PeaceBang’s Guide To Surviving Cyber & Techno Life

Dear Rev., can I be your FRIEND on FACEBOOK?

How about on MySpace? How about it?

Darling pigeons,

We live in complex times. Part of our work is ancient and resonates with the practices of far bygone eras: we dress in vestments based on pre-Christian Roman garb, we spend hours of study poring over texts written thousands of years ago, we ascend a pulpit on Sunday mornings as has been done for many hundreds of years and preach in a way that hasn’t changed all that much over all that time. We visit the sick, we bury the dead, we pronounce words that render people in love “husband and wife” or “married partners for life,” we pour water over the fresh little heads of babies to bless and welcome them into the world. None of that is very high tech, and it certainly isn’t anything new under the sun.

And yet we also organize meetings and keep in touch with parishioners over e-mail, participate in conference calls, become as i-Phone or Blackberry-obsessed as any other tech-addled individual, constantly look to our cell phones for evidence that we are needed and important, and grocery shop with our beepers on. We typically own computers and digital cameras and i-Pods and other gadgets that both enslave us and join us to the world we live in. And that includes social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace.

So what to do when congregants ask to be your friend on Facebook or MySpace or start reading your personal blog or sending you Instant Messages when you’re online?

Be flattered and welcome them!

If you don’t have a compartmentalized life and personality and have nothing to hide, what are you afraid of? That your congregants might happen to see a funny, irreverent or slightly personal exchange between yourself and a friend? That your profile picture is too informal and shows you smiling more broadly than your sense of ministerial decorum allows? That people might figure out that you’re a multi-layered, complicated person who is a responsible professional and servant of the Church who also enjoys a martini now and then, is hoping to visit your pal New York City soon, likes to share silly YouTube videos about cats or aging Broadway divas, just had a terrible blind date and loves the Red Sox? Hurrah for such revelations, say I!

Express yourself
yea let it all hang out
Express yourself
Ain’t nothin’ to worr’ about…

Thank you, Black Eyed Peas!

If religious life is going to seem inviting and relevant to more people in the 21st century, religious leaders must be more concerned with authenticity and availability than with maintaining the mantle of piety that was expected of clergy in the 19th century. That is OV-AH.

Let’s not sniffle about the so-called end of privacy. None of us has had any privacy for years now and never will again. If someone has it in for you and wants to find ammunition to shoot you down with, they are free to scour the internet for every word you’ve ever written and every word ever written about you and use those words against you. Are you going to worry so much about that that you fail to enjoy the benefits of all this new technology? Your enemies can also scour every word of every sermon you’ve ever published to find objectionable content, stake out your parsonage and watch who comes and goes, and follow you to the gym, the post office and the grocery store to keep track of your whereabouts and use that against you if they so choose. They can go to every meeting you attend to question your every bit of counsel and leadership. They can obtain e-mail addresses of parishioners and start a campaign against you. They can send letters through snail mail. They can haunt your MySpace or Facebook page and take copious notes on your sarcastic repartee with distant friends.

And you can live in fear that someone might choose to do that, or you can be the free human being God made you and write, communicate, speak and preach according to your true personality and from the passion of your convictions.

How do you want to live?

All that said, let’s not be naive.

1. Yes Virginia, prospective employers will absolutely use the internet to obtain information about you. Wouldn’t you?
Don’t have a nervous break-down, just be savvy about that fact. Thank God we haven’t entirely given up on the in-person interview. If you’re active on-line and that makes your prospective employers or parishioners nervous or disapproving, aren’t you glad you know about that incompatibility up front and can discuss it? Be honest. If you have nothing to be ashamed of, don’t be ashamed.
I mean, you didn’t post photographs of you drunk and dancing in the limbo contest on your Facebook pages, did you? Dummy! If you did and you forgot about it, tell the search committee the truth: you were on vacation, you had had a lot of sun and two rum drinks, and thank them for reminding you that those awful photos are still on the site.

