Ministry For Our Transformation: A Re-Frame That Mattered

February 5, 2018

I owe this re-frame to Ted Purcell. It was March 1988. Clergy friends, Ted, Mel, Alan, Anne and I were together for our weekly Sabbath day. Somewhere in our interaction, Ted dropped an idea into the conversation that found no traction. But it must have lodged somewhere in my subconscious because a few days later it re-surfaced during a walk in the woods.

Ted’s idea reminded me of the challenge that I had heard from family systems theorist, Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman said, “What if you treat your ministry as a research project?” That is, approach any aspect of it with the curious question, “What can I discover and learn here?” But Ted’s idea seemed deeper.

Ted said: “Maybe vocation is for our transformation.” The reversal caught my attention. We would expect the statement: our vocation is for the transformation of others, both social and personal. But pastoral ministry as a resource for our transformation — well, that’s another matter. His words, the order of them, intrigued me. From that moment I began to play with the idea that our work itself can be a spiritual practice. I invite you to do the same. If transformation, the stage beyond formation, is the journey we are on — as I suggest in the previous re-frames — then why not see ministry bringing challenges that work toward that end?

Notice the difference between this re-frame and the previous one. Both are about spiritual practices. In the last re-frame contemplative practices prepare us to be active in ministry from a transformed identity as being Love. In this re-frame I am exploring how our work itself can be a source of inner transformation.

I’m raising the question, what if baptism trumps ordination? At the rite of baptism, whether as infants or adults, our deepest identity is declared. It signals our launch into a process of “putting on the mind of Christ,” as the Apostle Paul names it. At baptism, you and I hear, as Jesus heard, that we are God’s delight, God’s beloved or as Merton said, our identity as being Love.

To place as primary our vows at baptism/confirmation is to establish this life-long path of transformation as the over-arching frame into which ordination vows (and marriage vows) are folded. Pastoral work, I’m suggesting, is nourishing soil for this ongoing conversion.

I like to imagine every service of ordination including this prayer: “God, grant that by serving the church I will lose myself, be humbled, broken open to being transformed by your Love into being Love.”

Let’s consider four typical situations in pastoral ministry: situations of criticism; situations of painful loss; situations of appreciation; and the situation of preaching.

Each of these situations contains triggers that invite egoic reactions. Each one is a hook with enticing meat on it that, when grasped, will take you off center into anxiety, fear, and defensiveness.

We can be glad, even grateful for triggers. They bring up what is unresolved in us. Invariably they pull back the curtain, exposing how deeply our self-serving ego is entrenched. Each trigger, if we notice and allow, will grant the option to take next steps in transformation. Each one opens the possibility to re-center your core identity as God’s beloved, being Love.

First, consider those times when criticism and confrontation come your way. Being public, an up-front leader, ensures for us a ready supply of criticism. We are Rorschach tests, easy targets for projection.

Defensive reactions to criticism are inevitable. Our earliest brain, the amygdala, activates at the slightest threat. It’s our friend that’s there for our survival, ever ready under threat to fire off automatic reactions — fight, flee or freeze.

So where is the transformation possibility? Cynthia Bourgeault, a wisdom teacher to many, offers a practice that’s counter-intuitive, simple but difficult. Welcoming Practice is what she calls “a powerful companion for turning daily life into a virtually limitless field for inner awakening.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pg. 135) According to Bourgeault, this practice is a three-step process. I’ve added a fourth step. This practice is particularly useful in dealing with criticism.

This practice assumes our capacity to observe ourselves, called the inner observer or inner witness. We seem to be unique among animals. We can watch ourselves reacting or responding. We can imagine our selves yesterday at 10:00 am or what we might be doing tomorrow at 10:00 am. This capacity to observe ourselves means that we have choices. We are responsible (response-able) for our responses to the circumstances that come our way. We can choose where to place our attention and with it our energy.

Let’s go through the practice in slow motion. First, you focus and sink in. You focus on the sensation in your body from the criticism being experienced. Your pay attention to what your response feels like inside you. Shortness of breath? Jaw clenched? Knots in your stomach? Fight or flight adrenaline? Whatever the feeling, don’t try to change it. Just be present to what you are sensing in your body. Don’t think or interpret, rather feel and locate these feelings within you.

Second, you welcome. This is the counter-intuitive, paradoxical part. You welcome the particular feeling: “Welcome, anger” or “Welcome, fear” or “Welcome, shame.” You are creating an inner state of hospitality. This is important — you are not welcoming the criticism, particularly negative criticism. Rather, you are welcoming the sensations associated with the confrontation or critique. You accept them fully until the reaction runs its chemical course through your body, usually for about sixty seconds.

Then you face a choice. By observing your inner reactions you come to a point of choice. One option is to attach to the feelings, build on them, and add them to former times of anger or fear or shame that are already alive in your emotional life. It has a “here we go again” sensation. This is an alluring choice — to feed these familiar miserable feelings.

Or . . . you can take a third step. You can let go. Easy to write but challenging to do. But once you have honored the feelings, feeling them in your body, then you can decide to release them. Only after you have welcomed fully the feelings is it time to let them go. You can gently say something like “I let go of my anger . . . or fear . . . or shame.” You do so firmly. Then it helps to intentionally focus on something or someone else. Where you focus is where your energy goes.

