Clergy groups on the edge of the unknown

Posted Aug 08, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Lawrence Peers


Yoga devotee on Stanage Edge by minkymonkeymoo, on FlickrAnyone who has practiced yoga has been introduced to the idea of being aware of your “edge” in any particular posture. Some of us have a tendency to push ourselves beyond our edge and can potentially injure ourselves. Others of us tend to retreat when we get to our edge and therefore never discover what else is possible.

In this time, those of us in the church and within clergy communities of practice, must be willing to encounter the “edge” of what we know in order to be open to what is wanting to emerge in the church and in our own leadership.

The edge is that place where our own capabilities and limits encounter one another.

Over time, we discover that we must not only be aware of our edge but also work with it, with awareness and with curiosity, so that we befriend it and see what it is showing us and teaching us. Clergy groups can be places for befriending the edge of our knowing, the unknown.

Conversations we never had

I remember once leading a retreat for clergy in which a number of clergy essentially said, “These are the conversations we wished we could have always had, but never did.”

When I heard those comments and considered the relative age of the people in the room, first I was startled, and then I was saddened. They explained the barriers to openness, questioning, and expression that had characterized some of their many years of clergy associations.

Postponing conversations can take a toll on us, our ministries, and our souls. All of us are impacted by the norms, habits, and practices that never invite clergy to the edge of their own knowing. We also know how liberating it is to encounter in each other’s presence what it means to work with what is on the emerging edge of our ministries.

To shed some of our tendencies as clergy to be “the expert,” “the authority,” the “one who knows” is a common practice in clergy groups. It requires faith and diligence to be able to approach one another not just with what we know, but also what we don’t know.

That place where the known and the unknown touch is the edge that can open us up to wonder, grace, prayer, wisdom, and spiritual guidance. Yvonne Agazarian, the founder of a systems-centered approach to groups, describes this “apprehension at the edge of the unknown” as a shift “from dread and/or anxiety, into excitement, anticipation and wonder.”

Being experts of unknowing

It matters how a clergy group works with that edge of what we currently know when it arises in a group conversation:

  • Do we tend to retreat from it?
  • Do we walk around it, never engaging with it directly?
  • Do we touch the surface of it?
  • Do we offer some quick prescription?
  • Do we allow ourselves to experience the edge of our own knowing, so that together we can discover something new?

“At its deepest reaches, knowing is always communal,” writes Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach. Indeed, it is the kind of interactions we have in our clergy groups that make possible a knowledge among us that not merely informs, but also transforms our own understandings and perspectives.

One yoga teacher said, “Practice always involves seeing our edge and taking a small step beyond it into the unknown.” Can we allow ourselves to be “experts of unknowing” so that we can take even the smallest steps forward?

For a resource related to this blog posting, see our Pastoral Excellence Network resource on queries (PDF, 152 KB).

The image displayed in this post was adapted from "Yoga devotee on Stanage Edge by minkymonkeymoo, on Flickr" in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.

Lawrence Peers is the director of learning of the Pastoral Excellence Network at Christian Theological Seminary.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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