Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Ministry and Pastoral Implications of Technology

It began for me with Facebook, this thinking about how the new paradigm in virtual and electronic communications might affect ministry, but it has expanded beyond that to many questions about how this new interconnected, virtual, on-demand world should rest with the traditional understandings of the ministry. What I have found in this quest so far is that I am much more “traditional” than many might have previously thought me.

Though I’ve been unconsciously navigating the waters of ministry and the shoals of technology for awhile, I did not consciously begin thinking about consequences and implications until the technology of Facebook ran smack into the “good boundaries” understandings at the end of an internship. During my ministerial internship, I had “friended” on Facebook any congregant who asked, and even remember thinking what a great ministry tool it was. By following congregant’s Facebook posts, I knew when it was their birthday, when there had been a joy, when they were having a rough week. While I did not often communicate with them through Facebook emails or the like, it allowed me to offer a word of hope or congratulations at church when it was needed.

Yet, when the ministerial internship ended, I had the unexpected complication (and every once in awhile still happens) of congregants who would want to continue a direct relatinoship through Facebook. Often they would begin “I know I’m not supposed to be contacting you, but…”, so they knew they were pushing the rules (which Unitarian Universalists love to do.) Somehow, because it was through Facebook, it seemed like it might be “okay”.

For those who might not understand why this is a big deal, in our tradition a minister ceases contact with the congregants of a church they are no longer serving, in order not to interfere in the next minister’s ministry. In the case of a ministerial intern, there is also the added aspects that the Intern is learning good boundaries, and the congregation is learning how to let go, both vitally important for the future of the minister and of the congregation.

In each case, I contacted my former supervising minister and let her know what was going on, and with her permission I sent a gentle but firm message that simply said that though I missed my time with their church, such contact was inappropriate and they really needed to speak with their current ministry team.

When I asked ministerial colleagues what they do about Facebook or similar kinds of networking sites, I got a variety of responses. Some have ceased using it at all because of this kind of problem. Others simply “unfriend” every member of a congregation at the end of a ministry (which solves the problem, but wow for the symbolism). Some maintain two Facebook accounts… one for colleagues and personal friends, and one for the church. When they leave a ministry, they close that church account. I’m sure there have been a few other creative solutions. I’m currently exploring how to play with the “groups and permissions” features, and this may work but it is complicated.

What has arisen from this for me is the continuing realization that pastoral relationship is not like any other kind of relationship. It is certainly not like our personal relationships with friends, and family. The pastoral relationship with a congregant is different than that with a colleague, because such collegial relationships do not have to end at the end of a ministry. Pastoral relationships in a congregation do not have the nice, neat clinical boundaries that Doctors, Psychologists (and to some extent, medical Chaplains) are required to Buy Prednisone maintain.

It is even a different form of relationship that the Liberal Ministry brings to ministry than many other denominations. Perhaps this is because of our intentional leveling of many of the more hierarchical structures that attach to ministry (and of which we have some of the forms but less of the substance), and also our different understanding of the purpose of ministry (as compared to my Evangelical Baptist and Pentecostal upbringing.)

So, as society is seeking to learn new ways of doing interpersonal relationship shaped by these new technological memes, there is a subset of thinking that we in the Liberal Ministry need to do… and that is how to we best continue the necessary, specific, and unique nature of Liberal pastoral ministerial relationship in this changing technology of interpersonal communication? How can we begin sharing “best practices” on how we navigate modern electronic relationship?

Here are a few of the “Best Practices” that I am coming to. I’m hoping some of you will share yours:

Unless I recognize the phone number, I screen all my calls, even from congregants. It allows me to choose in what frame of mind and thinking I enter into what may indeed be a deep life-moment for a parishioner. Often, I call back within two minutes, but those two minutes can center me (based upon the message), or let me find a place where I can talk in private (not the checkout line at the Target). It also allows me to “triage” what needs a return phone call, and what might actually need just a short email saying “We’ll talk about that after Church on Sunday”. So, I tell congregants that if they get the answering machine, wait a few minutes afterward before calling someone else.