And I add a fourth act assumed by Bourgeault. Once you release these reactive emotions, you relax and let yourself fall into your core as God’s beloved, being Love. It’s the shift from feeling caught up in reactivity to remembering who you are, your given identity. You re-center: I am compassion, I am grateful, I am joy, I am love. That’s who I am. You are letting yourself down into the currents of grace that carry you. It’s a choice, a repeated choice, a shift, a practice and gesture of surrender.

Don’t believe that I followed this practice every time I faced criticism. Probably most of the time I didn’t. My ego was bruised every time and quick to defend. But when I could catch myself, pause, watch, and release, I placed myself in a better position to hear what’s true in the confrontation and let the rest roll off my back. That’s possible because our core is not in question. Being beloved and immersed in love are givens, always there to be recognized. This truth gives us a platform to stand on and listen from. A gift from living more and more from our given identity (transformation) is less and less defensiveness when criticized.

Each time you make this internal shift, you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

The second one — situations of painful loss — names a common pastoral experience. You are invited regularly into heartbreaking crises: “Pastor, Bill is leaving me”; “Pastor, we are just back from the doctor’s office. Anne has pancreatic cancer”; “Pastor, we don’t know what to do with Andy. He never listens to us”; “Pastor, Alice doesn’t have long. You better come.”

Almost daily we come alongside the penetrating grief from pain and loss. My ego, and likely yours, usually is the first voice to show up in self-talk: “How can I fix or solve or look competent?” In each crisis I am up against my limits to save and my pride in wanting to do so.

The invitation is to practice some version of Bourgeault’s counsel. From your inner observer note what’s happening within you. Catch yourself avoiding being fully present to the other in pain. Expect, even laugh, at ego’s need to be at the center of things. Again by shifting to your core you will know a freedom — from your own agendas; from absorbing, beyond feeling, the other’s pain; from a quickness to answer, explain, advise; and from your own anxiety in the relationship. With ego’s needs stepping aside we can better partner with them, joining the Love already present, looking together for ways of healing and hope.

And each time you make this internal shift, you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

Next, let’s consider the gratitude, sometimes becoming adulation, that comes your way. Because you help people connect with sacred meaning, appreciation for you is certain. And when expressed, these affirmations feel good, real good. Of course they do. Who doesn’t enjoy being validated with gratitude?

The peril in these interactions will not surprise you. Our egos relish the appreciations that easily can morph into adulation and specialness. They feed on it. They savor the adrenaline rush from affirmation. “More, more, not enough, not enough!” is its cry.

You and I have good company here. Jesus encountered in the wilderness the very temptations so familiar to us: “You can be magnificent, even spectacular! You can know power over others! You can make ‘bread” that nourishes! You are special.” Along with Jesus we are vulnerable to the grandiosity that comes with being a leader. The more we feel our ministry is about us and up to us — the ego’s message — the more our specialness is a vocational hazard.

Once again, the opportunities for spiritual practice are present. The practice has a familiar sequence: step back internally; observe the temptation at work; welcome, feel, notice your sensations; then let go gently, returning once again to being rooted and grounded in Love. From that space we are more likely to receive and enjoy the appreciation without yielding to its addictive lure.

Each time you make this internal shift you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

Then there is preaching, an art form unique to our vocation. It is easy to see preparation for sermons as a spiritual practice. You are working the text, not just for the congregants, but also for yourself. You are always asking of the text, “Where is the good news? What wants to come through me to the congregation?” And there is the question, particularly pertinent to this essay, “How is this text a source for my transformation? How is it reading me, changing me?”

I was asked at retirement whether I would miss preaching. My response was surprisingly immediate: “Yes. Certainly. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Unique is the privilege to keep working out within a community what is the meaning of faith, hope, and love in our lives. It’s the journey, not the destination, that keeps the excitement alive.

But the dangerous part for me, and I am assuming for you, is the sermon delivery and its aftermath. That’s where the triggers lay in wait. The danger never left me, the peril to stand before a congregation with truth about God and life to tell. It’s heady. It’s audacious. It’s impossible.

And, furthermore, most congregants assume the sermon is from you, not from beyond you. You hear it in their comments, either liking or taking issue with “your” sermon. And all the while our ego is jumping up and down with delight for this chance to be center stage again.

How can we possibly resist being hooked and taken away into hubris? How can we stay grounded in the deeper truth of who we are during these highly seductive moments? How can we tell ourselves, “Yes, certainly I am in this sermon. But more accurately it’s not about me. It’s about what’s larger than me, some good news coming through me.”

Yet once again, this dangerous act has the promise of transformation within it. The practice is the same: self-observation; welcoming the peril; welcoming ego’s delight, feeling its presence; then detaching, perhaps laughing at ego’s wiles, remembering who you are; then removing your “specialness,” along with your robe, at the end of the worship service. Preaching — the preparation, delivery, and aftermath — is full of potential for practicing this shift from being the message to being the messenger.

Each time you make this internal shift you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

I have been raising with you the question, what if, in addition to our work of service to the church, this very work itself becomes a fertile field in which, like a seed, our egos are broken open to the transforming forces around and within us? You have limited control over how fully your ministry goals will be achieved. But this you can realize: your vocation can be for your transformation.

With this re-frame in mind, a prayer for the day might look like this:

Grant that the difficulties of today strengthen my capacity to let go of attachments to outcomes, to being right, and to being affirmed.

Grant that preparations for preaching and teaching bring to me a Word that breaks me open to the grace I’m privileged to declare.

Grant that I will harbor in my self-awareness the sobering reminders: my ministry is not about me; my ministry is not up to me; my ministry is not about my worth.

