Case study report on The Young Clergy Women Project

New Media Project

By Verity A. Jones
January 6, 2012

Introduction

In August 2011, I traveled to Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, for the annual face-to-face board meeting of The Young Clergy Women Project. The meeting was followed by the group’s annual membership conference. I am exceedingly grateful to Susie Shaefer and Elsa Peters, then co-chairs of the 13 member board, for their warm and gracious inclusion of me at the meeting and the opening night of the conference and for their willingness to answer questions and be observed for this case study. To my delight, I discovered many connections to The Young Clergy Women Project, not the least of which is that founder Susan Olson was a classmate and singing partner of mine at Yale Divinity School. Present at the meeting were many pastors I’ve met at other gatherings and friends of friends back home. It was encouraging to me, now outside the age range considered “young,” to find so many talented and faithful leaders of the church helping each other in new ways, using new tools, in new patterns that may give a special kind of life to a struggling church in North America.

Research Problem

The New Media Project recognizes that “leaders of faith communities today urgently need help understanding the vast and rapid changes occurring in digital communication, and how new technologies affect overall patterns of communication, both digital and non-digital.” While many high quality organizations offer high quality instruction on how to use social media and build websites, we have noticed that, “compelling theological interpretations of this shift and its impact on the church have not yet been adequately developed. Nor do sufficient strategic frameworks exist to help Christian communities and institutions” think theologically about technology. At the end of the day this project asks, “how do we tell the gospel story in this new age using the rich resources of Christian tradition, so that 1) the gospel is embraced by new generations, and 2) the traditions are not lost? How do we resource and learn from younger clergy and lay leaders who understand this generation, while providing a theological interpretation and strategic framework to help us stay alert to what is happening around us.” (New Media Project grant proposal)

Research questions

During the course of my time with The Young Clergy Women Project, I posed the following set of questions to individuals. I also listened for spontaneous responses in the larger group setting and informal gatherings to questions such as these.

  1. How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
  2. Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?
  3. How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
  4. Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?
  5. How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?
  6. How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?

Method

I spent three days onsite with the board of directors of The Young Clergy Women Project (TYCWP) in Durham, North Carolina, at their annual meeting. The board gathered for several days prior to the annual conference of the organization, held in the same location. I attended the opening conference dinner and keynote address before returning home.  However, I was present for the full meeting of the board of directors.

Prior to the meeting, I interviewed Susie Shaefer, then co-chair of the board, by telephone. Susie was the part-time Associate Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Plymouth, Michigan, until recently. Susie was responsible for the community board, the part of TYCWP that cares for the membership and organizes the conferences. During the course of my three days onsite with the board, I interviewed Elsa Peters, the other co-chair, and Sarah Gaventa, original member and treasurer. Elsa is the Associate Minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in South Portland, Maine, and Sarah is the Assistant Rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, New Jersey. I observed the full meeting, sharing meals and chatting with other board members. I also spoke with a number of project members on the opening night of the conference.

The method was a combination of interviews, observation, and online exploration of the project’s offerings. It should be said that I invited the interviewees to answer questions both as they relate to TYCWP and to their own lives and ministries. As noted by another research fellow, being present with and observant of case study subjects unavoidably changes those subjects. When you are hanging out with a bunch of pastors, it is impossible for them not to be gracious and inclusive of you in their work. It’s just what they do. To ignore a new person in the room would’ve been a moral failing to most of these women. It was likely, and should also be noted, that the group’s gratitude for the grant from the New Media Project to case study subjects also changed their behavior toward me. I was not just an observer but also an honored guest no matter how much I tried to be unobtrusive. Such are the limitations to this case study, understood and accepted.

Data

I reviewed the project’s online presence extensively including the public e-zine, Fidelia’s Sisters, the TYCWP’s Twitter feed, and project website. I was given access to the original password-protected blog and current closed Facebook group. The project’s popular Ning social networking site was shut down in late 2010 when Ning raised their subscription rates and is not currently in a platform that could be shared with me.