I try my best not to deal with emotional content through email. If I receive an emotionally charged email, I will express sympathy and empathy, and then seek to get the person either on the phone (or better) to see them in person. There is too much left out of the written word. In my experience, 90 percent of the problems with email are the lack of shared emotional experience. I am happy to receive emotionally charged emails to bring me into a situation (because I know that sometimes the written word is the only way we feel we can express such things in the moment), but I do not try to do ministry by email.

I do not “Twitter”, nor do I countenance those who do. Sorry. Thou Shalt Never Receive a Tweet from Me, nor shallest I read a Tweet from you. It shall be known among us as the “160 Characters of Doom”.

I keep a blog, but I think of it as another pulpit. The blog is in many ways my pre-writing for sermons, not a place where I share single thoughts or remark on the vagaries of my personal life. As such, almost every posting to my blog is a coherent essay, meant to be my working out of ideas that may later find their way into a sermon. However, I rarely post my sermons directly to the blog, (though they are online) because the two rest in a different place in my life and ministry. As such, with every blog article I read it through three times before posting it… First for grammar and spelling, it being a public document. Second, to make sure I am not violating my oath and responsibilities as a military officer. Third, to make sure I am not violating the confidence or boundaries placed upon me by the ministry. The most important reading is the final one.

I have come to realize and accept how much ministry is needed around issues of online dating. I have personally never “online dated”, so I needed some young adults to give me a refresher course in modern dating (after which, I went home, kissed my wife, and said a deep and hearty “Thank you for marrying me”.) It is an emotionally horrific process, this creating an online “idol” of yourself, and then going though countless virtual rejections followed by virtual communication and visualizing another person in ways they could never hope to live up to in the flesh. So, even if I as a minister (and hopefully happily married for the rest of my earthly existence) may never have to “online date”, I need to understand the technology to be able to minister with those who are. This lesson has begun to apply to many other aspects of interpersonal communications, including the dreaded “Twitter”. I need to understand “Twitter” in order to minister to someone suffering from “Celebrity Twitter Addiction” (CTA).

These are but a few of the “best practices” I am developing for ministry in this age of interpersonal communications technology. What I think is the guiding principle, however, is to allow the unique requirements and boundaries of authentic pastoral relationship drive the use of technology, not the other way around. In this world where increased communication is leading to increased isolation, the ministry must model a middle way.

Yours in Faith,


8 Thoughts on “The Ministry and Pastoral Implications of Technology

  1. “I keep a blog, but I think of it as another pulpit.”

    Can I quote you on that David?

    I am trying to get the UUA, UUMA, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee to understand that the blogs of U*U clergy are in fact a form of virtual pulpit, and are thus a very public extension of their ministry, not unlike how a letter to the editor and/or opinion editorial and/or other foray into traditional media like newspapers, radio, or television would be. At present the UUA, UUMA, and MFC just don’t get it, or at least pretend not to get it. . . when a U*U minister makes an unbecoming ass out of him and/or herself on his and/or her blog. This “confession” of yours could come in handy in terms of persuading the UUA, UUMA and MFC to wise up and hold U*U clergy accountable if and when they misuse and abuse the freedom of the virtual pulpits of their blogs.

  2. Robin,

    To your point, and also to mine… a blog is a public statement. There are times I might need to retract or apologize for a public statement, because I am an imperfect human being, seminarian or no. But that being said, anything I say in a blog, in a sermon, in an editorial is by definition a public statement, and can be quoted as such. In the case of a sermon, it is more than a public statement… it is a public offering.

    So, understanding that I am an imperfect and changing human being, of course you can quote me… and I will let the chips of who I am fall where they may. I remember a sign my father once had on his desk when he was working as a U.S. Army Intelligence Agent…

    “Products of this office are not necessarily well thought out… Therefore we reserve the right to change our minds without notice. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

    In addition to that, my promise is to try my best to admit when I am wrong, or when my thoughts/ideas/beliefs change.

