Sometimes we find ourselves out on a ledge.  Personally, professionally, as churches.  The view can be spectacular, or it can be terrifying.  It all depends on which lens you choose to look through.

Last weekend I was watching a documentary, Free Solo.  I don’t usually squirm in my seat watching television but I am rarely watching someone free climb the face of El Capitan, a formidable 3000 ft high wall of rock in Yosemite National Park.  Alone.  Without a harness or rope or safety equipment. 

It really didn’t matter that I knew how the story ended.  [Spoiler alert.]  Each time Alex Honnold dug his chalky fingers into a crevice in the rock, looking for a secure place to grab to propel himself to the next step in the climb, I held my breath.  Each time he shook out the muscles in his wearying arms I grew more and more concerned that he was losing the strength needed to complete the journey.

Still he kept climbing without so much of a hint of fear or anxiety on his face.  I, on the other hand, was a wreck, binge eating potato chips as if somehow the sheer quantity I consumed would help to cushion the impact should he fall.

At one point in the film, Honnold is on a ledge that connects two sections of the route.  It is one of the few times that he is facing outward, away from the rock.  One can only begin to imagine how spectacular the view must have been from where he stood, a thousand feet off the ground, on top of the world, surrounded by all of the glory that nature has to offer.  It is at this moment, though, in a voice over of his own commentary on the climb, that Alex talks about moments on the rock when fear would overtake him and he would have to pull himself together.

Pull himself together?!  The thought of Honnold panicking in such a vulnerable place all but made my heart stop.  To this point, I had simply chalked him up as being superhuman, unimpeded by normal physical and emotional limitations.  But here he was, acknowledging thoughts of fear going through his mind, however quickly, and intentionally bringing them under control.  

He had my attention in a new way.

I’m highly unlikely to ever go rock climbing.  I don’t even like to get too close to the edge of the overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I’m fine until, instead of looking out at the amazing beauty before me, I look down and imagine the unimaginable should my foot slip or the guardrail give way. 

But while I’ll not be scaling the side of a mountain any time soon, I do find myself on a ledge every now and then.  Maybe you have, too; that in between place between where you’ve been and where you’re going.  A vulnerable place where all too often we look down, or back, and allow fear to overtake us rather than looking ahead at what good may be right in front of us.

Sometimes we get out on a ledge when we’ve embarked on a long journey – a project, an adventure, a business, a relationship.  It’s something we chose, it’s something we want, but the road is long and we hit a challenging patch along the way.

Often we find ourselves on a ledge not of our own choosing.  A change has come that we did not invite.  A job loss.  An illness.  A death.  

Suddenly the landscape has changed and our footing feels unsure.  Out on the ledge the wind hits us harder.  The rock behind us that is typically a source of strength can feel cold and hard.  It’s an easy place to become paralyzed for fear of taking a wrong step.

In churches, the ledge is often that time of transition after a pastor leaves.  The leader we knew is no longer there and the future is uncertain.  We can often forget the strength and the wisdom that has enabled us to journey this far and try to rush the process of filling the leadership void instead of discovering what the view right in front of us has to offer.

It is from the ledge that Honnold resumes his journey to the top of the mountain.  It is the place where he pulls himself together and continues the climb.  There is much about his story of his free solo of El Capitan that can be helpful to churches on these ledges of life.

Discover your vision. Honnold knew where he was going.  He was passionate and determined because he knew what the goal was and he was committed to it.  

Time on the ledge can be a gift; a chance to get everyone in your church looking in the same direction, rediscovering the purpose God has in store for you as a congregation.  It’s your mountain, your climb.  Don’t look down and focus on everything that scares you.  Embrace the opportunity to look ahead together.  There might be a spectacular vista of opportunity right in front of you.

Be prepared to do the work.  Honnold spent years mapping out the face of the mountain, planning his route.  For two years he did practice climbs, memorizing every crevice that he would grab hold of in his ascent when he was no longer secured by a rope and harness.  

Only you know what work your congregation needs to do to make this journey.  Maybe there are some elephants that need to be identified and discussed.  Maybe there is conflict that needs to be addressed, decisions that need to be made.  Don’t leave that for your next pastor to walk in to. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.  Alex Honnold might have climbed El Capitan free solo, but he worked with a whole team of people as he prepared for the task.

Know yourself.  What does your church look like when it is at its best?  Do you excel in hospitality?  Is your DNA missional?  Do you care for people really well?  Build on those core strengths.  Remember who you are; who God created you to be.

Honnold is successful because he is confident in his capabilities.  He knows himself.  He works hard and he trusts his preparation.  When he is on the ledge he knows the things that have gotten him this far.
Do not be afraid.  We all panic.  Churches panic.  Even Honnold needed to talk himself through the panic now and again.  Transitions are times that are ripe for miscommunication and mistrust simply because we are anxious and afraid of what tomorrow may or may not hold.  Trust what you know to be true. Believe the best in one another and in God’s plan for your future.  

Sometimes we find ourselves out on a ledge.  The view can be spectacular, or it can be terrifying.  It all depends on which lens you choose to look through.

Jayne Davis
Jayne Davis has served as the Minister of Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Church, Wilmington, NC since 2001. Prior to going into ministry, she was the Executive Director of a non-profit organization and worked as a strategic planning consultant for early childhood initiatives. Jayne is a certified coach, working with both individuals and churches, and is a part of the CBFNC coaching network. She is also a partner in Hopeful Imagination, a ministry encouraging and supporting churches as they seek God’s direction in a changing world. She is a coach and a consultant for CHC and the co-coordinator for CHC-Carolinas.