At the time of my visit, August 6-9, 2011, the project’s membership totaled 597. The project’s invitation-only Facebook group includes 146 members. It has existed for several months only because it was launched after the Ning site was shut down in late 2010. The project’s public Facebook page, however, has 1,450 “likes” and has existed for many years, suggesting just how many people outside of the demographic have shown interest in or support of the organization. The project’s Twitter profile records 302 followers.

In addition to the online features named above, I reviewed organizing documents such as the by-laws and the membership policy.

Summary of findings

The Young Clergy Women Project gathers a remarkable group of church leaders online and in person. This would be my first observation and most lasting impression of my experience with them. These are not simply the church’s future leaders.  The women who comprise the board and who attended the conference are gifted, articulate, intelligent leaders of today, not the least of which is evidenced by the fact that they actively reach out to other colleagues for support and friendship.

The ways in which TYCWP organizes its work give additional evidence of the leaders’ wisdom. They focus on gathering the community, meeting its needs, and trusting the membership to do what it needs to do, rather than advancing a particular agenda or increasing the size of the group. While the e-zine offers opinions, theological reflection, and welcomes responses and while the Ning site and the closed Facebook group enable the sharing of strong feelings on a variety of topics, the leadership of the group has never attempted to organize the membership toward a political or theological end game. Rather, it’s a permission-giving model built on trust, intent on witnessing where the community will go and helping them get there—a model that is perfectly suited to the digital social media world these leaders inhabit.

The group’s operating model, for better and for worse (there are certainly organizational challenges to this approach), could be described as “open-sourcy” (as a media strategist/friend calls it) and experimental. They don’t wait for an overall communication directive or agreed upon message to move forward with an idea. Rather, they build the house of God, or this particular body of Christ, as they go. And they certainly multi-task better than most, perhaps because so many are young mothers, have new spouses, and/or are tending to new relationships in their personal lives. They have a lot to juggle.

They exhibit a workflow that appears to move seamlessly between face-to-face and online interactions, though I wouldn’t say this makes them technology experts. Just because they are young doesn’t mean they receive new technology innovations any sooner than anyone else does. I heard a number of them complain about Google+ (“Not another thing to figure out!”). The difference is that they are generally unafraid of technology and are willing to try new things out, trusting their friends to explain it to them along the way. Both Elsa and Susie talk about this as a disconnect with their congregations.

Another observation: Even among this small group of young clergy, there is no consensus on best practices (lots of fun ideas, however!) or whether an online community can be defined as “community” or be legitimately considered “prayerful.” But they all agree that social media is just the way they function. It’s the water they drink; they don’t have a choice. And they heartily agree on the life-saving, vocation-sustaining importance of the online networks they create and maintain through TYCWP.

In lieu of opportunities to have face-to-face relationships, the online community has substituted well, these women say. It cannot replicate in-person relationships, but it can substitute for that when it’s not possible. And the relationships are certainly substantive and “real” for the women involved in the network.

A final observation: There was lots of conversation about identity—vocational identity, personal identity—which is normal for this age demographic. But the layering on of social media spotlights new dynamics in this age-old conversation. Perhaps it even raises new theological questions.  Questions about public and private life are intensified by Facebook and Twitter as are the expectations congregants may or may not have for their pastors. Whether to integrate or compartmentalize different aspects of one’s life becomes a spiritual question for these pastors.

Narrative responses to research questions

1) How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?

I think it’s fair to say that the women in TYCWP enjoy the many benefits of social media. Without it, the communities of young women within the organization that support each other would not exist in the same way and perhaps might not exist at all.

In her September 2011 blog post for the New Media Project, Susie Shaefer describes TYCWP as follows: “The changes and chances of Internet technology have made us a nomadic community. Perhaps that is fitting for those of us living somewhere between young adulthood and just adulthood, in these early years of ministry when positions and families and geography can change so rapidly. The project has built its online home—which is really our only home—bit by bit, page by page, adding what we need when we need it.”