Grant that I find in the joys and sorrows of today the gifts to be seen, named and lived.

Grant that the invisible presence of Christ, the very love that is God, becomes visible in my life today.

Grant today the courage to bear the symbols of God, even be a symbol of God, without playing God.


From Formation to Transformation: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 30, 2017

Religion has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self; two, religion has also served radical transformation . . . a transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer. — Ken Wilber

I submit this as the key possibility of our lives: the shift, again and again, from our primary identity as separate self (small self) to our essential identity as beloved of God. This key unlocks the capacity to participate in God’s love that connects all that lives, a relating and reconciling compassion most visible in Jesus. This transcending of the separate self, while including the separate self, is the personal transformation at the heart of the Gospel that has gripped you and me for life.

Ken Wilber is a current philosopher, wisdom teacher and mystic who I began reading in 1992. I value his distinction between two important functions of religion noted in the heading of this reflection. I’m translating his insight for our purposes. I’m assuming that most congregants look to their Christian experience for meaning and purpose. They find in church a resource for coping with the challenges, often overwhelming, that come at them week after week. I call this “formation.” They expect from worship, community, and learning events sustenance for forming a strong sense of self as self-understanding and for courage, moral guidance and motivation for living.

Some congregants, likely a minority, long for more. For them the ideal of a strong separate self breaks at some point along the way. This break may be sudden or a gradual yearning for more. For whatever reason the person is cracked open for the possibility of trans-formation, that is, the transcending of separate, egoic self however well formed it may be. It’s waking up from the dream of separateness and discovering ourselves to be vitally connected with all that lives. This felt communion with God, other humans and all creation, once realized, will no longer let us rest in the illusion of being separate persons. The egoic self dies as the center of our lives through repeated practices of surrendering, self-emptying, self-giving. It’s what Wilber calls “the death of the believer.” This radical transformation, so foundational to our vocation, is the topic of this re-frame.

Both my personal faith and professional vocation began with finding a meaningful purpose for living — the first of the religious functions named by Wilber. This life-altering pivot in my life happened during university years. I’m indebted to some older students for pointing me in a new direction. Simply, conversations with these seekers opened a curiosity about Jesus. His radical vision grasped me. His “follow me” felt simple, direct, demanding, mysterious, adventurous and total.

At the time I was well along the path of fulfilling a family script for my life. Being the only son, it was assumed by everyone, including me, that I would “go into the family business.” It looked that way—first, working in the warehouse, then later as a salesperson and finally the dutiful “major” in business administration. The further I traveled down this expected path the less it seemed like me. It was not a path with heart. It was not a path with my heart.

I was ready. I was restless, yearning for a new way forward. The word was “purpose.” Just maybe, I thought, I had found a purpose that’s much larger, more challenging and exciting than the one scripted for me. Within months a fire was laid, then lit, that ignited a desire for learning that astounded anyone who knew me. Staying up late to study, until 11:00 and 12:00, even 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning was unprecedented. This fired-up interest soon took me to the seminary with no clarity at that point about vocation. It was enough at that time for the seminary to provide a container, community and Table where food was served to satisfy my hunger. In time, as described in the introduction, the pull to become a pastor took hold and I spent the next seven years becoming formed in our vocation.

When I was graduated I felt well formed in pastoral knowledge and skills. To a comfortable degree I had digested understanding of scripture, church history, pastoral care and congregational leadership. I enjoyed some practice-runs as pastor in a few small congregations. As I moved to more demanding challenges my work as pastoral leader continued to be purposeful, full of meaning. Each morning I would leave my bed excited about the day. In Richard Rohr’s words (with depth psychologist Carl Jung whispering in his ears), I was completing the work of the “first half of life.” I felt established in the role. I felt confident. I had formed a strong sense of self to offer to the world. That worked well until it didn’t work well.

This formation was not enough. I was not enough. My developed self was not enough. Likely a deeper, older, more primal sense of not being enough erupted through the surface of my everyday living. Regardless of its origin my work began to exhaust the love that gave birth to it. The struggle of institutional leadership nibbled at the meaning I had previously found so purposeful. “Burn-out” and “compassion fatigue” are clever labels that gloss over the desperation and humiliation beneath them. With growing dismay, plus the needs of our young family, I resigned. I left the role, finding another ministry for ten years, only to return fifteen years later to serve a congregation until my retirement. The return felt like a second marriage, a second attempt, a new chance to be what I most loved—a pastor.

During that in-between decade a re-frame began to emerge. I saw the contours of a movement from formation to transformation. I began exploring the second function of religion that Ken Wilber describes — “radical transformation . . . the transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but the death of the believer.”

It became clearer to me that personal transformation was at the core message of the New Testament. The awareness was gradual like a photo print revealing itself in a darkroom. From Jesus: lose your life to find it; take up your cross and follow (Luke 17:33, Matthew 16:25); a grain of wheat falling into the ground, dying, husks broken open, yielding a rich harvest (John 12:24); not my will but Thine be done (Mark 14:36); love as I have loved you (John 13:34). And from Paul the same themes of transformation—in baptism a dying to rise in newness of life (Romans 5:3-4); not I, but Christ the one living in me (Galatians 2:20); being transformed by degrees into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18); taking on the mind or consciousness of Christ as kenosis, a self-emptying, non-clinging, self-giving love no matter what (Philippians 2:4-11).

