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Venturing into the Muddled Middle Ground

Nestled stubbornly between necessary endings and the prospect of new beginnings is a muddled, clumsy, uncomfortable neutral zone.

Theorists name it differently. It’s the middle ground where leaders navigate the closing of a season wrapped in its emotions and memories and unsettling disorientation along with the uncertainties and fears and anxieties of what comes next.

If leaders don’t navigate the middle muddled zone well, new beginnings will never be allowed to…ahh…begin!

Let me state the obvious before offering an illustration of the muddled middle, and its fruit. This is not for the faint of heart! Leaders will compromise conviction and fail to venture forward if they:

  • Link their identity to the approval of the people they lead.
  • Translate necessary endings as a leadership failure.
  • Expect the jump to “what comes next” to be easy and quick and fruitful.

Allow me to offer a personal and painful illustration of necessary endings…new beginnings…and the muddled middle.

Let’s go back a decade, 10 years ago!

Somehow God had allowed our 150-year-old congregation to experience a surprisingly fruitful season. The congregation had courageously pioneered a multi-campus ministry for 20 years that linked its inner city campus with its newer suburban campus.

One campus growing like crazy and one that steadily ticked downward as people passed from grace to glory and new people of similar language and origin steered clear of its threatening neighborhood.

The vision of a longtime link between campuses was now threatened. It was no longer working.    

Plus the older, whiter, English speaking ministry at the historic campus was hindering the much better suited Hispanic mission struggling in its shadow.

I still remember the “it’s not working any more” conversation with our executive director.

The thought of proposing we uproot hundreds of people from their decades long church home to the other campus to make way for an upstart congregation best suited for its mostly Hispanic neighborhood was not enticing. (I could almost hear God calling me to a new and different ministry that would allow me to avoid officiating at this unwelcome necessary ending.)

Painful, painful, painful! The necessary ending and the plunge into the muddled middle. Painful!

Some other time maybe a translation of painful..painful.. painful.

Allow me to fast forward seven or eight years…the muddled middle mostly gone…the new beginning arrived.

Gail and I were gifted with two experiences:

1.     Milestone Anniversary. Invitation back to preach at our ministry home for 25 years that’s now shepherded by an enormously gifted pastor. The first two services? Lots of familiar folks that shared in the ending and muddled middle and were (mostly) safely nestled in the new beginnings. BUT, the next two services? Lots of people for whom the Gospel has taken up residence in their lives as fruit following this new beginning!

2.     Christmas Eve…downtown to Iglesia San Pablo. 160 Christmas Eves after German immigrants first began the church, Gail and I were among a handful of “English only” worshipers so warmly welcomed into a packed sanctuary. At the end of the service, Pastor Alex identified one of the worship leaders and explained: “Cesar’s life has been transformed by Jesus Christ. He and his whole family…their lives have been transformed by Jesus Christ.”

Tears were streaming down our cheeks. “It was worth it!” Ending…Middle… Worth it!  

Don’t let me make this sound too rosy.

Our former 25-year ministry home? I’m sure there are plenty of challenges and there is the residue of transitions I could have navigated better.

San Pablo? While it’s School of Missionaries regularly generates new pastors for new Hispanic ministries, they experience the constant pressure of finances and tired buildings and the stresses of an under-resourced neighborhood.

Lead it all again? Probably so. Lead it better this time? Hopefully so. Is God bearing fruit in these new beginnings? Obviously so.

The Church today is desperate for leaders who can preside at “necessary endings” and navigate “muddled middles” and step out into the bright sunshine of “new beginnings” in this post-Christendom world that needs to experience the love of Jesus while it increasingly says “no” to His church.

If and when you sense the need for an investment in you and your leadership and your marriage (if you’re married), PLI would count it a privilege to walk with you on the journey. Contact Raechel to learn more about our learning communities.

Rev. Dr. Jock Ficken

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