Exile Files #4: The Illusion of Online Pastoral Care?

We now live in the age of the corporation. I’m following a case of a pastor having a terrible time with his phone company in Australia. He isn’t an irrational or critical person, so it sort of shocked me when he first tweeted “Arrrrrggggghhhhh Telstra not again!!!!” But it’s a normal event now, that people turn to social media when frustrated. Even pastors. In his latest facebook status, he again complained – but thanked his Telecommunications company in advance for *not* responding with a seemingly helpful but actually useless reply.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how quickly customer service people respond to social media posts? And responses sometimes ‘convert’ into a solution, but sometimes not. For example, when I was forced to pay a “non-refundable deposit” of $400 to AT&T for an internet router in Pasadena.

“Hang on, it’s either a deposit or a non-refundable payment” I told the sales assistant. “And why do I need to pay this?”

“Because you are not a US citizen” she blithely stated.

“But I have a social security number – so that’s not a real reason!” I argued.

“Yes it is” she responded. “You could leave the country without returning the router”.

I swear to you, this was not intentional, but my last act before our ride to Los Angeles airport was a panicked look at the big, black router. I left it with a neighbor, telling her I would give further instruction on its needs, as if it was a mysterious and demanding pet. Once I landed in Sydney, I immediately tried to contact the company to find out what I was supposed to do with it. I couldn’t, because all emails bounced

“AHA!” I thought. “I will save all other non-US citizens from having to pay a ridiculous non-refundable ‘deposit'”. I will let the company know their service causes disorganized internationals to fail commitment to their expensive equipment”. So I tweeted at this company (which has an annual turnover the size of a Oceanian state).

“I’m sorry for your inconvenience”, a tweet quickly replied. “Please call us to discuss this matter on 133-WECARE”.

So I did… And received the voice message “This phone service is not available outside of the US and Canada”.

No joking, I thought. Well, that’s why you need to charge impoverished international students $400. Another win for neoliberalism.

What’s the main way we engage companies? Online. We expect good service, but yell loudly to our friends when it fails. Perviously we publicized extraordinary service widely, and dealt with bad service face-to-face. Now, we are more likely to publicize failures.

But, to be honest, this reversal makes sense as a consumer. You do tend to get a quick answer on Twitter. Because companies are paranoid about preserving their branding. But, the appearance of good customer service and good customer service are two different things entirely.

More and more, I’m seeing these types of communication patterns moving into the church. Not only are pastors and members intentionally advertizing churches in the social media space “Can’t wait for [insert logo] church on Sunday! <3”, but churches and their staff are increasingly conscious of, and monitoring their brand or image.

When a church moves to thinking like a corporation, it needs to be careful not to absorb corporate motivations – but ensure it’s concerned about the quality of relationships a church can give, and not just manage ‘buzz’.

Don’t get me wrong, I think ‘buzz’ is important. For Jesus’ sake, help church attendees have something positive to say on social media. Nobody tweets about a church where the biggest event is a new dried flower arrangement.

But, as a thinker and lover of the church, I’m also interested in what happens when members go silent, or, heavens forbid, post something negative. Please hear me – I’m not really posting as a theologian, but a pastor for whom something went terribly wrong, propelling me into academics. Now I’ve been out of front row seats for a while, I’ve had many leisurely chats with church attendees.

I think most people (or at least sane ones) do recognize the human limitations of church staff. They sense the weight of the administrative needs of the church as an organization. And there is a lot of empathy for pastors, who deal with the more emotional and spiritual needs of the congregation. People also realize that different churches have different structures and ways of providing care, and some tasks are decentralized – meaning, in theory, anyone can offer them.

But, as I travel often, and investigate congregations quite closely, I’ll be honest – the amount of pastoral support offered by churches in the West has decreased incredibly in the last ten years.

Once upon a time, there was an expectation that if you were a new church member you might get a phone call from the office (or visit from the village Rector). And I’m sure in some places this still exists, but in most you’re lucky to get an automated “Congratulations! You’re registered for the weekly newsletter”.  In especially traumatic or happy periods of your life you might now expect to receive a one-line note, or a bunch of flowers. At Christmas you can expect a Christmas card. We even ask new Christians to log on to register their details and receive more information about God. We need to admit that “clicktivism”, or an online response to real life, has impacted the way we do church.

I’m not saying that the church doesn’t do extraordinary things for people. In fact, I have LOTS to say about the extraordinary generosity of Christians. A friend of mine informed me yesterday that her Baptist congregation committed to pay half her traumatized child’s psychologist bill. I felt so, so proud of her pastors. I attended Reality LA in 2012 when an uninsured student gave the testimony that when he came off his scooter, his congregation pitched in $4,000 worth of medical bills. At Hillsong Church, a single mum of seven was given A CAR. This makes my heart so happy.