2. If you’re single and belong to on-line dating sites, good for you. It’s one of the legitimate ways to meet people outside your church. However, keep your profile and your photos appropriate, please. There should not be photographs of my minister in a Speedo anywhere on the internet, nor should any clergypeople advertise themselves as just looking for sex on any sites. Creepy. Especially if they’re married. Don’t think no one will find out. Sexual ethics aren’t techno-flexible; just because you think you’re anonymous doesn’t mean what you’re doing is okay — even if you never do get found out.

3. More than one ministry has been destroyed because of on-line pornography found on clergy computers. ‘Nuff said.

4. You are under no obligation to respond to every or any Instant Message that comes through from a parishioner, or from anyone. In fact, I recommend turning the bloody thing off; aren’t you trying to get work done? I once made the mistake of responding to an IM from a few Unitarian Universalist youth late at night. I was a Youth Minister at the time, so I thought I’d be “cool” and say a quick hello when the kids’ names popped up on my screen. To my friendly greeting and explanation that I had just come home from a dinner party, one surly youth (NOT one of my own congregation’s kids, I’m glad to say… in fact, he was the son of one of my local colleagues!) wrote,
“Get drunk?”
To which I wrote: “No, and that question was not appreciated.”
Next on my screen he offered,
“Get laid?”

Of course I let his mother know of his on-line conduct, and it was all a mess (she was of the permissive, “kids will be kids” persuasion of parent, and I was of the “Your kid is totally out of line and I would like to hear an apology from him” persuasion.)

Avoid it. Instant messaging is no way to carry on a conversation with anyone except the dearest of friends.

5. Even if your parishioners never mention your personal blog, don’t assume they aren’t aware of it and aren’t reading it. Simply this: do not blog if you don’t sincerely believe that blogging is a worthy means by which to share your ideals, ideas and ministry with the wider world. If you have a secret blog or blogging identity through which you express a shadow side of your personality or opinions that are at odds with your public persona , destroy it immediately and stick to old-fashioned journaling. And get a therapist to work out your anger with. The internet is no place to do that. Which leads to…

6. Be the same person you are on-line that you are off-line. Yes, PeaceBang is an outrageous and exaggerated version of a few aspects of myself, but she is still Victoria Weinstein. She’s kind of a Victoria Weinstein cartoon, you might say, but she doesn’t ever write anything on-line that Victoria Weinstein wouldn’t be willing and happy to explain, converse about or defend face to face. You do the same. If you can’t stand behind it, don’t write it. If you published something online a long time ago and have changed your mind or repented of your tone since then, be prepared to say so to anyone who asks.

7. Don’t get sucked into non-productive uses of technology. Monitor your time spent on social networking sites, blogging and noodling on your Blackberry. It’s all too easy to persuade ourselves that we’re doing something worthwhile with our gadgets when we’re simply staving off loneliness or isolation, avoiding other forms of self-care, or just procrastinating. For instance, because I can post-date my blog entries, you’d never know that what you’re reading today, in September, was written at 9 pm on August 11, a study leave day for me.

8. Never e-mail when a phone call would be more appropriate, and it almost always is. Use e-mail sparingly: to coordinate meetings, to check and discuss agendas, to send out reminders, that sort of thing.

9. Leave your cell phone off sometimes, for God’s sake. This includes during collegial gatherings. It is SO disrespectful to be interrupted by someone answering a phone call or see people fiddling with their Blackberries or text-messaging during ministerial gatherings when they would never be that rude on a pastoral visit (or I hope they wouldn’t!). Unless a death is impending, you shouldn’t answer — or even check — your phone. We all need to get over ourselves. If you must answer a call (don’t you have voice mail, and isn’t that what it’s for??), step out of the room at least, and carefully time your re-entrance so that it comes at an unintrusive moment. How can we preach on civility and model it so poorly with one another?