Perhaps a clever parable can scrape away the glaze from these overly familiar passages and reveal just how breathtaking this change really is. This parable devised by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950’s has been then revised by Jacob Needleman, next by Cynthia Bourgeault in Wisdom Way of Knowing, and now slightly by me.

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They were busy developing their human potential, taking advantage of books and conferences that enhanced self-actualization. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were wounded-ness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the sky” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward toward the tree, he said, “We . . . are . . . that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground . . . and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns any more.”

This we know about acorns. They are seeds. Their nature and destiny are to become oak trees. Acorns, to be true to what they are, must fall into the ground and die as acorns, allowing their shells to be cracked open, thus taking into themselves the nourishment of soil, water and sun. In time they become oak trees.

Let’s place this parable alongside of Jesus’ words and note the parallel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12: 24)

Could this be true? Are we made for a transformation as amazing as the acorn becoming an oak tree or a grain becoming wheat or losing one self for a fuller, more authentic one? Is that magnificent possibility coiled within us? Is there an identity in us that is beyond a strong, polished personality (acorn)? The gospel narrative says “yes,” a resounding “yes!”

Martin Laird offers two metaphors of transcending this separate self while including our egoic self. A sponge in the ocean, like the egoic self, is immersed in the transcendent water that flows through it. Or, our core identity is like a mountain that we picture as being centered, firm while witnessing the unruly weather of thoughts, feelings, reactions that come and go. “We are the mountain, not the weather,” Laird imagines.

This core, transformed identity goes by a variety of names that include Beloved, Spirit, Kingdom or Realm of God within, child of God, Christ-ness, Christlikeness, Christ living in us, True Self, or image of God.

In Thomas Merton’s conciseness:

“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”

This means falling into divine Love. Falling in love, we know from experience, changes our consciousness. It changes everything. This love is joyful but also unsettling. You never know where it will take you. The cost is your ego as your center. Transformation is waking up to and falling into this reality, a gift already given but seldom recognized. This awareness is a secure starting point, a different foundation from which we can interrogate and change the lies we tell ourselves about earning our worth. From this deeper center we find both the freedom to let go of binding attachments and the freedom to risk extravagant self-giving.

This transformation occurs always in relationship. Love is a relational word. A focus on the individual alone simply mirrors our cultural flaw of individualism—the illusion that you and I are separate individuals. Reality is relational. We are part of an interconnected web, an “entangled universe,” as quantum physicists name it. We live and move within mutual relationships with God, with nature and one another. Only within caring relationships can we differentiate as unique individual persons who in turn can offer their unique ways of giving. Relationships provide the context for transformation. To be is to be with.

This shift to our primary identity changes the way we carry ourselves in the world. A few examples:

You have a ministry but you are not primarily your ministry. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have a personality but you are not primarily your personality. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have weaknesses and failures but you are not primarily your weaknesses and failures. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have racism (and other “isms”) as a wound to be healed, but you are not primarily a racist. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have successful achievements but you are not primarily your accomplishments. At the core you are beloved, Love.

Let’s take my racism as an illustration. If my identity is primarily Mahan (my ego, personality, gifts/abilities, etc.) and you call me a racist, I’m defensive, unable to hear the full truth. But if I am grounded in my God-given identity as Beloved then I am freer to acknowledge the truth of my racism. From that inner grace-full place I am more able to admit my white privilege and work to minimize its destructive force in relationships.

The same goes with other obstacles. To be rooted and grounded in Love (our True Self) is to be freer to work on changes in our personal selves. This core identity gives us leverage, a place to stand while participating fully in God’s transforming energy, both within us and within the world.

This movement—from formation to transformation—is the overarching re-frame that has mattered. The next re-frame addresses the critical place of practice in our inner, personal transformation. Then a third re-frame unveils our work, pastoral leadership, as the prime context for our own transformation. These three re-frames provide the foundation for all the other re-frames.

 


Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

February 1, 2017

Let’s allow the word “practice” to entice us with its double meaning: a profession, as in the practice of medicine or psychotherapy; and practicing for learning, as in piano practice or spiritual practice. In both ways, I submit, pastors engage death as their practice.

We begin with the first meaning — pastor in a professional practice that specializes. If, let’s say, Alicia practices law and Alice, a therapist, practices psychotherapy, then Helen, a pastor, specializes in death and dying. Death and dying are her specialty, her practice.

With that point named I can hear the quick rebuttal, “Why, don’t you know, Mahan, that pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions?” I have made the same observation. It’s true that we are more general practitioners than specialists with broad competence expected in multiple roles: preaching, teaching, designing and directing rituals, leading and managing, caring and counseling, writing and speaking, and offering leadership in the wider church and community.

Nonetheless I want to make a case for engaging death as our specialty. The presence of death is always close by. If the shaman Don Juan challenges Carlos Castaneda to heed death’s wisdom as a companion just over the left shoulder, then for pastors the presence of death is more in front of our nose, not to be missed. Most people can keep at bay the reality of death, denying its inevitability most of the time, out of sight, out of mind. Not so with pastors.