I also get overjoyed when I see extraordinary emotional or spiritual support. I just got back from Ganggalah Church, Australia, in which many couples in the church have taken in foster children, and provide each other parenting support. I’m proud of North Hills Church, Brea for being a mid-size AOG church where retired couples intentionally pray for other church members.

Maybe these are the churches with the balance right, I don’t know. But I also hear from hundreds of Christian families who tell me their church has no connection at all with their everyday life. It doesn’t know about the psychological needs of their children, it isn’t empathizing about medical bills. It isn’t even training connect group leaders to make a short, occasional phone call to long-term members with depression. I don’t know how to reconcile these two pictures.

Recently, a pastor friend of mine decided to do exit interviews on four hundred people who had left their midsize Pentecostal church over the last two years. That figure staggers me to the point of nausea. FOUR HUNDRED PEOPLE LEFT THEIR CHURCH DURING A TWO-YEAR PERIOD WITH NO PASTORAL RESPONSE. The scary thing? It wasn’t a church split, or family dispute – just people who filled in communication cards and stopped turning up at some point, but nobody noticed.

Steady numbers can lie in terrible ways. Another pastor informed me that she noticed her congregation’s back door when their colour changed. That sounds ridiculous, but there were an influx of Sudanese refugees into the area, and a dramatic skin colour change in her mega-church congregation visibly showed her how many people had slipped out, and slipped in. I’m not talking about an odd family here and there. I’m talking about an exodus of mammoth proportions in the Western church, with no pastoral response … until it turns up on social media.

Last year, I created a series of posts called ‘The Exile Files’, to talk about the figures that once lingered in church foyers. I wrote a post on the history of the new religious economy, drawing upon mission studies. I then wrote on the differences between biblical passages that deal with interpersonal reconciliation, and the way it now plays out in “self-exile” from six my years of ethnographic work in churches. I finally presented a future-forward image of the dandelion as a metaphor for church in constant change due to globalization.

We are not only in the age of global movements, but also the corporation. And as we stew in the juices of society, it’s to be expected that we absorb some of this flavour.

Is the possibility of pastoral care in this online life an illusion? Well no! There are some ways pastoral care happens effectively in a virtual world. Online interaction can be a force for good. And you don’t need pastoral credentials to begin offering spiritual and emotional care to others. Here are some thoughts to help better pastoral care responses on social media:

  • If you’re seen as representing the church, examine your motives before you post. Are you trying to censor what this person is saying? or listen to grow their narrative beyond debilitating emotions? – 1 Sam 16:7
  • It’s OK to say ‘I’m praying for you’ online, but if you say you will, then mean it. – Matt 5:37
  • It’s important not to just use someone’s timeline if you are discussing emotionally sensitive issues. Not only can it leave them unsure of your motives (being seen to care?), but often they cannot be truly honest in the public space. Interact both on their timeline (as a public show of support) and in emails/private messaging.
  • Being with people in their moment with their emotion is an important biblical principle – Romans 12:15
  • Asking big questions is not wrong, and neither is it “ungodly” – Ps 130
  • A little private ‘R U OK?’ goes a long way, especially if you see something you believe out of character, explosive or inflammatory. If you get a breakthrough, you’ve won a friend for life. – Matt 18:15
  • Don’t assume people know you read their statuses unless you comment or retweet. Likes are not memorable engagements.
  • A few ‘congratulations’ or ‘keep going!’ when things are good earns you credit to say ‘uh… ??’ if you’re seeing self-destructive or defeating behavior.
  • Sounds silly, but you have permission to be real. You can have mutually beneficial friendships and fulfil a pastoral role. Obviously, don’t ignore a professional code of conduct!!!! But don’t be afraid of being honest and transparent, because friendships will sustain you after your pastoral role ends. If you’re a mum, you can authentically engage with mums who are not pastors. If you’re a golfer, you can be friends with golfers. You get the drift.
  • Use social media for updates, but set a face-to-face conversation to gauge motives. Tone is everything.
  • If you don’t have tools for actual pastoral care, you will start to ‘manage’ the congregation’s conversations about your church. Read widely to gain spiritual formation practices: Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, Richard Rohr, Wayne Cordiero have great books in this area.
  • Don’t be afraid to refer. You can act as the triage, but don’t fill roles you’re not qualified for. If it’s medical, refer to a doctor. If it’s psychological, a psychologist. Don’t forget that you provide important spiritual solutions such as prayer.
  • There are online ways to support many common congregational issues – for example, software can help you assist a church member manage sexual addictions, exercise, achieve bible reading goals and/or journal effectively. You can even “be” with a suicidal person online even when not in the same city ( I know because I’ve done it while waiting for back up to arrive). Don’t be afraid to use these tools.
  • Pray and ask God to make it entirely clear when you need to drop everything and drive over to a house. It might feel stupid, but you could save a life.
  • Beware of a “leadership” focus in any other place than the highest levels of management. Use synonyms to broaden what you mean by this word, and think carefully about it – when you “leadership”, what does it mean for your community? Obviously, for vision casting, and organizational impetus, leadership is a goal. And preaching on leadership can help congregation members aspire to these roles – but it’s not the core business of church.
  • Church is about the business of following Jesus. – 1 Cor 11:1

