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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Resisting and Embracing Cyberspace

I was reflecting deeply on Our Katharine's words, spoken at the Closing Eucharist of the House of Bishop's meeting in the Chapel at Camp Allen, Texas (see below).

She spoke about the sort of bifocal lenses we need in order to clearly see the fullness of the reality which is our world, in general, and the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion in particular.

She wrote: "Our current struggle gives evidence of a competition between perspectives or worldviews. One of them looks at the world through an Enlightenment lens and expects to see predictability, understandability, and definability. Another view of the world comes through a postmodern lens, one that sees constant change and a significant degree of unpredictability as intrinsic to creation."

Just as I was considering that and its deep implications, came a note from one of the Deans of one of the nearby Universities where I teach and from whence I will, God willing, graduate with my doctorate next year.

The note was strongly written. One might say sternly written. Let's just say that it had "tone" and that tone was undeniably scolding. You know, in the way your mother never raised her voice when she was telling you something but you knew there was an implied threat in there somewhere.

She was scolding the theological students, in particular, for not using the online registration, computer blackboard, K-drive, campus email or the other myriad of computer resources offered by the university.

However, it was her closing remark that caught me: "Registration for the spring semester will be handled exclusively through CampusWeb - you will not be able to use hard copy."

Which elicited a first response wherein I placed my hands on my hip, stuck my chin out and said, "And then what? We'll not be able to register. And then what? I won't register. And then what?" It seemed to me the natural consequence of this sort of strident action carried with it a potential for everyone to lose.

After I calmed down, I realized that I had simply allowed this memo to push one of my own very hot 'hot buttons'. In order to see the entire picture, to really read this message, I needed to put on my "bifocals."

It's a brave new world, with brave new pastoral challenges.

The church which is emerging is not "your father's Oldsmobile." Frankly, I don't know what I would do without technology and the ability to travel the superhighways of cyberspace. It certainly has made the task of pastoring a large community far less complicated than it was for any of my predecessors.

Indeed, this very Blog came into existence in June of 2006 in order that my entire congregation could read my daily reflections during General Convention. I was so naive and ignorant about technology that I really thought that only members of my congregation would have access to my Blog. I was literally floored when I began reading the comments section and learn who was reading my reflections - and, from around the globe!

I blush now to write that, but it's the honest truth! Today's pastor needs to be techno-savvy, having had lessons (even if only by trial and error in the School of Baptism by Full Immersion) in how to surf the Internet.

And yet . . . I fear that we are creating a climate wherein tomorrow's pastor, on hearing that one of her parishioners is in the hospital, will not grab the car keys and head for the hospital, but instead, dash for the computer or laptop on the desk to do so research on the diagnosis.

I have discovered that parochial ministry is one that does not come with the kind of instant gratification of other vocations and positions. It's taken me five years at St. Paul's to pick up the pieces from an absolutely disastrous interim period, wherein most of the organizational infrastructure had been dismantled, attendance was an a record low, and an every member canvass had not been done in any one's recollection.

That we are now able to forge ahead into a brave new future is the fruit of hard work and good old fashion community building. Yes, we have been enormously assisted by technological advances. But, that would not have happened without the cultivation of relationships - lots of "face time" as they say in corporate America.

And yet, I wonder: How would the reformation, renewal and reconciliation of Anglicanism be different without the component of rapid communication in cyberspace? I mean, we as a church and as individuals have had SIGNIFICANT conversation with people we've never met and probably wouldn't recognize if we passed them on the street. And yet, cyberspace is the crucible in which the re-formation of our church is being carried out.

So, I sat down and wrote this letter to the Dean. I'm curious to know your reactions. I mean, this is one of the benefits of cyberspace, is it not? Why not use it, right?

Dear Dean,

Technology is clearly a gift, heaven sent, which allows us to effectively and efficiently tend to the details of communication in a way which has radically changed the way we live. Of this I am quite certain.

I am not surprised at the resistance, especially on the part of theological students, to its full use. While I understand the need for conformity to the procedure of the university, I think this resistance on the part of theological students is a good thing.

Indeed, I wish to sing the praises of the resistance of present and future pastors to change their "natural default" to technology rather than the organic, innate impulse for human contact.

My grandmother and mother used to take Friday mornings to do their banking and then they would make the rounds of the various shops and vendors to "make payments" on their accounts. They paid their bills in cash, and they paid their bills in person.

They had a cordial, professional relationship with the grocer, the butcher, the pharmacist, the florist and the ubiquitous "junk man" who could always be relied upon to fix a broken toaster, sharpen knives and scissors, and have just the right button to replace the one that had come off your coat or sweater.

The tailor at the Robert Hall shop on Main Street knew all of the names of all of the children in our family, and when it was that we would be ready to be fitted for our suits or dresses for First Holy Communion or Confirmation, because they had known us since our baptismal outfits had been purchased.

