Dr. Linda Topp: Another Liminal Space at UUCA

LindaTopp-2013-web

“Liminal space” was the topic when Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper shared the pulpit with Rev. Mark Ward a couple of weeks ago. This term refers to the period when something is ending but the new thing is not quite starting. It’s like a threshold. When the entire UUCA staff met to discuss the topic, we were appalled and amazed that we were able to name many (too many!) liminal spaces in the culture that affect our congregation as well as those within the congregation itself.

One liminal space we find ourselves in is the one between losing many hours of staff time due to budget constraints and resettling into new, different work patterns. Similar to most endings, we are clearly losing something. We’re losing relationships (farewell and godspeed to Jules and Christine), we’re losing administrative staff time, we’re losing expertise, we’re losing support in our religious education program, we’re losing continuity, we’re losing “normal.” We’re gaining new people who will become our “regular” music director, connections coordinator and bookkeeper, but we don’t know who that will be or how it will feel. Except it feels scary and tentative right now.

In a liminal space there is also the possibility of opportunity. While at the threshold, we can see that promise, that possibility, yet we can’t quite resolve the picture. We need to wait…..

While we’re waiting, we can be learning.  In this case, I’m going to re-read a portion of Susan Beaumont’s book, Inside the Large Congregation, and I’m going to think about policy governance (because that’s what I do!).  Here, too, we remain in a liminal space—still working with policy governance and trying to re-adjust the work of the congregation as we live into our promise as a large congregation—not quite through the threshold where everyone is comfortable in our new configuration.

Here’s what Susan Beaumont notes when a congregation moves to the more staff-centered configuration that healthy large congregations should be using: “When faced with the transition from being a congregation that is managed by the laity to being one that is managed by the staff team, a variety of missteps can take place.  Some congregations move into a mode of operation that treats the staff team like hired help, employed to do the ministry of the church on the congregation’s behalf.  This mindset results in a disengaged laity who see their roles as executive directors and financiers of the work.”  To be honest, from where I sit, this feels very much like where we have accidentally drifted.

Susan continues, “Healthy large congregations realize that the ministry of the church still belongs to the members, who must actively participate in the ministry.  The staff team manages ministry efforts but does not do the ministry on behalf of the laity.”

So here is at least one picture of a future beyond the threshold of major staff losses.  Maybe we can get better at balancing the work of the staff, which is to do the background work, the consulting and the structural work that equips the laity (that’s you), to do the real work of the congregation—fulfilling our mission.  The congregation determines where it wants to go, the staff keeps an eye on that prize and supports congregants in their ministries, and the congregation makes it so. 

Of course, there are other futures, too—other possibilities of how these staff changes will play out.  But for now, we wait….