The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—

Of cabbages—and kings—

And why the sea is boiling hot—

And whether pigs have wings.”1 

 While social media (SM) has become de riguer for most GenY and millennials, for many mainline congregations and their pastors, the variety and depth of connectional possibilities are as mysterious as the world behind the Alice’s looking glass. For this soon to be 50 year old pastor, the connections and conversations taking place on social networking sites, this odd amalgam of kitchen table, boardroom, classroom, sanctuary, sports bar and coffee shop have been essential to my ministry, providing both comfort, challenge in the best and the worst of times.

The Preliminaries: In Which We Meet the Walrus

For some, the rise of the internet with its sometimes overwhelming and encyclopedic content has created a world in which confusion, lack of focus, and no small amount of seemingly disordered distraction appear to be the order of the day. Not so for me. “Google it” is synonymous with what my ultra patient mom used to say when I pestered her for answers: “Look it up.” The ready availability of open source wikis (aka encyclopedias), databases and virtual libraries makes it possible for me to find out just about anything, anytime, and, with the right equipment and public wifi, anywhere. God is in heaven and all is right with my wired (ahem, mostly wireless) world.

My lifelong quest for knowledge began at our farmhouse kitchen table, where my four sisters and I had access to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary , Compton’s Encyclopedia , and the brains of our parents. If one of those fine resources didn’t provide an adequate response, we had to wait until we went into town. Then I could happily go bug Esther Primus, the town librarian. To this day, I give thanks for people like my parents and for Esther. They fed my curiosity but also made me work to discover the untold riches found in reference books, non-fiction, and my beloved “bound periodicals.” That’s why, for the curious knowledge-drinkers like me, having a personal library that never closes would be like a miracle. Honestly, it’s one of the reasons I became a pastor. I mean, who wouldn’t want a job where you could have a houseful of rooms lined with bookshelves AND an office where they wanted you to read even more books. I know, I know. I sound like some kind of nerd. I can’t help it.

I could not be more grateful for the resources I’ve found to support the complex work of church transformation. Neither would I trade my insatiable curiosity about possibilities, though it has often outstripped both personal budget and continuing education allowances. However, as I celebrate the tenth anniversary of my ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), and my particular call to work with congregations looking for new ways of being and doing church, I am acutely aware of my own needs which haven’t been fully met by my serving as an aggregator and distributor of information. I find that as a leader in a complex setting, guiding people through confounding and often terrifying paradigm shifts that rock today’s church, simply gathering more knowledge hasn’t been enough for my congregation and it’s not enough to sustain me as we journey together through these changes.

It turns out that for me, like so many congregational leaders, engagement/interaction through various forms of SM provides not only a broad base of support, but also a necessary release. These new forms of communication have not only brought balance, but also offered a much needed environment for sharing hopes, grief, or anger; for engaging in critical analysis and hermeneutical parsing; and/or making an offering of crabbiness, humor, snark, or prayers.

The Opportunities: In Which We Take a Stroll on the Beach  

By now, you must be wondering, how is it that a knowledge nerd like me would be called on as an expert witness to give testimony to the importance of social media in the lives of church leaders? I wish I had an “aha” moment that I could point to and say: “See, friends, this is when I knew that all this communicating and connecting was essential.” Perhaps some small part of the credit should be given to my lifelong Presbyterian proclivities. Connectional church is important to us and, somehow, that invades everything I do. However, like most things in my life, the awareness of the importance of electronic connecting emerged from a variety of events; and because my story is not yet finished, this awareness continues to evolve.

My husband and I purchased our first Apple in 1994 just before moving to Mexico City. I joined Earthlink at that time and subscribed to AOL too as these were the only two with reliable dialup service available in the Distrito Federal. We had a vague notion that having this connectionality would be important. AIM was included in the monthly access fees, so it turned out that I was an accidental early adopter of the only non-email SM of the day: instant messaging. With a traveling husband and family members back in Iowa, this was the kind of lifeline that kept me connected to those I loved without exorbitant international long distance charges. The rest, as they say, is history, the history of adoption of and engagement with the many and various SM forms.

