Book Review: How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont

An effective leader will teach people about the importance and value of a liminal season, why they are feeling the way they are feeling, and what they can do with their anxiety.

Susan Beaumont, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, page 13

Churches of many denominations are looking for immediate technical solutions for uncertain adaptive challenges. This is entirely natural: people look to their leaders for answers and solutions that help ground them and lessen their anxiety. This anxiety is felt within individual members and is also indicative of greater organizational angst that surrounds uncertainty.

In her book How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Susan Beaumont focuses on the needs of church leaders to find non-anxious presence, have a clear sense of identity and purpose, and a healthy connection to God through spiritual discipline. If Quietly Courageous by Gil Rendle is the 30,000-foot guidebook for the institution through liminal space, then How To Lead is the guidebook for the local or judicatory leader through that space alongside a community. This makes a lot of sense, as Beaumont took sabbatical time away from her local appointment at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas to receive education and certification in spiritual direction.

Beaumont and Rendle’s writings about leaders and organizations shaping narrative go hand-in-hand. In liminal seasons, we are in what Moltmann called the “mini-eschaton:” we are between something old and something new. The old has ended and we cannot return to it, but the new is not yet clear. This is the most difficult anxiety for a spiritual leader to navigate.

That difficulty is compounded by the emphasis in the last decade on change management in churches. Many efforts at local church revitalization have been successful, and have been driven by the development of strategic plans. Our current impasse is that change management through strategic planning cannot lead an organization through liminality, precisely because we do not know where we are going!

Beaumont’s book is helpful in allowing the reader space to consider leadership in the in between:

  • Pastors leading in liminal seasons cannot be struggling with their own sense of identity and purpose – we must know the difference between our true selves and our false selves
  • Pastors leading in liminal seasons must be able to suspend judgment and let go of perceived outcomes
  • Pastors leading in liminal seasons must be keenly aware of the judicatory or church’s story, and where it is in its lifecycle
  • Pastors leading in liminal seasons must be actively involved in doing away with unnecessary dualisms (either/or, us/them)

Stan Copeland, senior pastor at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas states that “big tent” churches and organizations are now the counter-cultural movement. We are grouping ourselves into like-minded segments faster than at any point in human history. The hard work of moving forward through disagreements and sitting in the same pew with people who hold different theological and political opinions than our own is fading.

Beaumont’s book lays groundwork for doing this counter-cultural work, by creating distinctions between decision-making and change management and group discernment and leading in liminality.

Susan Beaumont, How To Lead pages 72-73

Beaumont concludes with the call to help shape the memory of the institution. I currently serve in a local congregation that I know has a rich history and I believe has a bright future. In my story-telling around the church and with its members, I find it important to help them remember all of the bright points that represent where they came from and that are indicative of where they are going. Even though I can only lead – and they can only walk alongside – to what Gil Rendle calls “the end of the flashlight” it is our joy in who we’ve been and who we are that helps manage concern about who we’ll be.

Beaumont’s final thoughts? Help congregations embrace the disorientation of liminal seasons at a tolerable rate. This is also taught by Ronald Heifitz and others who focus on conflict and tension in the life of an organization. How do we keep disorientation tolerable? I believe it is through the use of confidence, panic avoidance, and story-telling to organizational strengths. I believe it is enhancing or evolving strategic planning into group discernment. You can’t strategically position yourself to land on a platform that isn’t built yet. Rather, you can position yourself to move healthily into an uncertain future by knowing:

  1. Who you (all) are
  2. Who your neighbor is
  3. What God is calling you (all) to do now in your context in this moment

This book would be beneficial for pastor peer groups, Church Councils, and appointive and extended Cabinets.

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