“Vocational skill sets are well-served by this method of growing and adding over time. Homes are often best decorated when they are a collection of personality and utility that develop slowly, so that each room’s form and function line up neatly. Websites built in such a way are less streamlined—more like a clunky collage than a work of art. Changes and chances are, however, part of the gracious creation.”

Susie’s description suggests one way that TYCWP has experienced the rise of social media and its changing patterns and tools: It’s a “clunky collage” rather than a “work of art.” How do you create something that is not clunky given the pace with which new technologies come at us today? And the patch-work approach to adopting new media—‘I’ll try this and this, and we’ll see what it looks like later’—certainly can create more of a collage than a work of art.

While all of the women involved in TYCWP are under 40, their experience of social media varies significantly. Susie Shaefer was Associate Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Plymouth, Michigan, for six years, and she’s a mom. Susie has always used social media in her ministry. “I’m a pretty big techno geek,” she confesses. Even before seminary when she worked with middle school youth in her church, she welcomed the growing popularity of Facebook. “Facebook gives us a window into teens' lives that is not necessarily aimed at us even though they know it’s open to us. I get a more complete picture of the people I’m working with.”

Susie has always understood her online presence as a ministry, perhaps because her use of social media grew hand-in-hand with her ministry to youth. She grew up in the church and was teaching church school at age 15. At 19, she was on her church’s governing board. She’s been ordained six years and youth ministry has been her main focus. It’s been fairly easy for her to keep her personal life and ministry integrated because they’ve never been separate.

She worries about the youth with whom she ministers, however.  While feelings of loneliness are not new to being a teenager, Susie does think that the sense of isolation can be sharpened by social media use. Now, a teen can say to herself, “Everybody else has 983 friends, and I have 117. Gosh, I’m really as bad as I thought I was.” Susie adds, “that’s not necessarily a negative for youth ministry, it just sharpens some of the things that I think are already hard about being a teenager.” And text and cyber bullying do create problems. “I don’t think they’re as scary as tabloid media likes to make them out, but they’re very real.”

Susie is especially grateful for what social media has done for young clergywomen through TYCWP. “It’s great for professional networking,” she says, “which is what The Young Clergy Women Project is entirely about in the first place.”

Sarah Gaventa, Assistant Rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, New Jersey, says that her experience with social media has mostly been positive.  She first recognized how much she relies on technology for ministry when she arrived at her first parish in rural Virginia and discovered that broadband had not yet reached the area. “I actually worked from home a lot,” she says.

Sarah is one of the few people I interviewed who think of email as a form of social media. “The part of ministry I like the least is cold calling people,” she says, “and asking them to do things or just calling out of the blue, and so email to me is fantastic because I know I’m not interrupting people. I give them time to think about it. I can follow up with a call, but they are already prepped.”

But Facebook is her favorite tool, and she uses it both for personal connections and for ministry. “I love Facebook; it’s more fun for me.” She used Facebook before she became a minister and says she learned it by doing it. “It was when kids started friending me that I had to learn [boundaries] because I wanted to make that connection, but I also didn’t want to have to think about 11-year olds every time I was writing something.” When she moved to her second church, Facebook was much more popular, and people started friending her before she even knew who they were. “I think the congregation I’m in now, my impression is that I have less contact with them on Facebook…. My personal boundaries have been up.”

Because she also maintains the church’s Facebook page, Sarah manages the balance by using filters and lists. “With my current church I decided to just filter everyone. But every once in a while I do a post that everyone sees that’s usually church-related so that they don’t feel totally cut off. But I try to use that carefully.” When she left her first church to move to Princeton, New Jersey, she discovered that Facebook was just “this lovely way to stay in relationship with people.… I think for me as a minister, it’s been a nice way to bridge.”

For Elsa Peters, Associate Minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in South Portland, Maine, and single, the arrival of social media on the church scene has been more problematic. An avid user of social media in her personal life, she says now that her church is online, “it feels a bit like multiple personalities.” She maintains private and public Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts. She explores theological questions and ministry conversations on all the accounts but doesn’t often share her personal life online with her parishioners. But when her congregation redesigned their website and looked to her to maintain both the congregation’s Facebook page and their Twitter feed she said, “no.” Her concern is that church members do not feel like they have the authority to speak on behalf of the church, and if she agrees to be that voice, they will not have the opportunity to develop their own.

