Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Four Carabiners of the Precipice Dweller

Written by: on October 26, 2020

One of the outcomes of my Design Session was a new moniker for my target audience: The Precipice Dweller.

She is a pilgrim who has dared to journey into a liminal space between “What I’m running from.” to “What I’m running toward.” She’s a sojourner whose rebellious spirit has taken her to the precipice and is in need of a revolutionary spirit to take her beyond the edge. She is moved, not by a strategy or an idea, but by a deep conviction that things are not yet as they could be. She’s convinced that the transformation that will prepare her to join God and others in ushering in a better world lies on the other side of the cliff. While she has tasted the benefits of it, she is dissatisfied with the social accolades for her wilderness wandering and precipice dwelling.

Yet, at the moment she prepares to leap into the pilgrimage that will remake her, she scrambles for familiarity. Shenpa, Tibetan for attachment, keeps her tethered to the security of solid ground. (Renner & D’Souza, Not Knowing, 193).

As I consider the inertia toward the familiar for so many evangelical faith leaders who dwell at the edge of transformation, I wonder about the fears that keep us clipped in to the comforts of the known. It is as though each of us wears a set of carabiners on life’s harness, core fears, that keep us attached to what was and prevent us from moving toward what could be.

The first carabiner is identity. This is the sense of self that has been shaped within a system that rewards us for accomplishment. We have been groomed to believe that we are what we produce and that our value rises and falls based on the volume of an audience’s applause. On the Precipice’s Edge, we ask questions like, “Am I enough?” and “Who am I now?” The fear of identity’s loss causes many to clip back in to shenpa and miss the transformation.

The second carabiner is livelihood. This is the idea that one’s worth is connected exclusively to one’s ability to prop up and propel a system that seduces us to give our lives away for the cause. We have been groomed to believe that God’s providence and our survival is connected to remaining in line and never questioning the hand that feeds us. On the Precipice’s Edge, we ask questions like, “How will I sustain and survive?” and “What will I do instead?” The fear of livelihood’s loss causes many to clip back in to shenpa and miss the transformation.

The third carabiner is community. These are the interpersonal relationships deemed most intimate. They are personal friends, colleges, family and mentors. We’ve been groomed to believe that so long as we walk the party line, this community will support and celebrate our efforts. The threat is that to question or critique the system is to loose connection with those most dear. This threat is realized as the journey to the edge has already been inundated with the severe and persistent critiques of those who once celebrated our skill. On the Precipice’s Edge, we ask questions like, “How will the rejection of those closest to me impact me?” and “Will I be alone?” The fear of community’s loss causes many to clip back in to shenpa and miss the transformation.

The fourth carabiner is influence. This is the idea that one’s impact is connected solely to talent and one’s capacity for inspiring the crowds. We’ve been groomed away from understanding influence as connected to virtue and the aligned life. Instead, we scramble to turn heads and to pursue the affection of the nameless masses with well crafted statements and carefully edited images. On the Precipice’s Edge, we ask, “Will my voice or life matter?” The fear of influence’s loss causes many to clip back into shenpa and miss the transformation.

It seems that many Precipice Dwellers have been groomed to understand their identity, livelihood, community, and influence as connected exclusively to and byproducts of fidelity to the system. When they start to question the system, their fidelity is challenged and their identity, livelihood, community, and influence are threatened. For many Precipice Dwellers, this becomes an existential crisis that causes them to clip in to the comfort of the status quo or cut ties with their faith & leadership calling altogether.

Yet there are a few who dare to believe that their identity is found not in what they produce, but in whose they are. On the other side of the precipice, they are discovering the difference between friendship and sacramental community. They are finding their souls fill with a revolutionary spirit that fosters dreams, awakens imaginations, and emboldens resolve. As they walk the pilgrimage, they find themselves becoming substantively different versions of themselves who are aligned and cross-shaped.

Rather than their carabiners tethered to shenpa, they are clipped in to one anothers.’

About the Author

Jer Swigart

13 responses to “Four Carabiners of the Precipice Dweller”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    I see so much of my story in your words. I remember sitting in the pastor’s office, and when met with ambivalence regarding my request to have further dialogue regarding women in ministry leadership, I looked at him and said, “Well then, I have to go.” I remember him then saying, “The door will always be open if you return.” I knew then I’d never go back. I knew I couldn’t remain in a space that had such limited understanding of the reconciliatory work of Christ.

    When I walked out the doors, I lost my identity, community, and any little bit of influence I may have had. Thankfully, as a lay ministry leader, I didn’t lose my livelihood.

