This article was written as part of a case study on The Young Clergy Women Project for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The full report of this case study and more information about all the case study research are available on our website.
Last August in a basement room at Duke Divinity School, 13 clergywomen gathered for the annual face-to-face board meeting of The Young Clergy Women Project (TYCWP) and the membership’s annual conference. They came from across the United States to Durham, North Carolina, to plan for the life and work of this new online clergy network (five years is “new” in church life cycles but might be considered “ancient” in the world of social media). Perhaps more importantly, the women came to enjoy in person the support and encouragement they share online throughout the year. But these board members did not shove their laptops and iPads under their seats so to better relish the warm hugs and smiles of old and new friends. Computers popped open and tapping ensued, along with the bear hug embraces you would expect at any long-standing family reunion.
Everything this group does, it does online. Bylaws and minutes, blogs and e-zines, registration, and even visioning exercises are handled through the “thickening web of interconnectivity” as Research Fellow Kathryn Reklis said in a blog post last August. No one asked the women to ‘shut their computers and turn off their cell phones because the real meeting is about to start, and you don’t want to miss something important by hiding your head behind a screen!’ The two and a half day meeting was conducted to an orchestra of clicking and dinging and the ironic asides so common to online communication. But no one thought it strange or disrespectful. No one wondered who was tuning out or ignoring the person speaking. They held a virtual and face-to-face meeting all at once. And it was the most fully present gathering I’ve attended in a long time.
The first day and a half of the meeting focused on vision and mission, exploring the question, “Where do we go from here?” Susan Olson, Director of Divinity Career Services and Acting Director of Supervised Ministries at Yale Divinity School, founded the Young Clergy Women Project in 2006. An avid blogger, Susan noticed a growing number of young clergywomen in the blogosphere sharing stories of isolation and stress. She created a password-protected blog and invited a number of them to join her in a safe space where they could chat without fear, and the project was born. A year later, Susan received a grant from the Louisville Institute for a gathering of clergywomen under the age of 40 in Washington, D.C. At that meeting an organizing board was formed and a new e-zine, Fidelia’s Sisters, was conceived. It would be the public face to the private blog. Over the years, The Young Clergy Women Project has continued to gather annually, albeit in much smaller numbers (55 to 75) than their membership (597 as of August 6, 2011 and counting). Online offerings have varied from a Ning-platform social networking site to Google groups, Facebook pages, and now an invitation-only Facebook group. “Where do we go from here?” is a pertinent question as the burden of running an all-volunteer virtual organization grows just as steadily as their numbers do.
Elsa Peters, co-chair of the board and chair of the editorial board, wrote the word “vision” on the white board in the room and asked for feedback. It may be significant that Elsa did not list the responses in a column format. Instead, she scribed the answers in different colors clustering them around the word “vision,” circling a word when it was repeated. She created a “word cloud” rather than a list, even though the exercise was not online. She didn’t notice this until I pointed it out to her later.
The Young Clergy Women Project is not particularly interested in growing, although growth is welcomed, of course. It is just not a goal. The mission is to meet the discerned needs of young clergywomen. The leaders hold strong to this basic premise and are delighted when young clergywomen find their offerings useful. They survey the membership regularly, frequently experiment with new technology, and resist the temptation to professionalize more than the group of volunteers—who all work in ministry and juggle family and personal issues—can handle. When members reach age 40, they are celebrated and bid farewell.
On the final day of the board meeting, we moved to Scribblar so that absent board members could be present for the all-important “voting” on organizational issues. I thought perhaps this more formal day might bring a more formal air. Instead, constant chatter persisted throughout the meeting, both that gentle whispering of old friends and the incessant tapping of young leaders who inhabit a digital world. Someone needed access to the agenda on Google docs. Another requested the link to that book on parenting. While she was Tweeting about the meeting, one of the co-chairs found an absent board member Tweeting as well. She had forgotten to sign onto Scribblar for the live chat section of the agenda that connected those present in Durham with the six or seven who couldn’t make it in person. Soon the missing board member’s icon appeared in the chat room. Minutes later, another board member looked up from her computer with mild panic in her eyes after watching the wild machinations of the stock market; a few prayers for the nations and for the poor were posted on Facebook.