For us death is present. While we scamper from appointment to appointment there is on the edge of our consciousness a member experiencing a profound loss — the loss of a loved one, job, health, marriage, home, hope, status, memory, or even a worldview crumbling from the weight of irrelevance. There’s so much diminishment in the air we breathe. Death stalks the halls of hospitals we regularly visit. In nursing homes you see its presence in the gaunt, vacant eyes you pass by, faces registering gratitude for the briefest recognition. In the homes of grieving members there’s unspeakable grief in memories noted and photographs exchanged, reminding everyone of what was but is no more. In every service of worship, whether funerals, weddings, or weekly gatherings, some are always there with moistened eyes, feeling the pain of a particular loss welling up from deep within. The security and privacy of a church sanctuary provides the sacred space for felt grief to surface. My point: for the pastor death is close, ever near.

I name as well the special role of pastoral presence throughout the dying and death journey of a parishioner: present during the dying whether extended or short term; present during the days around the death, including the preparation and leadership of corporate rituals; and present during the after-care of continued grieving. Other professionals — physicians, nurses, chaplains, funeral directors, financial planners, therapists — have their unique roles but the pastor is, or can be, the over-seer of this lengthy process. Pastors, given the constituency of the congregation they serve, will have many or few deaths of members in a given year. In my first congregation, a church of young families, I led about two or three funerals a year. In my last congregation, there were as many as fifteen funerals each year.

But regardless of the number of funerals, the death and dying that pastors confront far exceeds the circumstances surrounding physical deaths. Grieving is so much larger. If you were to stop reading for a moment, you could quickly recall recent conversations with parishioners about some loss they are experiencing. Most pastoral care is grief work in some manner. Death and dying, in its multiple forms, is our specialty. It’s our forte.

I will amplify one example of this larger dying, usually not understood as grief ministry. I began as pastor in the post-World War II era when progress, growth, and advancement seemed everyone’s potential. Economic growth and rising national prominence in the world were assumed. Larger Protestant denominations shared in this expectation of progress with numerical growth being the gauge of a successful ministry. With marketing savvy the church became another attractive commodity of choice. During my forty-two years as an ordained leader of the church I have experienced the gradual breakdown of this prominence, privilege, and exceptionalism. I have watched our churches move from main-line to side-line. And along with the loss of external status has come for many the internal loss of meaningful beliefs and church programs that no longer nurture them. These losses are also deaths that demand pastoral attention. As I presented in another reflection on a re-frame that mattered, in our time most pastors are hospice chaplains caring for the dying in its many forms and mid-wives assisting in the birthing of the new.

I rest my case. Death and dying define a specialty practice. And this practice must be done with effectiveness. Like no other pastoral function, the skilled care offered around losses will either deepen or distance the relationship between pastor and people. Faithfulness in this specialty is not forgotten; unfaithfulness is not forgiven. No one told me this during my formation years, or if it was said, I wasn’t listening. I learned it on the job, an awareness that became a re-frame that mattered.

. . .

The second re-frame is more personal. As I turned into my fifties, entering my last decade or so of being pastor, another shift occurred. As a pastor being so often near death experiences they began to be for me my near-death experiences. As I allowed it, I could hear each one whisper, “You too will die! So will your loved ones and friends. So will your vocation. So will your energy, health and mobility. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m reminded of what I have been told about monks whispering to each other, memento more (remember death).

This may sound bleak, if not morbid; for sure it’s sobering. Note my disclaimer, “if I allowed it.” Most of the time I didn’t allow this awareness to linger, but when I did — and when you do — it can be paradoxically life-giving. You know this truth: to survive a near-death experience enhances the preciousness of life. You have watched this miracle in others. In every religious tradition it’s a practice: contemplating intentionally your death that in turn ignites the joy in the gift of being alive, breathing in, breathing out. Could it be that this is one of the fringe benefits of our work — the consistent near-death reminders of our dying?

The weighty theological word “eschatology” (acknowledging the “end times”) can help us. Let’s pull it off the shelf, dust if off and seize its life-giving benefits. What if we lived with the end in sight? For instance, imagine yourself at the end of your pastoral leadership with your current congregation — let’s say, three or five or ten years in the future. With that ending or death before you, ask what does this congregation most need from me (or not need) and what do I want to give (or not give) during this time?

When I turned sixty I imagined myself serving my congregation a few more years until retirement. I asked these questions: what was most needed from me, and what gifts would I enjoy giving before resigning. It turned out that these were my most enjoyable years, no doubt in part because my eschatology brought clarity.

Now at my current age of eighty-two my sense of eschatology still asks the same questions: what is most needed that matches the gifts I have to offer. What’s clearer?

. . .

My last illustration is the challenge of living with our end in sight, namely, our ending, our dying. What’s the picture? Likely you see yourself, as I do, in a bed at home or in a hospital. Though research tells us that most of us will not be conscious let’s assume we are conscious, very present, feeling only moderate pain. I’m guessing that you and I have a similar fantasy: loved ones around the bed amid blessing, tears, and laughter. At this moment, this truth crystallizes: love is what really matters — profoundly painful in its absence, deeply joyful in its presence.

No wonder, in light of our many near-death experiences, you and I offer at every funeral some form of “love is what really matters.” We express in some way how our taste of love is a part of a larger divine Love that never ends and from which nothing in life and death, now or later, can separate us. Maybe it’s easier for us, having journeyed with others so often through “the valley of death,” to hear and even heed on occasion the summons to live from that part of us — Love — that never dies.

So I say, why not maximize the vocational advantage given to us — regularly engaging, as practice, the mystery of death and dying, including our own. I do not minimize the truth that as pastors we are generalists fulfilling a broad range of expectations. But I’m proposing a correction. We are generalists with a specialty. Death is our practice: as a unique role of care to the dying and death of congregants, and as a spiritual practice of personal transformation. These are twin re-frames that mattered.