    Yours in Faith,


  3. Would that some of the people I know at the UUA, and a certain unmentionable U*U “church”, had that kind of attitude and integrity David. Maybe you should run for UUA President. 😉

    I will quote you and incorporate it into a piece I will write about U*U clergy misusing and abusing the very public virtual “pulpit” of their blogs. If you would be interested in collaborating on such as an essay, which a prominent U*U clergy misconduct advocate suggested I write recently, please let me know.


    Robin Edgar

  4. Oh, Facebook. How I love it, for connecting to friends far away, and how I hate it, for the boundary issues surrounding people close at hand. John and I have come to an agreement that we don’t friend anyone from his current church, though we do have some members of our home church and a few select members of his internship site on our friend lists — not because of pastoral relationships but because they are truly friends. When we get friend requests from current people, we have to have awkward conversations about boundaries, explaining that we use FB to keep in touch with friends from way back and from seminary, so we don’t feel comfortable having current church members on our lists.

    So far, everyone has understood, and word has gotten around, so it seems to be okay. But still so tricky! And then there are some of our minister friends whose lists are full of their current congregants, so they themselves are more reserved than perhaps they would be without those connections, so that becomes rather strange, too.

    I think the UUA and the UUMA need to come up with some best practice guidelines for lots of these technological issues, but like any subject, I’m not confident that they could come up with anything that could possibly cover every situation. So, it comes down to personal common sense, which can lead different individuals to different individual conclusions.

  5. “I’m not confident that they could come up with anything that could possibly cover every situation.”

    It would probably be just as well if they didn’t aim for blanket coverage otherwise they might end up with some ever so “progressive” foolishness like the Franklin Unitarian*Universalist Fellowship’s poorly conceived and um executed “weapons policy”. . . But yes, the UUA, UUMA, and MFC need to formulate policies about such things as per what David and I have already touched on briefly here.

    The UUMA guidelines actually already state that “freedom of the pulpit”, and indeed related *responsibility* and accountability of the pulpit, extends to such things as newspaper Op/Eds etc. so it seems to me that they could simply add blogs and other public online communications to that clause.

  6. Jerry M. Withers on Tuesday March 31, 2009 at 8:48 +0000 said:

    “160 Characters of Doom” is possibly a great analogy and warning for all communications, not just Twitter. As many have found, what you say might be seen by a lot of people, whether in print or online. I plan to quote this phrase whenever the subject arises.

  7. Agreed Jerry,

    Most ironically I like to quote Rev. *************’s Beauty Tips For Ministers saying that appears on her Peacebang blog –

    “Because you’re in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”

    This “beauty tip” from the inimitable Rev. *********** aka Peacebang was clearly about “looks” in terms of clothing and other superficial “cosmetic” appearances but it obviously applies very well to how U*U ministers, or indeed clergy from any religion or denomination, look to the proverbial public eye (to say nothing of God’s eye. . .) on the virtual pulpits of their blogs, other publicly viewable online media such as YouTube, and more traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television etc.

    Moderator Comment: As the blogger “Peacebang” blogs anonymously, I have chosen to take her name out of this comment, not because it is really that much of a secret, but because I am being careful to follow the UUMA Guidelines. I think Robin makes an interesting point, however, about how we view our virtual presences in the pulpits of our Blogs. I did not want to lose his intent in my probably overcautious nature regarding how I relate to the UUMA Guidelines. I hope you dont mind, Robin… but if you do, I’m sure you will tell me! 😉

  8. I don’t mind at all David.

    For reasons known to myself and a good number of U*U bloggers, possibly including yourself, I kind of like how you chose to hide Peacebang’s real name. 😉

    Actually Peacebang officially “came out” in the Boston Globe newspaper a few months after I “outed” her for insulting and defaming me and various other people on her “less than polite” pseudonymous blog, so she no longer *really* blogs anonymously any more than I do as that dreaded Dark Knight of the U*U World The Emerson Avenger, but if you want to hide her real name here by stringing together a series of asterisks, which everybody knows is famous U*U Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “picture of an asshole”. . . it’s no skin off my ass as they say. 🙂

    Googling – Peacebang – alone will reveal her identity on the third page of results.

    Googling – Peacebang identity – will reveal her identity on the bottom of the first page of results.

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