Elsa’s observation here is about the changing patterns of communication, not just the changing tools. Personal sharing is much more common on Facebook and Twitter than is “institutional speak,” and yet, when an institution engages Facebook or Twitter, it often falls back on patterns of such “speak,” using recognized authorities to vet the message. If a congregation wants to use social media well, it must look more like people sharing from their heart rather than a pastor speaking for or to the people.

Elsa says that she finds her congregation’s insistence that she do social media for them ironic: “I didn’t use Facebook in my ministry until this past year…. I was adamant about saying, ‘I’m not going to do this with you guys. It’s not comfortable to me. I don’t want to do that because I want to have my sacred space where, you know, you’re not.’”

What changed her mind? “I think it’s really hard to communicate with people without using Facebook.… Where I am, Facebook is getting to be required because everybody is there. And that’s how they’re learning to tell the story about who our church is.… I’m motivating them to tell a story.”

She adds, “I don’t find this [reluctance] to be the case with how young clergywomen relate. I mean we have women posting on our [TYCWP Facebook] wall engaging in conversation and asking questions that are pertinent to their ministry with wild abandon. There isn’t that mystique of these people speaking for the organization.”

Elsa does worry about what her bifurcated social media use says about herself: “I don’t know why I’m so cautious about that, but I am.… The side of myself that I bring into TYCWP is not necessarily the side that I reveal to my congregation. And for me that’s been a big disconnect that I’m trying to figure out and navigate, so that I’m bringing more of myself into the church.” She confesses, “It’s a spiritual question.” Does social media contribute to the problem, I ask. “I feel like [social media] spotlights the issue,” she says. “I’m not sure if it makes it better or worse, but it helps me to identify the issue, the fact that I have such locked down accounts … says to me that I’m trying to hide something. But I’m not sure what I’m hiding because it’s not like there’s anything that fantastic there.”

2) Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?

In 2006, Susan Olson, Director of Divinity Career Services and Acting Director of Supervised Ministries at Yale Divinity School and an avid blogger, recognized among her blogging friends a growing number of young clergywomen writing about the challenges of being geographically isolated so soon after seminary. She invited them to join a password-protected blog in which they could share freely, and The Young Clergy Women Project was born. The following year Susan received a grant from the Louisville Institute to hold a conference in Washington, D.C. From that conference arose Fidelia’s Sisters, an e-zine that would put a public face on the private blog. As Susan moved out of leadership, two boards were formed, one to manage the community life of the organization and the other to serve as an editorial board for Fidelia’s Sisters. The e-zine uses Twitter to announce a new post (“TypePad automatically does that for us,” says Elsa) and has an active and respectful commenting community (“It’s got a pretty good subscription, I think,” says Susie).

Eventually, the community board launched a password-protected social networking site on a Ning platform, and the original blog was archived to save the many useful and lengthy conversation threads on topics such as maternity leave, life as a single clergy person, etc.

“Ning was great,” Susie says. “It has password protected everything, and the groups and the forums and board posting kinds of things were really helpful. People could vent. People could say, ‘I have this situation. Any thoughts?’” She adds, “We experimented with short-term covenant groups usually around the liturgical seasons, sort of a six-week match-you-up, and you find an email, a place to meet, and do that for a while.”

During this time, the group began experimenting with other ways to use social media to build community. “We would hold live chats on Google chat to just say, “Hey, anyone who wants to chat with a young clergywoman, there will be a moderator online to invite people in at 2:00 pm Eastern time on Wednesday the tenth.” Susie says, “I ran a lectionary Bible study that way for about a year.… It was anywhere from three to five people a week.… We would share our sermon ideas and do Bible study online. It was a really nice community. Most of them I still have never met in person.”