These relationships were incredibly important during illness or layoffs at the factory, when "making payments" became difficult. I have a clear memory of my mother weeping at the pharmacy when my brother had yet another ear infection and needed an antibiotic and she had not yet paid off what was to her the monumental previous balance of $77 from his last bout of illness. The pharmacist put his arm around my mother, comforting her and saying, "Just pay me what you can, Lydia. I've known your family for years. I know you'll pay me what you can, when you can. Don't worry. It will all get paid off."

Yes, the world no longer operates on that paradigm. Yet, I can tell you that , in my past and present ministry, one of the first things I do is visit as many people as I possibly can in their homes.

Even before that, I walk the streets of the town, visiting the banks and shop owners and having a cup of tea in the coffee or sandwich shops.

I don't think there is anyone in this town with a store on Main Street whose business I have not frequented at least once, whose names I don't know, whose stories have not been told to me, who don't know me by sight and greet me by name.

It's a very, very important component to a ministry of pastoral presence. I don't have to tell you this. Your door is opened to students all the time. You, of all people, know the value of pastoral presence all too well.

You won't be surprised then, to know that I have very much enjoyed every time I have registered in person. I even pay my tuition in person - but not in cash. The staff have always answered my questions effectively and efficiently, and sometimes, we even just talk. I feel that I have a relationship with them.

Yes, of course, I live "just down the street." It is an easy option for me.

I am surprised by how much I am grieving the loss of that option.

I hope that the administration will reconsider the hard and fast rule about registering by CampusWeb - especially for theological students. Yes, yes, let's bring the church, dragging and kicking if need be, into the third millennium. Yet, even as we do, I hope that we would always encourage pastors and future pastors to err on the side of relationship and to fail on the side of human connection.

Thanks for listening, says she who sits in complete amazement at how suddenly and easily it is that she has become the old fart she always considered her mother, aunts and grandmother to have been.


Bill said...

I’d say that you are correct in thinking that the internet can effectively take “people” out of ministry. That face to face meeting in business is what often seals the deal. Likewise that face to face meeting between priest and patient can not be over emphasized. You can’t hold hands with a “mouse”. I remember being in the hospital some years back and having the local hospital chaplain come in and take my hand in his. The warmth of his hand in mine was like an electric shock. Someone taking the time to hold another’s hand and conveying that sense of caring humanity is better than any medicine.

There are additional considerations. I know of one individual who was restricted from internet access because of certain indiscretions. That person wasn’t allowed to use the internet for three years. She quickly found out that much of the world functions through that electronic gateway. She wasn’t able to pay bills, or order medication, or even do research. She was effectively unplugged.

Many small businesses have gone the way of the Dodo bird. They were unable to compete with the large mail order houses. As a result, we don’t think twice about looking for something online and then placing an order. What if you were restricted from going on line. Or, lets say that you need an item right now. Many of the stores you visit maintain only the most common goods. The no longer keep large inventories. If you want something they can order it on line, but that will take two to three days to receive.

I was dealing with an issue just the other day. I hadn’t used “PayPal”, an online payment system” for over two years. When I attempted to use it, I realized that I had forgotten my password. After three attempts, I was locked out and told to go to a URL to fix the problem. The URL told me that it would send information to my Email. When I got the email, it instructed me to call an 800 number. The 800 number told me to go back to the URL from where I had just come. It was a vicious circle. Finally I tried an old trick. When the voice response system came on line, I punched in “0” instead of the listed options. Then I got a live operator. If you didn’t know how to do this, you would never get the problem resolved.

So, the internet is an answer to many things. It is a valuable tool. But it doesn’t replace human beings.

Muthah+ said...

Elizabeth, Old farts often have to use bifocals which Our Katharine instructs the bishops to do. I have been wearing them since I went to EDS so it means I have been looking foreward and backward for 30 years.
All too often we use the internet like it was merely a keyboard rather than the communication between folks. That is what made your blog so important to your ministry and the ministry of the Church. It was your humanity that caught us and shared the experience with us. Your willingness to share your humanity on line that keeps us atune to your humanity and to ours.

Never fail to remember that blogging is not something removed from the heart. Often times the exchanges on comments gets peppered with posts that are soley in our minds and never have to be heard. But they ARE heard--all over the world. I think that some cruel things have been said on many of the blogs (not yours)without a thought of the impact that some of them make. The turn of the phrase or the sarcastic slap is often so much more fun. Like the off-hand remark in the coffee room. But if we see what we do on line as much of a ministry as our holding of parishioners'hands, then it behooves us to put away the sharp retort. This does not mean that we should not speak up and out for what we believe, but it does mean that we are about ministry whether it is high tech or not.

I know I am preaching to the choir on this post, but perhaps it is an important reminder to all of us.

DBW said...

I'm not an old fart, but I find myself concurring with you. I teach some online courses and have been having to grade students I've never met. It is a totally cold experience.