Recently I have heard the word “liminal” used many times to describe this season we are experiencing in the life of our churches. The word liminal comes from the Latin word limens, which means “limit or threshold.” Author and theologian Richard Rohr defines liminal time in this way:
“It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
Rohr goes on to say that ancient cultures referred to liminal space as “crazy time,” because it is like nothing we have ever experienced before. Think of it as that space, that time, when a flying acrobat has let go of one swinging trapeze and is in mid-air, anxiously seeking the grasp of another who is swinging their way.
Liminal times can come into our lives as planned or unplanned. These are times when life is forever different – when life is divided between before and after the event. They include, but are certainly not limited to, the following: the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job, retirement, moving, a health diagnosis/crisis, the beginning or end of a significant relationship, graduations, and military service.
Lee Ann Pomrenke, an ELCA pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, has described this period of time as much like the season that congregations experience in those times when a pastor leaves and a new pastor has not yet been called. The marks of being in a liminal (literally: “on the boundary between”) period are unsettling for a congregation but also potentially freeing.
During this season we know we will emerge changed from how we entered this era, but we cannot see what that will look like yet. Pomrenke encourages us to trust those who have led through interim periods that while it is stressful, there are also blessings.
Begin by asking these questions:
- Why has the congregation done it that way before? Is this working for people? What might work better?
- What new ministries have developed recently that meet the needs of our people? Which ones will we continue? How can we provide the resources to make that happen?
Pomrenke suggests there are three important values we should embrace during our liminal time, and I added some thoughts about how you might use this liminal season to expand and modify the Stewardship ministry of your congregation.
We are all unsettled, disoriented, and fearful of the unknown right now. Naming this honestly builds trust in our leadership, in our relationships. This is also an unprecedented time to be honest that change is coming. Consider the following:
- Be transparent and share how the church is maintaining its ministry.
- Be aware of people’s shifting values on how to spend time and money.
- Give the session and other congregational leaders plenty of space and permission to lead.
- Listen to the fears and concerns of the congregation and acknowledge them.
- Learn how to support one another in new and different ways.
A break in the flow of activities is ideal for trying new things, old things with a twist, adding, or subtracting from our regular patterns to see what really matters. Sometimes that means letting go of some things to make space for something new. Consider this:
- Revisit and modify the budget you approved for this year.
- If your congregation has been affected by unemployment and reduced finances during this season, recalculate the potential giving.
- If priorities for ministries have changed, revise the line items for ministry resources. This does not mean you are “cutting” the budget. It is a refocus.
- Think of new ways to lead your fall Stewardship program that builds on the energy and creativity you have seen during this liminal time.
- Create ways for your congregation to envision the future of the church by establishing or promoting a legacy fund.
Obviously, we have “never done things this way before,” but now we are extraordinarily free to experiment and pivot when something does not work.
- Find new ways to receive and celebrate gifts during worship.
- Implement online giving if you have not already done so.
- Be open to short-term planning to try something new.
- Evaluate plans for designated resources to free up those resources for something new.
- Learn how to “let go” of ministries to enable new ministries to flourish.
Now is a wonderful time for us to envision the future of our church and our congregations. We need to embrace the abundance we have been given and learn how to use that for renewed ministry. Life is different and that’s okay! God is at work in us helping us to see beyond this liminal season.
Deborah Rexrode, PhD
POJ Associate for Stewardship