The two boards meet monthly via Scribblar, which Susie describes as follows: “Not an audio chat, but more like a group instant messaging chat. But it has a whiteboard attached that everybody can see.”

The Ning site thrived until Ning announced a fee increase that the group could not afford. Now a closed Facebook group provides the safety net for conversations and an open Facebook page is used to introduce others to the organization.

In person conferences have occurred almost every year since 2007. Susie notes how much they value the annual conference: “The Young Clergy Women Project has always relied almost as much on conferences as on our Internet presence because it’s our only face time.”

As an example of the different ways these young leaders even define social media, Elsa says that TYCWP didn’t start using social media until the last couple of years when they picked up Facebook and Twitter. When I ask whether TYCWP started with blogging and does she not consider blogging social media, Elsa says, “I don’t think I’ve thought about that but now that you’re saying it, I should’ve included that.” Even the Ning site, Elsa thinks was “sort of bloggy,” even though its primary application is social networking.

Elsa traces their increased use of social media to the annual conferences when she and a few others would Tweet the event for the members who could not attend in person. That encouraged others to Tweet as well, and then when they created the Facebook group and page, social media really began to take off. Now she uses Hootsuite to manage all the Tweeting: “I love the idea that I can go to one place, and the scheduling is awesome for my laziness.” She’s hardly lazy, however, I must say.

As primarily a youth pastor, Susie says she uses social media frequently in her ministry. “If I want to contact a kid, if I want to know what’s going on with a particular kid, it all happens on Facebook. I know which of my kids reply to emails, and it’s very, very few of them.” She doesn’t use Twitter because her youth don’t use it, and she texts her kids using a flip phone, where you hit “2” three times to get an “c.” She describes her work: “I’m on Facebook at least once a day usually either scanning my youth—I keep a list just of youth so I can scan their statuses easily. Sometimes it’s to nag certain kids to take stuff down, two of them in particular. I had a girl who had surgery at the end of the school year, and it was hip surgery, so she’s been pretty much laid up. [Facebook] was a good place to just check in and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? How are you doing with the boredom?’” She does email the parents with logistics and event information because they are generally not on Facebook.

Sarah, a new mother who cradles her young son while we talk across the hall from the board meeting, uses email and Facebook all the time in her ministry. “I like the relational aspect of Facebook where it feels more like a conversation [than does Twitter],” she says. “I use Facebook to advertise church events—or rather to express my personal excitement about a church event—to keep track because people will share minor drama on their Facebook page that you would never hear, because I work at a really big church.… Facebook helps me to connect to people on this human level when I don’t have time to visit all of them and know them.”

Sarah thinks Facebook is “mostly supplemental” in her ministry, in that it doesn’t stand in for in-person relationships but can enhance them. “It’s more that it gives me bullet points and an image, that then I can, in person, flesh out … except for children who will just write long, epic, private messages.” She worries about this. “It’s really a bad idea because they’ll just put anything—their most personal thoughts and feelings and woundedness like a little lamb—just out there ready for the picking, and it makes me really nervous.”

As an aside, Sarah tells me she and her husband have created a gmail account for their newborn son, “because we are lazy and I’m never going to put together a scrapbook. But I’m happy to email him a picture of himself while he’s nursing. So we’re doing like an electronic scrapbook for him.” A novel idea for a new generation of busy parents.

In her ministry, Elsa says she uses email “a lot” and is online several hours a day. “I don’t text, although church members who have gotten my cell phone have started to text me.” Is that okay? “I’m fine with it because the people that have done it have not made it a common practice. But there is—I don’t know. I’m old enough that I remember not having a cell phone and being constantly available.”

Elsa tells about a small group of five clergywomen in TYCWP who became acquainted on Twitter and then met at last year’s annual conference. “Something happened within our Twitter community,” she says. “We now call ourselves ‘Covenant,’ and we have our own little underground community.” They meet in person as well. Once a year they get together for a retreat. “It's bizarre that that has worked out that way, but it's life-giving, and social media has enabled that.” Why is it bizarre? “I don’t know. I think it's always bizarre when people click in a wonderful way. We are such different people that it’s interesting to see how we all really genuinely enjoy each other across different denominations, different theological perspectives.”