  • Mid 2007: I opened a Facebook account because I was curious and because I was hopeful that I would be able to monitor my daughters “extra-curricular” life.
  • Late 2008: Joined MySpace. I thought it would be good for me to connect with my kids, a way to be part of their teenage world. Silly me. I abandoned my “space” almost immediately. It wasn’t for me.
  • November 2008: Signed on with Skype for the first time so that I could celebrate Christmas with my Iowa family.
  • April 2009: Inspired by Twestival Local, part of a global, SM-based not for profit, I joined Twitter and let fly with my first tweet.
  • October 2009: Attended my first fundraising event (Twestival) which used only SM to promote, gather support, solicit donors, and sell tickets.
  • November 2009: Cancelled land line service. Fully embraced mobile services as complementary to high speed wifi at home.
  • Spring 2010: Conducted long distance premarital counseling via Skype.
  • Early 2011: Participated in a weekly Twitter worship experience called Tworship.
  • February 2011: Live tweeted an event for the first time.
  • Spring 2011: Published first blog newsletter for the congregation.
  • May 2011: Attended my first theological tweet-up—UNCO11.
  • Summer 2011: Began exploring Google + and joined Second Life.

Working out my online history has surprised me. It’s not so much that my adoption timeline is special. It isn’t. There are so many people who are far more widely connected and who got connected faster and with more intentionality. It’s not that I’m connecting to super creative, cutting edge, or fringe online venues. I’m not. By and large, as the social media waterfront goes, I really only dipped my toes in a few of the relatively ordinary, the most visible, and arguably the most popular social networking environments. What has surprised me is the realization that as I have moved through the past fifteen years, I have come to rely more and more on electronic communication and social networks not only to maintain relationships which began in real life (IRL) but to initiate and cultivate new relationships as well.  

In the often lonely and isolating work of transformational leadership, SM has provided, at a minimum, a kind of neutral zone where I can have conversations with people who know me best as someone other than “that troublemaking pastor.” But perhaps just as important to the fostering of healthy leadership has been the opportunity for “crowd-sourcing” (seeking the wisdom of the group). Social networking provides access to a vast diversity of experience, world view, practice, and even vision for the future. The connections I have made have given me opportunities to gather with people on the other side of the globe as well as those just down the street to brainstorm, to “test the spirits,” and to clarify my own vision of how things “should” be.  

The Colloquies: In Which We Consider Why the Sea is Boiling Hot and Whether Pigs Have Wings  

I began using social media out of a desire to stay connected to friends and family who lived far away from us. I used my internet connections to share newsy bits about kids and spouse, to send photos to grandparents, and to have conversations when telephone service was not possible. Today, while that kind of familiar communication is still important, I find that as I connect with leaders across the country and even around the world, there are more and more opportunities to reflect theologically, to collaborate liturgically, and to dream ecclesiologically. For a small church pastor, given rising travel costs and conference fees, the exigencies of the family budget, and the limitations of congregational finances, this is something like heaven!  

Critics of SM are often quick to dismiss the interaction as shallow, trite, or without much substance. To be sure, some of what I post may be just that. But, just as often, more profound moments come along and spur a deeper conversation or more lengthy blogpost. Here’s just a sampling of the kinds of conversations I’ve been involved in since the beginning of this year:  

  • The future of professional clergy and the future of the church: What should the church be doing? How can we be prophetic and pastoral? What does bivocational ministry look like?  
  • Seeking and providing compassionate care: prayer requests, grief support, professional discernment and call, job transition support, ordination exam study help, and moral support.  
  • Theology and diversity: Have women attained true equality in church leadership? What effect do inclusive ordination standards have on the local congregation? How does the church sustain itself as theological struggles are played out in our judicatories?  
  • Theological/Doctrinal concerns: What is the importance of new confessional statements? How should we work in the direction of God’s righteousness? What is Shalom? Is God a violent God? What do the gospels say about being prophetic?  

Though in these heady conversations, patience and trust are sometimes tested, we also manage to find time to strengthen our relationships while we trash talk the NFL; post videos of stand up comics; keep a running commentary on films or TV shows we’re watching at home; and share links to favorite music, websites, and photos.  

The Corpo-Realities: In Which Cabbages, Kings and Oysters Hang Out  

In a New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion, Colleen Carroll Campbell offered her thoughts in a piece entitled “Beware of Convenient Fellowship.” She writes in response to colleagues as they discuss whether online communities can/should take the place of offline religious life taking place in and around religious institutions. She concludes with this statement:  

The virtual faith experience is smoother and more painless than the real-world one. But it is also less likely to foster the kind of deep spiritual growth that comes only from authentic, face-to-face community—from grappling with religious teachings and disciplines that challenge our natural inclinations and religious believers whose rough edges help us recognize and soften our own.2  

 

 

Ms. Campbell’s observation is not unfamiliar to me. In one form or another, I have heard this from friends, family, congregation members and acquaintances: “I prefer face to face conversation. Then I really know what’s going on.” “How much can you actually say in 140 characters?” “You can’t really track the logic when everyone’s comments hit you all at once.”  