10. If all this techie social networking/blogging/podcasting stuff isn’t for you, don’t participate in it. And no apologies. You’ll just make yourself miserable.

Questions? Comments? What have I left out? I didn’t mention anything about Second Life or other alternative cyber-worlds because I’ve never had any experience with them. Would someone care to do a guest column on that subject?

nun at computer

10 Replies to “PeaceBang’s Guide To Surviving Cyber & Techno Life”

  1. Thank you thank you! My chaplain just asked me what to do with all those friend requests on his brand-new facebook. My advice was the same as yours: it wouldn’t be very pastoral to deny someone, but you can always ignore all those pesky “send me a …” At least, I do! I only respond to direct questions/comments (and yes, I know that I haven’t responded to yours).

    Everything on-line should be the face you want to present – that includes photos on other people’s pages. There is no polite way to tell your friends that you find that photo offensive, but you should know that each and every image on-line can be misconstrued, misappropriated, and photoshopped. I like your advice to choose not to live in fear, but do live wisely.

    Finally, do you think that nun is playing Tetris?

  2. Thank you for this very awesome post. As someone who is just entering into seminary, I have thought a bit about how certain aspects of my life will transition and this was definitely one of them.

    On another note, I appreciate your blog. Aside from the fact that it’s hysterical, it’s also very practical. There’s not a lot of “fluff” and I like that.

  3. Thank you for these awesome thoughts. I’ve been on the unfortunate end of the ‘we don’t think what you have on Facebook is appropriate’ comments from my Ministry & Personnel committee (basically the liaisons between the staff and congregation) and my response was a tactful “I’m human – I stand behind what I said – and if you think it’s inappropriate for me to share with my friends, parishioners, etc that I’ve had a bad day or I’m p-o’d, then too bad”. Sadly, I ended up changing some settings on Facebook so that not everyone of my ‘friends’ can see my status or my wall. I’d much rather be authentic – but right now that isn’t what they seem to want. SIGH. But that’s a topic for another day. Keep up the great work, PeaceBang – love you!

  4. For the past year, I’ve been grappling with the intersection of Facebook and all of those “boundary” lectures we got in seminary ethics class. I agree that it’s whole new world.

    I watching my own congregation create a facebook group, and people from 12 to 93 years old create accounts, I’ve developed a rule of thumb: I accept my parishioners’ friend requests, but don’t initiate the “friending” process. I’m prepared to have any and all church members look over my photos and comments, but I don’t assume that they want ME, their minister, to see theirs. : )

    But that’s just a stumbling blind attempt to use Facebook thoughtfully. I have no idea if it’s helpful, or whether I have people out there who are hurt that I haven’t “friended” them!

  5. I used to direct a youth choir (8-12 grade). When friend-ing, I try to make sure the parents know that I did so, so I’m not the creepy old lady!

  6. It can be very complicated with all these new technologies. I think being the same person off-line and on-line and figuring out what your (and your family’s) on-line boundaries are is important.

    Thanks for a great post! The timing was perfect – I am new on Facebook. 🙂

  7. I just got a FB account and because there are about 6 degrees of separation, of course, parishioners found me and wanted to be friends. I am politically active in what I believe are appropriate ways and had to decide how to handle that with parishioners on my FB. I let them in, don’t initiate “friending” with other parishioners, and I kept my political content but kept it positive, i.e. no bashing Sarah Palin on anything but the issues. It was a leap I took and I think there are some who don’t want us to be authentic because it is a threat to their masks but I believe this is who God calls me to be and I thank you for your post which gives me some confirmation. Blessings to you!

  8. well done indeed.

    i would add (in case it’s helpful) that on my FB account i have a limited profile setting that keeps people i only vaguely know from seeing pictures of my family or seeing my other friends. FB allows for all sorts of levels of boundaries in those settings, and i suggest to everyone i know that they should use them to the maximum allowed by law.

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