3) How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?

Not surprisingly, these intelligent young leaders think theologically about their technology with frequency and depth.

Susie, who has used social media since she was young and integrates her personal use and professional use with ease, reflects on the paradox of the incarnation in a virtual world: “On the one hand, the incarnational nature of Christianity is essential. We are incarnational beings with bodies that interact with other bodies and the whole point is that God did that too, in order to bring us closer to God. So, to take our bodies out of our relationships doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. But on the other hand, incarnational theology means that all of our lives are part of what God touches, and the way social media works means that we can have a bigger picture of each others’ lives than we do when we’re wearing our nice Sunday morning presentations.”

“Sunday morning presentations?” I ask. Susie works in a suburban church and she observes the “happy faces” that folks put on when they go to church. She wonders whether online communication might be a more honest way to show a different face. For example, she says, “I don’t find [hiding your true self] to be an issue with teenagers. They are just who they are online. They’re still learning bits and pieces about themselves. It’s kind of cool to be cynical online … and perhaps that is actually more honest.” The challenge for young people being so honest online 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 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 says, “I tried that once. It broke.”

Regarding TYCWP, Susie emphasizes the importance of the password-protected communities. “Because clergy, as you know, spend huge amounts of time cultivating our public faces, the online community is a place to stop doing that clergy thing.”

Sarah also values relationships, and “what it means to have a holy, wholesome, loving, mutually up-building relationship.” She sees social media as one way people are in relationships. Rather than question the basic value of social media to a relationship, she explores how social media are changing relationships and how we navigate that change. She tells a story about the church administrator asking all the clergy to sign a personnel policy regarding ethics in the workplace. The policy included not using work computers for personal things. “It was really funny because that boundary [doesn’t exist]. I get my work email and my personal email all fed into the same email program. And then Facebook is both work and personal, and I feel like that is almost an old-fashioned idea. This boundary between work and personal is breaking down.… I could be looking at 20 statuses in a row and half of them are work-related, half of them are personal, and there is no way to make them separate.”

Elsa’s theological reflection also centers on community, but she lands in a different place. She is very clear that for her, a community that exists solely online isn’t real community. “I believe in the incarnation, and I believe that in order to fully experience relationship we need to meet face to face.” A Twitter community, “is something, but for me it is not community. It doesn’t articulate how I understand God. It's not how I experience the divine.”

However, Elsa doesn’t think we should abandon social media tool as we build community. “I think that’s dumb. There is something strange and interesting about the fact that relationships are formed, and when you meet someone they can tweet up” (which means you get together in person).

4) Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?

Susie thinks parishioners expect more access to the pastor than they used to, but that’s at least as much about cell phones as it is about Facebook or Twitter. Two examples: “I’m used to seeing clergy now frequently walk out of meetings or stop midsentence to look at their cell phones, including myself, when I know I’m expecting a particular call. It’s really hard to ignore cell phones. And I’ve had kids text me at 11:00 at night and been confused that I’m not normally awake at 11:00 pm.”

People also expect that since digital communication provides information at our fingertips, whatever they may be telling us is also at our fingertips. Susie says, “I think media use decreases my ability to actually remember stuff on my own because I don’t really need to.” Then when she forgets, it’s a bigger problem. “Whether I want to blame my toddler or new media or I just have a bad memory, I think people expect that we always have information at our fingertips. And so anything they say becomes information at our fingertips as well.”

Sarah has, at least once, not fully appreciated the changing expectations people have for how communication works. A young parishioner had a house fire. Sarah learned about it on Facebook and responded on Facebook, but no one from the church visited the parishioner because they didn't realize the extent of the damage. "Because it was social media and it had that kind of ironic tone, I missed that this was a big crisis," she laments. "I've learned that even if you have a primarily online relationship, parishioners still want you to function like a pastor who calls and visits in person."

