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

Threshold Concepts in Ministry Development

Written by: on January 23, 2023

Recently I watched the 2016 film “The Arrival” in which 12 extraterrestrial spacecraft visit Earth. Mild spoiler alert: It turns out that how people engage with the aliens leads to a major threshold moment for humanity and alters the course of history.

Last week I read the story of Jacob in Genesis. Jacob sent everything he owned across the river Jabbok; utterly alone and afraid for his life, he wrestled The Angel of the Lord until he was given a new identity (and a permanent limp). At dusk he was Jacob; at dawn he was Israel. In between was a long, dark night of liminality.

Those are two examples of threshold barriers. A threshold concept is “considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.” (Meyer, 3).

Put another way, before crossing the threshold barrier you see the world one way; after crossing it you see it completely differently and can never go back to the way you used to perceive it.

This was my own threshold moment: Before I read the books Overcoming Barriers to Students Understanding, and Threshold Concepts in Practice (and watched Robert Coven’s Ted Talk), I had not wrestled with the idea of threshold concepts, so had not considered how ubiquitous threshold barriers and moments were; after I grasped the concept, I started seeing them, everywhere.

Everywhere included my own studies. Because the books and video specifically addressed threshold barriers in Higher Education, it was easy to read my situation into it. As a second-semester doctoral student I have already encountered troublesome knowledge and liminal spaces. There have been multiple times in the last few months where I have thought “I can’t do this” or “they are expecting too much” but when pushing through, I realized I had more capacity than I thought and found new and more efficient ways to approach work I thought I already knew how to do.

It made me wonder if this was all by design. Perhaps, as Meyer and Land write, “acquiring a threshold concept can be likened in some disciplines as a right-of-passage” (Meyer, 22) While this is a direct reference to Medical School, I imagine it could apply to our program as well, and that I will likely have a different perspective on all of this at the end of the program than I have now at the beginning.

And that led me to consider how threshold concepts and liminality might apply to discipleship and pastoral development in the church. Though “threshold concepts might be more readily identifiable in some disciplines (such as Physics) than in others (such as History)” (Mayer, 16), I have witnessed moments where an emerging spiritual leader had an assignment that felt beyond them, such as preaching, or leading worship for the first time, or making a difficult decision, or counseling someone through a situation they have never faced. However, once they did it, they had a radically different perception of what it took. In other instances, a long-held philosophical or theological concept was challenged, and the giving up of certainty to embrace ambiguity on the way to confidence matured the leader.

Other potential leaders who were not willing to let go of what they “knew” to find a new way, or who were content to mimic leaders they admired without the personal hard work necessary to “own” a concept appeared to never step into all they were meant to be.

It seems when we inhabit Luke 18 and recognize that, like the tax collector, we don’t have it all together, or we give away everything we have and follow Jesus into the unknown, or we become like little children holding nothing back, or like a blind person on the side of the road desperate to see…that is when we can finally step into new understanding. Crossing a threshold barrier is “not just a cognitive shift, but a reconstituting of self” (Meyer, 200). In this sense, salvation itself is a threshold—once we are regenerated, nothing looks the same.

So, while the materials we engaged this week were focused on Higher Education, the concepts are inexorably a part of spiritual life and leadership, too.

However, like higher education, church life can devolve into a drive for customer satisfaction. As is stated in the introduction of Threshold Concepts in Practice, “Student experience and transformation are often at odds” (Land, 1). If we are hoping for true transformation in the church, treating disciples and emerging leaders as consumers can’t work, because “liminality can become a liability” (Land, xiv).

In other words, a true follower of Christ will be repeatedly called to pick up her or his cross and follow Jesus into an unknown, uncomfortable future; a church that prioritizes a person’s personal comfort and satisfaction will not produce a disciple ready for this. Meyer and Land tell us “that the insights gained when the learner crosses the threshold might also be unsettling, involving a sense of loss” (Meyer, 16). Like the child who cuts a butterfly out of a chrysalis to help it along will destroy its future, a leadership development process that shortcuts any unsettling sense of loss will produce leaders who cannot fly.