What can be learned from the Young Clergy Women Project as we attempt to think theologically about social media today?
One mark of this group’s gifts for leadership is the fact that they actively reach out to each other for support and friendship. Much has been written lately about the challenges of doing ministry in isolation. Intentional peer support groups are emerging across the country, many of which have been financially supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. through its Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative. And the research is connecting this support to church growth, healthier pastors, and more mission-oriented communities of faith (see May 2011 report). The Young Clergy Women Project uses social media and other online tools to expand these kinds of networks that benefit pastoral leadership. And they do so almost without thinking about it.
The ways in which TYCWP organizes its work and mission is also in tune with the new world of social media. The leadership of the group focuses on gathering the community and meeting its needs rather than advancing a particular agenda or increasing the membership. They trust the membership to do what it needs to do, and they have never attempted to organize them toward a political or theological end game. It is a permission-giving model built on trust, intent on witnessing where the community will go and helping them get there. It could be described as “open-sourcy” and experimental. They don’t wait for a communication directive or agreed upon message from on high to move forward with an idea. Instead, they build the house of God as they go, figuring it out together.
Their workflow appears to move seamlessly between face-to-face and online interactions. However, I wouldn’t say this makes them technology experts. Just because they are young doesn’t mean they understand the intricacies of new media any better than older folks do. The difference is that they are generally unafraid to try out new things, and they trust their friends to explain it to them along the way.
Another lesson learned from these young leaders: there is no consensus on best social media practices. They do not agree on whether online community can be defined as “community” or be legitimately considered “prayerful.” Some worry about theological questions of incarnation in a virtual setting; others don’t. Others worry about teenagers in their charge, and how they can better help them navigate appropriate social media boundaries, even when those boundaries are not yet fully evident to the pastors. Susie Shaefer, a former co-chair of TYCWP, works with young people. She sees the value in the honesty teenagers exhibit online. She says, “They are just who they are online. They’re still learning bits and pieces about themselves.” The challenge for young people being so honest is that they may mature and change over the course of their lives, but their honest teenage selves will still exist online. They can’t create a new avatar for a new job or a new friend. “God’s grace does not extend to your future employers,” Susie says, “avatars aren’t as effective as baptism.” “If we could just baptize our computers,” I quip. Susie replies, “I tried that once. It broke.”
There may not be consensus among these young clergywomen, but they do agree that social media define the world in which they function. It’s the water they drink; they don’t have a choice. And these women heartily agree on the life-saving, vocation-sustaining power of the online networks they create and maintain through TYCWP.
Toward the end of my time in August with board and members of TYCWP, I asked how they as pastors might be better resourced from the deep wells of Christian thought and practice as they live into this new media context? One pastor urged more theological reflection on new media because she thinks it makes social media tools “actually tools of the gospel, and not have them become either the thing that’s destroying the church or the thing that is going to save the church.” She would also like to see resources that help her and her colleagues explore what it means to use technology prayerfully, rather than what sites offer prayer resources. She wants to know what we do to make our use of technology prayerful? For example, what would it mean to be prayerful in writing an email? She adds, “I have a friend who stopped posting Facebook statuses and reads them as her prayer journal instead … like that’s her prayer time as she reads X number of statuses. I have another friend who starts all of her Facebook statuses with her prayer list, like ‘Elaine is praying for blah, blah, blah, period,’ and then her status update, ‘great morning at church. I can’t wait for the picnic.’”
A final observation: these leaders frequently talk about identity—vocational identity, personal identity—which is not unexpected for this age demographic, of course. But layering social media on top of identity questions creates new dynamics in this age-old conversation. Perhaps attending to these dynamics will help us continue to think theologically about new media today.
I am hopeful about these church leaders and the world they inhabit and envision for the body of Christ. They are thoughtful about technology, not reactionary. They are eager to engage the more substantive issues underlying the social media explosion. Their pragmatic experimental approach to technology and their desire to pursue it together in community, for the sake of community, is very encouraging. They offer more than tidbits of wisdom to older people who have forgotten what it means to be young. They offer a view into a world of rapidly changing assumptions, practices, and perhaps even belief systems. We would do well to look over their shoulders for some guidance.
Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.
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