption of our leaders, and the shuttering of our churches, accept the new normal, and “turn the other cheek”. Should not the church LEAD based on the principles of Christ?

    All of this aside from the supposition that God is using this time to remake us into a new identity. God not did design human beings to be subservient to anyone other than Him, and our “spiritual hero’s” were each remade in His image only after an encounter with the Holy Spirit. I’m sure you would agree that our current experiences and the ensuing hyper-partisan response is not an encounter with the Holy Spirit and therefore I beg you to answer, why did you make such a comparison if you aren’t pushing the narrative of the state or even worse, the narrative of yourself?

    To your credit, yes, we should be using this liminal season to live out our faith and reach beyond the walls of the church. Might I suggest a few, impactful best-practices that would better accomplish this:

    1) Live faith freely: Encourage congregations to do what is best for them. The country you espouse as racist birthed the free market, which funds the inclusive church that has become the greatest source of charity and benevolence in world history. Encouraging the Church to stand upright and FREE in the face of tyranny and drive the mission of bringing people to Christ rather than alienating them would better accomplish your charge.

    2) Honor the fact that the Christian Church is the least racist and the most inclusive body of people in world history: The Bible specifically teaches the inclusion of all peoples, and the invitation of anyone into the body of Christ. This doesn’t mean embracing sin; it means to open your doors to everyone regardless of their past if they can embrace a new beginning and the sacrifice of Christ for them.

    3) Support the challenge of any state sponsored narrative that would threaten Biblical principles: This would mean that we filter the words of corruptible politicians with earthly motivations through the word of God and protect the freedom of worship granted to us by God and protected by the divine providence of the US Constitution – the very document that allows you to sit in a position of leadership. Challenge ANY inhibition of assembly and worship.

    4) Reduce the overhead burden of the conference to match the burden of those that it serves, thereby enabling the ultimate mission of bringing more people to Christ. Programs and mission should never suffer in the face of financial pressure from a conference that pays your salary. Look for cuts in overhead, make existing cuts permanent, and focus on the growth of the CHURCH, not the CONFERENCE.

    Galatians 5:1 teaches “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery”.

    The church seeks FREEDOM to WORSHIP. The church needs leadership, structure, direction, and efficiency. Small churches in America are struggling while bureaucratic “conferences” siphon what little is left to write biased political hyperbole, recite state sponsored media, fuss over the latest headline, and dither while church communities die a slow and painful death. That the church is dying yet the conference is alive leads this author to believe that the hierarchy is an outdated model and should be replaced.

    Ms. Haller: The church is not a building, a conference, or “apportionments” nor are the people racist, or in need of a “new narrative”. The church is people smart enough to recognize a time to cast off old ways and replace with a New Covenant, not of a nation or of a “conference” but that of one people, in the Body of Christ. I sincerely pray for you and yours, our country, its’ leaders, and our way of life.

    Zach Zentner

  4. Holy Smokes!!! This message just made my whole day. One of the things that I have been struggling with the most is how to make people see other people’s perspective. This is exactly the vernacular that we need to be using when telling people that we are all going through this, but instead of making it about each individual, we make it about the growth of communities working together for the greater good and making sure that no one gets lost in the process.
    Let’s challenge each other to grow in spite of the seemingly impossible weight that has been placed on our collective heads.
    …and they will know we are Christians by our LOVE.
    YOU ROCK, LAURIE!!!!

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