6 thoughts on “Exile Files #4: The Illusion of Online Pastoral Care?

  1. At the risk of getting peeps upset by getting on my soap box, I have been saying for a long time now, that colleges are failing to produce “Pastors,” who will actually pastor their flock. Within the ACC I believe that before anyone can be ordained to a pastoral level, they need to do the Cert 1V in Chaplaincy. I have heard so many ministers, (Some who are senior in the movement) say that it was only after doing this course, they released despite their many years of planting churches, and being a leader or associate leader in the church – they had never pastored the church.

    Good to see this is being seriously discussed and highlighted.

  2. For probably the past 12 months I was essentially looking after the social media for my church. At the start, it was great. But then I started getting really frustrated with how things were being promoted, and also the expectations that were being placed on me. Recently, I’ve stopped doing it. Not that I really let anyone know, but I just stopped. The department head who had delegated the task to me took up the slack. I just didn’t have the mental space left at the end of the day to look after anyone else’s social media needs. (During that time I was also asked to join the national social media team for the ACC, but that’s still getting established). At the same time, I’ve really not been around church much. Some weeks I’m there once, sometimes twice, but I’m pretty (intentionally) invisible at the moment. But the most frustrating thing? No one has thought to check up and see if I’m ok. I’m a vocal coordinator and a young adults connect leader. I pretty much disappear and no one (except my senior pastor!) notices. I’m still pastoring and mentoring my girls, but there’s no one doing that for me. It’s a bit frustrating.

    (sorry if this is a ramble!)

    1. I’m really sorry to hear that it’s been hard for you, Preena!!!

      Well, the first thing is that you’re not alone – the rates of burn out in ministry are astronomical, so it’s a good idea to get some emergency recuperation practices into place for YOU. You can think of it as pastoring your girls effectively. It might be a ‘sabbatical’, or reading for enjoyment, or just praying silently fifteen minutes a day. If something works for you, keep it up!!!

      You might also need to make an appointment with your head of department and/or pastoral care team and share your experience. Just talking out these sorts of issues is shown to decrease the potency of the emotions associated with them. I think typing works too 😉

      And please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!

  3. HI Tanya

    I read your post last night and just wanted to encourage you to keep up the deep engagement with these issues. It’s always refreshing reading your thoughts.

    I agree with your comment that the church “organisation” can easily become disconnected with many people. My family and I went through some time after Bible College transitioning between churches and when we had toddlers we found out the hard way that we were not only physically not able to participate but also not welcomed to do so (we had to wait in the foyer and watch the TV screens of the sermon because of the potential for my baby to be noisey). While I understand this, from a structural perspective, it was not warm. I have been praying deeply following a conversation of a few weeks ago with some people we had over to Sunday lunch where they confessed to me they just want to connect with “anyone” at church. These were Christians with 50+ years of heritage who found no one who wanted to talk about the things of God and the struggles of life with them.

    If I can add anything to your ruminations it would be that not only are we in a global, corporately dominated world, we are also in a deeply technological one. My 40 odd years have seen massive changes in this area and we are more influenced now than ever before. There are great opportunities here but also pitfalls we need to be aware of in terms of who we become as a result of the influences of being “on” all the time.

    Keep up the great work and blessings.


    1. Thanks Ben for your encouragement. 🙂
      I totally agree, sitting in a special room so you don’t ‘distract’ others with normal child development is an interesting place to find yourself as an adult. And it *is* technology that has led us there, as you mention. Being able to televise a live feed into another space is both a blessing and a curse. I’m not in that phase of life, but I have a friend that has done ten years in a similar room due to family spacing. I don’t know whether I would attend the cry room for ten years.
      I think it’s about values – many churches aren’t distracted by crying (an example is Kellyville Anglican where my brother-in-law worship leads), so do find yourself with some fifty year olds who don’t mind your child yelling, and even think it’s adorable — then you’re set!
      Blessings! Tan.

  4. I enjoy looking through this article that will make men and women think.
    Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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