 


Agent of Change: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 18, 2016

Change is at the core of our vocation. We hear it in the weighty words like repentance, conversion, redemption, transformation, and reconciliation. But how change occurs is complex, more mystery than not. During my walking around in this mystery I came across a pair of glasses that helped me see from a particular angle.

I came out of seminary excited, feeling ready to be an agent of change. The Search Committee that offered my first pastoral opportunity shared a similar expectation. They proposed: “Here is where we are as a congregation. Here is where we want to be.” The subliminal message I heard: “Your leadership can change us.” So I set about to be an agent of their change?

But along the way — about five years actually — I began to question my capacity to change “the other.” It didn’t work. A particular change might be willed for a period, but when the pressure was released the behavior went back to previous patterns. It didn’t work with my wife, not with my children, not with friends, not with the congregation, and not with myself. Any willful effort to change always invited the counter force of resistance. Clearly, something was missing in my view of change.

What was missing — and it became a re-frame that mattered — is understanding change from a systems’ perspective. It speaks counter-intuitively: focus on yourself, not your congregation, and that, to some degree, will change the congregation. You work on yourself — your clarity of vision, your learning, your integrity, your transformation, your responses, your relationships, your questions, your calling, your presence. It all sounds totally self-serving and selfish until you see the paradox: by working on changing yourself you change the system. By focusing on our functioning in relationships we change the relationships. This perspective — centering in on changing self not congregation — felt like a 180-degree turn.

Let’s review the systems view of change. Imagine a system as a mobile with various hanging, dangling parts. We know from experience that if the height of one part is changed, then the total mobile is changed. All the parts of the mobile are thrown out of balance until the force of togetherness (homeostasis) brings the parts into balance again … but in slightly new positions.

Remember a sermon in which you took a stand that challenged the congregation. It was a new position you were taking, like changing your part of the mobile. The sermon was unsettling. The congregation, like a mobile, was thrown out of balance, however slightly. But you also noticed, either immediately or over time, there was a power in the congregational system at work pulling toward a new stability. The mobile-like congregation eventually settled down into a new balance, somewhat changed.

Or, imagine a number of separate parts connected to each other by rubber bands. Let’s say that you take one part and pull it upward to a new position. Note what happens. All the rubber bands, not just one, are stretched. Then, three possibilities emerge. One, all the rubber bands connecting the other parts could pull the deviant part back to the comfort level of what had been. Or, the deviant part will stretch so far that the band will break, causing a “cut off,” a disconnection. Or, the pull of the adventurous part could invite all of the parts to change in that direction to some degree.

Think again of that same visionary sermon you preached. Notice the options: Did your vision get no traction, no movement of change from the system, with congregants saying in effect, “We are not ready for that”? If so, you go back and wait for another opportunity. Or, was the vision so “far out” it was rejected, “cut off” like the break of a rubber band? Or, was there enough curiosity and excitement from congregants for there to be significant movement toward the vision articulated in the sermon?

Each metaphor illustrates the central point: changing yourself, your position in any relational system changes in some way the relational system as a whole, whether it’s two people or an entire congregation.

While we cannot change the other, we can offer with clarity the changes occurring in us in a way that invites the possibility of significant change happening in them. We challenge by defining our self in relationships. Note this difference. To try to change another is to say, “This is what I think you should believe or do or be.” It’s a “you” message. To focus on our self is to send an “I” message. My message, “Here is where I am with … (issue, situation, belief, conflict). This is what I see or feel,” contains an inherent invitation, “Where are you with this? What do you see or feel?” By focusing on defining yourself and offering that self-awareness, you challenge the other person or persons to do the same, namely, to take responsibility for defining themselves. And these mutual self-expressions create change, hopefully change toward growth and maturity.

This is the essential interaction: This is what I see; what do you see? It’s present in preaching — this is what I see in this text; what do you see? Or in a committee meeting, “This is where I see the connection with our mission; how about you?” These interactions strengthen mutual capacity to take responsibility for our thinking, feeling, and doing.

But this is an important clarity. This focus on self is not to be confused with autonomy or independence or self-differentiation alone. In systems’ thinking, according to Murray Bowen and his interpreter Ed Friedman, a self is a connected self, a self in relationship. The self is always in relationship, like the parts of a mobile and the rubber bands illustrated in my two metaphors. There is so such thing as a separate self. I once heard Friedman muse, “Maybe life is all about how to be a self in relationship.” That’s the heart of it. That’s the challenge of it. It’s the essence of leadership.

I found in this re-frame both a gift and cost. The gift is the energy saved in efforts to change the other. Simply put, willful leadership is exhausting. There is relief in realizing that we cannot motivate people to change, as if we know what others need to become. It’s freeing, not wearying, to stay focused on questioning, challenging, offering, and inviting.

While the gift of this re-frame is huge, I experienced cost from it as well. I did so in three ways. First, because you and others will inevitably “see” differently, conflict can be expected. And if the differences become heated then your work is how to stay connected without agreement. It is costly, hard work to stay in relationship when differences are being mutually voiced and felt. This takes time, emotion, patience, vulnerability, and detachment from outcome.

A second cost. Don’t underestimate the time, maturity and effort it takes to find the space within yourself to clarify your responses. This work of self-definition is demanding. To react from our oldest “reptilian” part of the brain is quick and easy; to respond with thought-through, non-anxious words and presence reflects years of inner work.