Elsa finds changing expectations to be a mixed bag. Some in her church expect her to use social media and are annoyed when she’s not online. Others don’t want her near their Facebook wall. But her denomination, the United Church of Christ, does expect her to use social media and to be on Facebook, she says. “The entire UCC website has changed three times in the past five years. I think it’s actually good now. I’m very pleased.”

5) How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?

Susie ponders the question about community further: “I think it’s true that I can’t replicate face-to-face community [with TCYWP], and I think that it does fail when people try to do that. But we’re not exactly trying to replicate a face-to-face community. I guess we are trying to substitute for one, though, because part of the deal with The Young Clergy Women Project is that huge numbers of our members are the only young clergy women in their geographic area, period. They don’t know other clergy women under 35, or if they do, they’re friends from seminary who live six states away. So it’s sort of a funny question for us because we’re there because most people can’t have this face-to-face community. But the face-to-face time is important enough so that we run our own conferences because we couldn’t imagine not having the conferences.”

On the other hand, “there are board members that I have never met,” Susie says. “But we email and are on Facebook, and I know all the stuff that’s going on with them.”

Sarah thinks it depends on the community. “For us [TYCWP], it was essential. There was no other way for a group of people scattered across the country to interact with each other as frequently.” Sarah explains the dilemma for young clergywomen. “Many of these people would tell you, ‘I was often not only the only woman in the room, but the only person under 50 in the room, and I don’t have high cholesterol so I can’t talk about that with the guys. It’s really lonely because I don’t connect, and I don’t enjoy these things.’ It would be way cost-prohibitive to go visit all your friends across the country. And there are real friendships like all these women in this room or the women I met through our online communities, but now they are honest-to-God friends.”

Elsa talks about her congregation. “The website is our primary form of evangelism.… Because we find more and more that when people come to church they have found us on an Internet search looking for a progressive church.… I haven’t heard anyone say anything about finding us on Facebook.”

She would like folks to see Facebook as a tool to help them tell the story of the church. “If you had a transforming experience in worship, post it on Facebook. Yes, I realize it's uncomfortable. I totally realize it. Post it on Facebook and link it to the church page as you do so because then people will know that this is a church where you can have that sort of experience.”

For example, Elsa took a group of 17 from the church on a mission trip. “It was neat coming back from a mission trip to see that whole group of 17 is almost all on Facebook. They all dumped their photos onto the church page and their own pages. So that was a neat building of community as both church members and participants commented on the photos and saw the story unfold, even though we haven’t had a formal worship moment to celebrate that.”

6) How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?

Susie affirms the work of the New Media Project: “I think having people who are ahead of the game thinking about theological implications of doing this … will make them [social media tools] actual tools of the gospel, and not have them become either the thing that’s destroying the church or the thing that’s going to save the church.”

Susie would be much more interested in 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? Susie 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.’”

Sarah wishes for understanding about the ways in which her generation and younger actually live in the world in a more flexible, permission-giving kind of way. “This way of being in the world is different than what was very structured and just old-fashioned.” She’d ask for education for employers about how social media isn’t the devil but is accompanied by a different workflow and way of organizing one’s life and ministry.

Elsa longs for resources around building community in this new age, “group dynamic stuff,” she calls it, like Saul Alinsky on community organizing or other church gurus on transformation. She’d like to refer back to historical in-gatherings of people of faith, how they organized and built community in the past, but recognize our new context and new patterns of thinking and behaving. She thinks the church has a lot to offer, but it needs help.

Conclusion

The Young Clergy Women Project has gathered a remarkable group of church leaders using online and social media tools with very little money and even less institutional structure. The project’s success affirms that experimental initiatives like this might result in a “clunky collage” rather than a “work of art,” but they are certainly worth pursuing for the sake of the church. Initiatives like this demonstrate how new models of operating, communicating, and even teaching the faith can help the church live abundantly into the twenty-first century. Hopefully, the larger church will learn not only how young people use new media tools, but also how they think theologically about the changing patterns of communication today.

Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

Nav