Like any form of communication, SM comes with its own set of risks. Face-to-face relationships require the right mixture of trust, challenge, and love. Taking those relationships online requires no less. In fact, in my limited experience, I believe that when I engage with friends and family online, I tend to be more careful, more clear. If I’m going to be controversial, I try to indicate that as I post. If I’m going to use snark, sarcasm, or any other form of language typically enhanced by raised eyebrows or eye-rolls, I make an effort to communicate that somehow. We all know that it takes a lot of work to keep relationships from going sour IRL and it’s no different online.  

For me, social networking is very much like Paul’s vision of the koinonia . Paul called it the body of Christ, the proof of which comes in the recognition and honoring of the many and various gifts shared and received with grace within the body. In fact, SM may provide a perfect venue for living out that kind of body theology.

Crowd-sourcing is a fantastic way to acknowledge that there are people “out there” who have gifts, experience, and energy that can be brought to the conversation. For me, this takes place primarily in two venues: Facebook, where I can access over 700 friends, family, and colleagues, and Twitter, where I hang out with nearly 400 mostly clergy and church leader types. I can post prayer concerns for my family and within minutes, I know that there have been scores of prayers. When I’m looking for a resource, a “how-to,” or a recommendation, one question can yield a dozen or more helpful offerings. And when I just feel like being goofy, or sharing a little bit of what makes me tick (or ticks me off), I can be sure that I have a conversation partner, a buddy to goof off with, or a loving friend who will weep virtual (and real) tears with me.  

TweetUps are gatherings which are initiated by the online community and provide great opportunities to take online conversations into the real world as friends agree to gather and discuss, celebrate, raise funds for a cause, pray, or whatever. To date, I’ve been involved in two types of TweetUps. The first involves doing some great fundraising in our local community through an organization called Twestival.3 With the simply stated vision and mission—Tweet, Meet, Give—we are encouraged to organize, promote, and gather twice a year around particular causes chosen by the participants. With a networked structure, each participant has the opportunity to take the lead as time and gifts allowed. Working in this way not only serves the needs of an important local cause, but it also helps strengthen and deepen the relationships of those involved.  

In May 2011, I attended what I thought was going to be a somewhat hipper version of the usual continuing education events I’d attended in the past. Initiated and developed by a small community of friends who went to seminary together, this theological TweetUp, called the UnConference (aka UNCO11), brought together about 70 Tweeple for conversation and shared leadership.4 Together, we considered the possibilities and challenges in the 21st century church. Participants were encouraged to use their gifts to take the lead in worship, as conversation guides, as mentors. In ten years of ministry, I have never experienced anything like this. The SM orientation helped us connect and remain in relationship with each other even now, several months after the fact. This is the Body of Christ at its finest.  

The Cautionaries: In Which We Consider Mad Hatters, Cheshire Cats, and Other Rabbit Holes  

As an early adopter and a BIG FAN of social networking, it is easy for me to become something of a cheerleader, shaking my pom pons and exhorting all to join me in my optimistic views. However, it is important to take a moment to recognize that like any method of communication, like any tool used to engage other people, there are pitfalls which can be avoided with a little bit of care.  

    1. Remember that social networking is neither horizontal nor vertical, but multidimensional. It is possible for news to travel from point A to point H to point C. Points B, D, E, F and G may not be involved at all  
    2. Something known as “time suck” is a common criticism of both frequent and infrequent users. Budgeting time with clear boundaries may be necessary.  
    3. There is wisdom in considering account accessibility limits. Pastors may want to consider private accounts where they can be free from worry that a congregant might misunderstand what is being posted. At the present, my accounts are open, which means I have to pay very close attention to how what I post may be interpreted.  
    4. Common sense rules apply. If I think I’m oversharing or that what I’m about to post seems to fall under the TMI (too much imformation) category, I tend to rethink the post.  
    5. Don’t underestimate the importance of clarity and follow-up. Online disagreements are no less painful than they are IRL. Check in privately to see if the relationship needs extra attention  

 

The Finalities: In Which We Consider Exploring the Other Side of the Looking Glass and In Which We say “See You Online!”  

When Alice ventured through the looking glass, what she encountered there was a beautifully complex world that was at first overwhelming to her. Yet on some level, she recognized that her intentionality about moving into and through that dreamworld would, in the end, bring some benefit, though she could not yet identify it. So it is with SM. Relationships in any venue are complicated. SM is not a panacea for the struggle to connect and commit. Neither is SM a place to hide. While at times confusing and perhaps even overwhelming, social networks have much to offer as we live and move through the 21st century. If you’re looking for a partner in this journey, you’ll find me online!  

More on this topic

Gil Rendle: Ministry beyond aspiration

People are often well-inten...