A third cost. Challenging others with what you see, along with the invitation for them to do the same while staying in relationship — well, that’s a tall order. It’s an unrealistic ideal to expect such maturity from everybody, including yourself. Leading from self-differentiation will elicit multiple responses: some will be unable to respond with “I” statements; some will experience your self-definition as coercive; some will misinterpret your intent and content; and some will blame you for challenging the status quo. The stretch of the “rubber band” may be too much, too fast, too threatening. No one told me that this expression of intentional leadership could reap so much misunderstanding and loneliness. While systems’ thinking altered my understanding of change, I had to look elsewhere to find the inner strength required to adopt it.

Being a part of change within our multiple relationships is at the heart and in the heart of our call. We are about transformation. In this reflection, like a pair a glasses, I’ve offered one aspect of change I came to see more clearly. For me it was a shift: from focusing on changing others to focusing on changing myself, and from that place stimulate and engage others in their choices. It became a re-frame that mattered.


The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 13, 2016

Life’s theme—walk, stumble, fall, up again, dust off, move on. In big and small ways that’s a drama we know.

This particular re-frame rises from a fall, felt as a huge failure. It may be an example of what current elder Richard Rohr calls “falling upward.” In my case, while the fall was abrupt, the upward part was gradual and uneven, its trajectory only clear from this perch of time and distance.

I live by the verse, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Possibility thinking. Long-range planning. Defining expectations. Goal orientation. I register as a strong intuitive on the Myers-Briggs Indicator, one who relishes “big picture” thinking. But surprisingly, along my vocational path I tripped over the visionary’s counter truth: “By attaching to a vision, people—including myself—can likewise perish.” That danger hints at the nature of this re-frame.

I came from seminary fresh with a vision of what church could be. During those seven years I built a solid platform from which to launch my vocation. After graduation a Washington D.C. suburban congregation became a willing partner in this good work. Beginning in 1967 my partner and I entered a season of suburban flight, rising black power awareness, the push for fair housing, assassinations of leaders, the Civil Rights Movement embodied for us in the Poor People’s Campaign, and, most of all, the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands, fathers, and sons away for a year or more at a time. Some came home in “body bags.” It was a turbulent season for families and nation. The exhilaration of this vortex was addictive. I found seductive these reverberations moving through our little congregation, so eager, as I was, to be a “light set on a hill.”

The congregation was collaborator in my visionary dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man joining a young, seven-year-old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We became a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, as I came to see, primed for the lure of lofty self-ideals.

At about the five-year mark I hit a wall. I had never encountered a barrier that I couldn’t scale or circumvent, due, in large part, to privileges from being “born on third base.” But this wall was different. Trying harder only deepened the ruts of physical and spiritual exhaustion. My usual ways of coping, such as taking a few days off, didn’t dent the hardening mixture of depression and bewilderment. Something had to give.

The “give” was resigning my position with no vocational place to go. Our family of six retreated to the mountains, moved into in a friend’s empty trailer, and pieced together a “living” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce from a vocation and congregation I loved. And, like a divorce, most friends and family didn’t know what to say. And, truthfully, I didn’t know what to say either.

An epiphany came early in this year of withdrawal. It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, with a gentle breeze near as breath. Only a month had passed since my resignation; I was still seeking sense of what had happened. Sitting on a bench, absorbing the beauty, I began re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. My eyes fell on these searing words:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself . . . He acts as the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

I asked myself, “Is that what happened?” and quickly answered, “Yes!” There it was, painfully clear. I traced in my mind the downward spiral Bonhoeffer named. First, fashioning a “visionary ideal of community”; then, when it wasn’t realized, blaming the church, then God, and finally the self. I don’t recall ever blaming God, but I sure did a “number” on myself, accusing myself of inadequate self-care, over-functioning, and not being enough—in other words, for failing at my first full-time gig as pastor.

My ending at this church was not that simple. My resignation was many-layered, as all of them are. But that autumn day on the bench something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. My lofty expectations, for self and others, lay exposed like shards from a broken pot. How clear it was, my deeply ingrained need to produce results. I remember thinking, “Have I loved our dreams, our goals, our possibilities, more than I loved the people? Was I so focused on ‘getting somewhere’ that I missed the marvel of being who and where we already were?”

Simply, the re-frame is this. Focus less on outcomes; re-focus on the here-and-now complexity, truth, and beauty of relationships. I faced a new awareness: dependence on results had become a primary source of personal satisfaction, robbing me of the joy in simply doing the work.

It was a turning. A clarity surfaced from those months. Being well formed—having dreams, developing leadership habits, honing pastoral skills, developing self-awareness, and working out my pastoral identity—is what Rohr calls “first half of life” work. But this good work proved insufficient as an adequate base on which to build a vocation. It was not enough. I was not enough. We were not enough.

There is more, namely, trans-formation, transcending while including ego. Forming a strong ego is imperative, but only as a conduit for the transforming power of Love. So, having visions is crucial. Dreams give direction. But attaching ego to them is fatal. To do so not only jerks us out of the present but tempts us to wed our well-being to their realization.

This failure in 1972 offered a gift. From this fall I saw clearly on a deeper level what I had been preaching all along, namely, that ministry, as is all of life, is grace, not achievement. What I most wanted was already given. Visionary dreaming could then take its rightful place as playful longings of “what ifs.” From that “gap” year I began a gradual, wavering shift of awareness from living my life in ministry to a sense of being lived through by a larger Life. Paradoxically, ministry continued to be mine, yet not mine.

