I’ve been trying to write this, the first of several “What I Wish I Knew” posts, for at least two weeks. As it turns out, the list of things I wish I knew amounts to a function approaching infinity. I have some unwieldy reflections simmering on Being as opposed to Doing, the nature of congregational life, and existential loneliness. But those posts are not exactly shaping themselves up in the most readable fashion. So here’s today’s What I Wish I Knew:
Texts, Tweets, Facebook and TMI*: Pastoral Care in the Digital Age.
When I interviewed for my current job, part of the profile included “pastoral care for youth.” The line item in the job description confused me – I had, to this point, envisioned “pastoral care” as showing up in the ER for a late-night emergency visit or sitting vigil at old people’s bedsides. The idea of counseling or visitation with generally healthy young people seemed kind of…odd.
I was wrong from every possible angle. Actually, kids do get sick – really sick. So do their parents, and their grandparents. Kids suffer mental illness, and have multiple major knee surgeries, and get long-term viruses that they can’t seem to shake. They grieve, and they break up with their girlfriends, they get bullied, they lose people, and every one of those “pastoral care” situations that one expects to exist within a congregation of adults also affects a group of youth. My seminary classes on family systems, active listening, and pastoral care in general have proved helpful.
But what I wish I knew is how to practice pastoral care when so much of our lives are lived online. I am not, like some, a complete curmudgeon about things like Facebook. Facebook can rock really hard. For instance:
When our senior pastor left this summer to become the president of Bethany Seminary, a church member created a little badge on Facebook to honor him. It was sweet:
And then, several weeks later, when I found myself preaching to a grieving congregation kind of twisting in the raw winds of transition, he edited the badge just slightly and posted it before worship:
It made me laugh out loud. Encouragement. On Facebook.
Still, being a part of people’s lives in a meaningful and compassionate way online is relatively new territory for pastors. Many pastors simply refuse to engage online, doggedly maintaining a traditionally analog existence. Some of my minister friends create multiple Facebook profiles for themselves – one for their professional circles and congregants, another, “real,” one for their close friends. I find that hard and fast bifurcation of identity to be lacking in pastoral integrity. And I think willful ignorance of what’s happening on the internet is actually a dangerous omission.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about a 12 year old girl who threw herself off a building, killing herself because the kids that were taunting her at school found her online and continued their insults and bullying there. This was after her mother had found out about the face-to-face problem, removed her physically from the building and enrolled her in a new school. Her mother had no idea the torture was still happening. Dangerous omission. I read the article and immediately signed up for Ask.fm, the social media platform where the bullying took place, and one among several social media apps that my youth regularly frequent.
I also understand the reluctance to engage on so many platforms. Pastors are already bombarded with the fullness of life on a daily basis, and people often share way more of their lives online than in person. The sheer volume of information I ingest from a scroll through the day’s Twitter feed is knee-buckling. The need of the world – micro and macro – is staggering. It used to be that we knew about this need slowly, learning it in drips and drops as we encountered people face to face. But the internet brings the world’s need to us all at once, in five gallon buckets thrown in our faces.
Pastors are left trying to figure out which status update requires response, which tweet ought to be shared with others. And if I respond to one person’s broadcasted request for prayer, do I then respond to every one I come across? Do I limit it to those friends who are also in my congregation and thus in my “purview”? If someone shares something personal in the public forum that is Facebook or Twitter, am I free to share it with others as well?
This conversation doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how technology is changing the role of a pastor. What do you do, for instance, when someone is reluctant to talk in person but downright intimate in a text message exchange? And how can Sabbath be a real practice if work follows you around anywhere you go through your cell phone network? I’ve set up visits through Facebook, celebrated new births on Instagram, learned of illness through Twitter, caught wind of conflict in the comment section of a blog. I’ve had to increase my texting plan to accommodate the number of counseling conversations that get instigated and carried out that way. A minister friend once accompanied a parishioner through a miscarriage in real time via G-chat. That particular example deserves an entire case study.
Being a pastor is coming to mean more and more – for me – the intentional and consistent practice of being present with people wherever they are: church sanctuary, hospital room, soccer field, jail cell, coffee shop, mental institution, courthouse hallway, or funeral home chapel. And more and more, the “wherever” of that practice is happening online or through a phone. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Ask.fm are the new town square. They are the commons.
Being present from afar looks different than being present in person. It takes a different kind of attentiveness, a new kind of discernment. It is what we are called to do, but, good Lord, it is sometimes hard to figure out. Texts, tweets, Facebook and G-chat are arenas of God’s presence and goodness, too. For a people who walk in and toward the incarnation of God, it’s important to acknowledge that reality, to claim it as true, and occupy even these spaces with the love of Christ. I just don’t know, exactly, how.
I didn’t learn that in seminary, y’all.
*TMI = too much information, FYI**
**FYI = for your information, FWIW***
***FWIW = for what it's worth
(pastoral care in the digital age also requires a bilingual competency in acronym-ese.)