About the Author


Tim Clark

I'm on a lifelong journey of discovering the person God has created me to be and aligning that with the purpose God has created me for. I've been pressing hard after Jesus for 40 years, and I currently serve Him as the lead pastor of vision and voice at The Church On The Way in Los Angeles. I live with my wife and 3 kids in Burbank California.

13 responses to “Threshold Concepts in Ministry Development”

  1. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I appreciate your thoughts about the tension between learner comfort and learner transformation. Your insight connecting higher education to discipleship and a church member’s experience is spot on. It reminds me of a Brené Brown quote from Daring Greatly: “If you’re comfortable, I’m not teaching and you’re not learning.” The same could be said about discipleship. It must be inherently a little (sometimes extremely!) uncomfortable in order to lead to true transformation.

  2. Scott Dickie says:

    Hi Tim,

    Like you, I embedded the concept of threshold moments in my current context of ministry/spirituality, and it left me with a lot of questions. Yes, someone wrestling with a new way of understanding the creation narrative might experience a ‘threshold moment’ that some of us might celebrate and agree with…and others might lament. Who gets to decide? Is moving theologically to affirm LGBTQ+ as orthodox a ‘threshold moment’ that expands someone’s understanding of God’s great love or not? Even further, those who abandon their Christian faith altogether to find what they would describe as new freedom and joy outside of the confines of organized religion would likely describe that journey as a threshold moment. Is it? And who gets to decide?

    It seems like the concept of threshold is more easy to define in the scientific fields where some degree of scientific observation and experimentation can affirm the validity of the newly held position. It seems much more difficult in some of the social sciences, including faith journeys. Having said all that…I agree with you that people have substantive ‘movements’ in their understanding and experience of God that might rightly be defined as threshold moments….but it seems only likely to be named as such (by Pastoral leaders) if the person remains within the confines of orthodoxy (as defined by ???). Lots to ponder here…

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Scott… I’m so glad you said/asked that. I wanted to bring this up in my post but it got too long: Are threshold concepts inherently objective, or can they also be subjective? It seems in these books and the video threshold concepts are presented as objective, and always positive when crossed (not that the crossing is always positive, but that the accomplishing the crossing is).

      But when I kept encountering the key metaphor for crossing a threshold barrier in the picture of Adam and Eve leaving the garden, I can’t help but wonder if there are times people start seeing the world a different way that are not aligned to God’s vision of humanity. That perhaps not all threshold barriers are positive, nor objective, but that there can be harmful and subjective barriers crossed, too. (someone who ‘sees the world differently’ than everyone else because they took too much LSD… or a person who carries out a suicide bombing because they have come to see the world as evil and have a certain vision of what will happen to them after they die).

  3. Cathy Glei says:

    Thank you for your honesty in sharing the times you have felt like “I can’t do this”. I have felt the same way. In my journal, I can’t tell you how many times I have felt this way and the Lord comforts me in prayer, through a friend, through the scriptures, through providing for a need of time or resources. Thank you Jesus! In your analogy of the butterfly being cut out of a chrysalis and the leadership development process, how have you seen shortcuts used that has produced leaders that cannot fly? Thank you for your reflections.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      First, Cathy, thanks for the encouragement. And I want to tell you, we can and I believe will make it through these barriers and liminal moments.

      The biggest shortcut I see is ‘laying hands on suddenly’ and assigning a person as a leader without a process of character development and testing. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t put growing people in a leadership pipeline, but almost every time a young leader has charisma without character and is given a platform, bad things happen for those they are leading and for their own future.