    I wonder what it takes to get that Precipice Dweller to take the next step and clip on to a new line? It is so ironic to me that in a religion where we are told our identity is in Christ, so many of us actually don’t find our identity there, but rather in all the places you’ve mentioned. So many believe that their identity in Christ is the SAME as their identity within their religious systems of operation. Can we just choose to move the carabiner from one line to another? I wonder if we don’t have to cut that old rope to be free, fall hard and fast, dust ourself off, and hope others will be there at the bottom to help pick us back up and set us on a new way. But dang- it is scary. How do you move people past that paralyzing fear of the unknown? How do you prepare them for the deep grief they will experience when they leave that precipice, because as you know, we don’t just find all that goodness right away?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks for your reflections here. And I sorry that you experienced the gentle excommunication that seems prevalent within U.S. American Evangelicalism.

      I’m learning that accompaniment is the only way to invite the Precipice Dweller beyond their fear and into the pilgrimage. Paralyzing fear doesn’t seem to lessen with more knowledge (content, curriculum), but with more experience of navigating through it alongside another who has been there before.

      With regard to their experience of deep grief, as is true in all experiences of despair…we’re never prepared for it. We navigate it when we’re in it. This calls for a different form of accompaniment that is less the sage who has traveled the roads of grief before and more the Spiritual Director who helps me embrace the gifts that only grief can offer.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    Thanks for the great imagery. As I read your post I was reminded of the times I belayed for my son as he climbed. There was always a time when changing a climbing route that he needed to unclip in order to reposition and then re-clip into a new set of anchors to finish his ascent. Often times those of us who sojourn along the edge long enough come to the realization that their is no returning to what once was. Leaping off the edge can take on many forms and directions. In my case the leap has led me on a pilgrimage back to the local church community. The leap gave me the freedom to walk deeper into it shadows shining a light and seeking opportunities to ask the hard questions that others sense but are afraid to raise. Like many the temptation to reattach is always there but the knowledge of whose I am, what could be and the longing for the unknown keeps me unclipped, at least for now. Despite being untethered I still find a deep sense of community and have compassion for those who choose to cling to what they know. Sooner or later I know they too will sense the call to visit the edge. It seems sooner or later the Holy Spirit calls us all into a sense of authenticity.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      That’s really beautiful, Greg. The journey seems to involve so many unclippings-reclippings. That’s profound.

      As someone who has fully unclipped and continue to navigate traditional church spaces, is there anything intentional that you do to demonstrate the libration that you have and invite others to unclip?

      • Greg Reich says:

        I am not sure I considered myself completely unclipped! Part of loving Jesus for me is loving the church despite its brokenness. I find myself in a constant clipping and unclipping process. I spend a lot of time working on earning a right to be heard through trying too serve and listen to those around me. I ask a lot of perspective questions and encourage people to be like the Berean Jews in Acts studied the word to test the words of Paul. I am not as concerned as much about people unclipping, as much as, I am about them being blind followers with an inability to discern and test what is taking place and being taught.

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, is there a carabiner that you would say needs to be clipped in first before the others? Or is there one you would say is more important than the others?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      These four “carabiners” reveal important realities for the pilgrim. Identity, Community, Livelihood, and Influence don’t go way…their sources and expressions change throughout the pilgrimage. Your question about chronology of unclipping (from the system) and reclipping (to another) is a good one. Not sure which comes first with regard to the unclipping, but with regard to a reclipping, it seems that Identity is central to a proper understanding and experience of the other three. What has been your experience?

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, as you seek to extend a vocabulary for what you are describing, I think a fruitful word for you to use is the old English word “mearcstapa.” Are you familiar with it? It means border-walker or border stalker. Mako Fujimura uses it well in “Culture Care.” You can find a bit here: https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2020/03/an-artistic-ecosystem-a-review-of-makoto-fujimuras-culture-care/

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    Being set free I think may have more to do with ‘nothingness’ than ‘somethingness’?

    Thankful for how your posts encourage deeper considerations on things!

  6. John McLarty says:

    I watched a documentary last year about a guy who climbed El Capitan in Yosemite with no team and no ropes- a “free solo.” (You probably already know way more about this than I do!) I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, fingers dug into the arm rest. When he reached the top (spoiler alert,) the elation was obvious and I was jealous of that feeling. But I still found myself thinking, “not in a million years.” This metaphor and your post make me uncomfortable in the same way- as much as I enjoy the adventure, I’m well-aware of the tethers and safety nets that protect me.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Free Solo was one of the most inspiring films I’ve watched in years. My experience of watching was similar to yours…fingermarks still remain on my sofa. 😉

      Thanks for your honesty with regard to the discomfort. It’s real.

      With regard to the “tethers and safety nets that protect me,” I wonder what they are, what they’re protecting you from, and if they are in fact protecting you or holding you back.

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