I can still see myself sitting alone on that bench, the distant mountains in view, feeling the sun’s warmth and the soft breeze, reading the words from Bonhoeffer. I closed the book gently, knowing that I had just taken a turn in my journey.

 


Liminal Space: A Re-Frame That Mattered

February 16, 2016

I first heard of the concept from anthropologist Victor Turner. From his study of primitive rites of passage, Turner describes the trans-formative space in between being a boy and becoming a man as “liminal space.” It’s odd to me, and perhaps to you, that this learning from another time and distant culture could be a frame for understanding pastoral work.

Limen is Latin for “threshold.” Turner observed young males being taken from their mothers by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into the “wilderness,” an open, uncertain space where their capacity for manhood was tested in multiple ways. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.

What about the girls? What rituals mark their transition from young to adult women? I don’t know the answer to this good question, a question perhaps more difficult to explore in a patriarchal society. It’s the concept of liminal space that I find so transferable to the work we do.

Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable . . . to a time for questioning and challenge within a contained space that’s unfamiliar, unpredictable and yet protected . . . then re-crossing the original threshold as a new person, a different person. In short: from separation to liminal space to re-assimilation. It’s that trans-formative, numinous space beyond the threshold that fascinates and engages me.

This is the connection. Our work, in large measure, is creating liminal spaces or naming the liminal spaces into which life crises thrust us. That’s what we do. We invite others to enter or see these trans-formative places and stay awhile, long enough to engage some aspect of the essential religious questions—Who am I? Why am I here? How will I live? And with whom? Then, after a period of time, they return to their familiar, more ordinary lives. But they return, in some measure, different persons.

It’s a frame, a re-frame, a way of seeing what we do. I invite you to pick up this concept, as if it were a pair of glasses, and notice what you see.

Let’s look at corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you are creating liminal space. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold, a limen. Ideally they are leaving behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of space, liminal space, designed for reflection on their lives in relationship with God and others. For an hour or so the phone doesn’t ring, the computer screen is blank, and no appeals beg for attention. Congregants settle down into a sanctuary, a protected, safe container, with clear boundaries amid a plethora of pointers to the Transcendent.

In this liminal space, you and other leaders, as liturgical guides, provide an array of symbols—written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied—that kindle the experience of the mind and heart with the Sacred. In this safe environment each person is invited to ponder the meaning of their lives, who they are and what they are about.

Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, back to their ordinary lives, as changed persons. No one leaves as the same person who entered. To be in a safe, contained space with others who are also engaging essential questions is trans-formative. It has to be. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives as different persons.

If I were again a pastor, I would mark these thresholds more clearly and sensitively. It’s so difficult, given the pace and busyness of our lives, to leave behind the agendas pressing on our minds. Without a conscious crossing and returning, the space between will be neither liminal nor trans-formative.

Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming, or framing, the liminal space the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe, liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, but not the same person. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. Transformation happens.

Leading weddings is creating liminal space. It’s so obvious. The individuals, engaged to be married, literally enter the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar before the priest/pastor. Within this safe, holy space they ritualize their union, to be broken only by death, whether relational or physical. Then they exit down the aisle, through the threshold, back into the community no longer as just separate persons but as a new unit, a couple, a family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.

In pastoral care, the dual aspects of both creating liminal space and naming a crisis as liminal are ways to see this work. It’s what pastoral care is.

On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold—whether a door to your office or door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the unknown occurs. Without the fear of judgment, life is shared, questions are raised, healing is invited, decisions are made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives, somewhat different, somewhat changed.

On the other hand, in crises people may be in liminal space and not know it. The crisis takes them out of the ordinary to a place where the primary questions of identity and meaning are being raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them frame their disruptive experience as liminal, full of trial, testing and change.

Consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving is liminal space. It is a heart-breaking, soul-making place. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace and new life. It’s the in-between place where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface and letting go is demanded.

Pastoral care has these two dimensions: we regularly invite people into liminal space; at other times, we invite others to see that they are already in liminal space, providing a caring and curious presence within clear boundaries.

Even in our role of managers and leaders of the congregation we offer liminal space. That’s what the opening prayer or opening statement of a committee or business meeting is about. You are saying, “This meeting occurs in a sacred space. We gather as disciples seeking to embody the spirit of Christ as best we can discern.” You are inviting them to leave behind their ordinary “business as usual” assumptions, to cross that threshold into business as worship and embrace presence, God’s and each others’. Then, at some point, the meeting will end, some summary stated and benediction offered before members re-cross the threshold, returning to their various worlds. But changes have occurred in perceptible or imperceptible ways.

This privilege of ritual leadership, more than any other reason, accounts for my return to a congregation as pastor. But let’s admit that rituals can be deadly and deadening. They may not be strong enough to break us open to the new. The container with pointers to the Sacred can fail to hold our attention. Simply, our preoccupations may be so charged that leaving them behind is impossible. But sometimes, even often, the soul is stirred. Unexpected breakthroughs, fresh clarities and new decisions occur. Rituals are that powerful. When they are led with sensitivity, the church is at its best, and it’s at its best for this reason—rituals invite transformation.

It was Victor Turner, through conversation with a friend, Dick Hester, who helped me see the connection between the early human rites of passage and our current multiple rites of passage within congregational life. The common thread—liminal space as trans-formative—became a re-frame that mattered.