  4. Travis Vaughn says:

    Tim, thanks for this post. In addition to your reflections on Meyer and Land’s work and the connections to church/discipleship (so helpful!), I would be curious what discipleship-related questions might have emerged listening to Dr. Coven’s Ted Talk. He talked about the temptation (he didn’t use that term, I don’t think) educators (in the church, this could be “disciplemakers”) have… the temptation to simply convey trivia, become reductionistic when it comes to “truth,” and just provide “answers” instead of helping students to ask better questions. I wonder what “better questions” disciples of Jesus might be challenged to ask as they move from a place of liminality into new ways of thinking about what it means to pick up their cross and follow Christ? I would think this would help to perhaps cut away the temptation to reduce discipleship to mere “knowledge-transfer” or consumer-production. Perhaps better questions on the disciple’s part, in part cultivated by the disciplemaker, would move “church experience” further away from a simple appeal to comfort and personal preference. Such a great post, brother.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      I love the idea that often Jesus ‘taught’ the crowds but asked questions of individuals. I wonder if teaching threshold concepts lends itself to more ‘personal’ or one-one-one or small group contexts? Not that you can’t teach the crowds those things, but the knowledge that there is pain involved may require a ‘great shepherd” more than a ‘great teacher”? Just some thoughts.

  5. Adam Harris says:

    Your posts reminded me of a recent discussion I had with a guy for my NPO research. We were talking about prayer and he said the best prayer is simply one of “surrender”. Following Christ has been a series of letting go of something I’m comfortable with and grabbing onto to another, different, but ultimately healthier thing. I agree that “threshold concepts” are absolutely applicable to our spiritual lives and development.

  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    I really love the story of Jacob and wrestling of the Angel. I think it says a lot about suffering, of not wanting to cross a threshold, and what I most appreciate is that even when we push through and “get through” the hardship and we come out the other side, it doesn’t mean it is without scars or a limp! Sometimes threshold experience come through hardship and loss and it can leave a mark. It’s funny, as I read through this weeks readings I was mostly focused on the excitement and adventure of threshold learning….I live for the “aha” moments and you reference to the Jacob story reminding me that not all threshold experiences are fun. I find myself feeling more secure with uncertainty of troublesome knowledge the more threshold experiences I have, but it can cause a limp. I recognize how “honest” (hopefully not overly critical) I have been of the church in these blogs. Part of it is that I can’t unknow what I know, but I wonder if part of this is also the limp. I didn’t expect so many pastors in this degree program, I thought it was more about ministry in non-ministry contexts, so part of my limp is being me and my experiences and knowledge and speaking truth. What I am grateful for is that the Pastors I have met, like you, offer grace and humility and an earnestness to learn. I am grateful for how this program has offered me threshold learning already and how the people I have met extend grace, affirmation and you my friend excel at that kind of grace. How have you experienced teaching threshold concepts to your church? Do you do it in small chewable pieces or do you present it all at once? I experience, not sure if it’s true for you, that from the pulpit troublesome knowledge is mostly the feedback you get from congregants when they are being encountered with the threshold of learning, do you get troublesome feedback and how do you handle that?

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Thanks Jana… I think the idea of troublesome feedback to troublesome knowledge is spot on. To answer your question I tend to introduce what I see as threshold concepts in bit sizes; when teaching a congregation everyone is in a different place, so you have to recognize some are moving slower and others faster and seek to find a way to shepherd the whole group. In ministry development, however, I tend to do a little more “throwing in the deep end” with some assistance (so they don’t drown).

      I appreciate your kind words about pastors in your cohort. So many of us!!! But hopefully you’ll find none of us act like we have all the answers and are as curious to learn as you are! We’re all on the journey together… glad you are on it with us.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Forgot to say this, Jana. Your identification with Jacob is so helpful… learning something that changes our lives also leaves a mark and I think if it’s effective deepens our humility (not our pride in ‘knowing’ something new). Thanks for your transparency.

  7. mm Dinka Utomo says:

    Hi Team! Your idea about salvation and threshold concept. I’m just wondering, what about Christians who choose to leave their faith and leave Jesus? Are they experiencing the turning back experience through the portal again?

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