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?