Liminality

At MAPPINGS, we like the word “liminality”, though it doesn’t show up in most day to day conversations.

Liminality is derived from the Latin “limen”, which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when passing through.

As a minister in transition, you are hovering near a “threshold”. You find yourself in a place you never thought you’d be. Perhaps you aren’t altogether sure how you got here, or what threshold you need to cross over. You remember the call to ministry God gave you, but today you may feel more a sense of disillusionment than a sense of calling. If any of this resonates with you, you are experiencing the process of liminality.

Anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep (1873-1957), saw liminality as a very real stage in normal rites of passage, such as the journey from adolescence to adulthood, or the changes that occur when one leaves their family to marry. He observed, in these intense seasons of change, that first there is a time of separation, then a liminal period, and, finally, a process of re-assimilation.

During the time of separation, a person is stripped of whatever social status he or she once possessed. After that, they are inducted into the liminal period of transition. When liminality has run its course, the person is finally given his or her new status and re-assimilated into society.

As a minister in transition, the events that brought about your “transition” are much like the first category of separation. Here, a very real change in status has occurred. The period of liminality naturally follows. Is this where you are? This transitional stage is filled with ambivalence, uncertainty, and what can seem like a “no-man’s-land”.

The theory of liminality was popularized in the second half of the twentieth century through the studies of another anthropologist, Victor Turner. Turner was captivated by the phase of liminality throughout his career (from 1967 until his death in 1983), and both borrowed and expanded Van Gennep’s initial concepts.

Turner believed that those in the liminal period are somehow invisible, that their status in society is uncertain and vague. He called this period “Betwixt and Between”. Displaced ministers realize they are no longer seen as the person they were, and this loss of status can leave their Christian community bewildered and often judgmental. Their place in the world and in God’s design can feel ambiguous or even non-existent.

“The group of liminal individuals”, says Turner, “is not a typical social hierarchy, but a communal group in which all are equal”. This equality could be freeing, yet for a transitioning minister, being stripped of their rank or place in the Christian community is overwhelming and often devastating.

Turner refers to “community” and “social structure” as major models for how we relate as human beings. When, in the liminal period, a person loses his or her place in this structure, the reality of being “betwixt and between” is inevitable. “Who am I? Who do others say I am? Has God sidelined me? Do I have a future?”

A transitioning minister may no longer have kinship with other pastors or people in career ministry. They are, perhaps, highly educated, may have many years of experience, but end up working part-time at Starbucks with a 19 year old supervisor, and customers who look right past them. The community or social structure they are now a part of has little interest or respect for the responsibilities and demands of their “past life”.

The liminal period is also a time, says Turner, when one enters the “realm of pure possibility”. This is where we at MAPPINGS believe we can help. We want to invite you, wherever you are…in your ambivalence, your feelings of loss of structure or stature, your uncertainty…to let us join you in this journey. Our desire is to help you move forward in the process of liminality, and for you to discover the “threshold” and cross over into whatever future God has for you.

Excerpts on the writings of Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner from Liminality.org.