Skyping is the new normal, he said. He’s an associate pastor in a large Protestant congregation in the heart of Texas. He told me two remarkable stories:
First story: A long-time church member was hospitalized and died suddenly. A siren of wailing awaited the two pastors at the deceased’s bedside. The shock had given way to grief. Tears flooded over keening sobs and shouts of disbelief echoed down the small hallways of the regional hospital. But not all of it was coming from family in the room.
On the far side of the bed, a distraught family member held up an iPad turned toward the poor soul in the bed. Visible on the tablet via Skype were family members in Mexico who had just watched their beloved pass from them. Howls of grief rose as effortlessly from the electronic device as they did from those in physically present.
The associate pastor, the one who could speak Spanish, was dispatched to take the iPad to another room and comfort the far off afflicted still on Skype while the senior pastor attended to those in the room. Upon hearing this story, I wondered what kind of pastoral imagination inspired these two to use the technology to embrace their hurting people?
Second story: A young couple wanted to marry. Her family originated in Mexico, his in England, but only a few of them could travel to Texas to give witness to the sacred ritual. Solution: At the ceremony in the church, a computer tablet on a table near the front pew displayed the gleaming faces of grandparents and cousins in Mexico via Skype. And across the aisle, raised high for all to see, a hand held iPhone connected siblings in England to their beloved via FaceTime.
It was a beautiful bilingual and transnational ritual celebration, the associate pastor told me, the global body of Christ present in the world. And this pastor had the insight and imagination to embrace it. A new normal in his context, he said.
The Center for Pastoral Excellence blog has been attending to the imaginative ways that excellent pastors participate in that ancient rhythm of action and contemplation, or what we at Christian Theological Seminary have been describing as mission and spirituality. Our conviction is that active engagement in mission on behalf of the world may arise from, and in turn, transform a deep spirituality. Likewise, spiritual practices may arise from, and in turn, transform a deep commitment to making the world a better place.
What these pastors in Texas are doing is remarkable. They are attending to the changing context of their community, the mission field, if you will—1) the increasingly multiracial and transnational character of it, and 2) the changing digital landscape around them: In July 2012, a larger percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. surveyed by the Pew Internet and American Life project owned tablets (22%) than did whites (19%) or African Americans (15%), and a larger percentage of US Hispanics owned smartphones (49%) than whites (44%) and African Americans (45%).
And yet, it also seems that sustaining spiritual practices—like prayer for those in mourning and the ritual celebration of matrimony—enable the pastors to respond with compassion at moments of death and marriage in a world changed (and still changing) by technology, immigration, and culture.
The mission is transformed by the spiritual practices, even as the practices of prayer and celebration are transformed by the mission to serve God’s people in the world.
Whether here or there, face-to-face or digitally mediated, God’s people are present. It’s as if they are raising their hands and saying, “I am here.” And excellent pastors can see it, name it, and embrace it.
Verity A. Jones is the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary.
The Center for Pastoral Excellence at CTS addresses the long arc of ministry from discernment to training to sustaining excellence ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.