Pastoral Care in a Digital Age

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

I wear two very different pastoral hats.

I am a Methodist minister in my late 40s, working a rural circuit in North Yorkshire, UK, where the average age of a typical congregation is about sixty-five. (Thankfully, there are some younger exceptions to that.)

My day-to-day work amongst the congregations I serve is pretty traditional; people like to be visited in their homes. We have a pastoral visitors system and it works effectively. I am told by the pastoral visitors of any urgent and important needs and respond accordingly. I also visit hospitals and care homes. All of that work is positive and ongoing and I enjoy it, but it is mostly carried out amongst older folk.

I interact quite differently with younger folk, some of them members of the church and others more on the fringe. Much of this communication is done not in person, as it is for their parents and grandparents, but via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or through my blog, where I encourage open conversation. A twenty-something might find it quite bizarre that a pastor should visit in her home, but would think nothing of discussing spiritual and personal matters online. This is pastoral care in the digital age.

Status: Help!

I opened a Facebook account just over four years ago primarily to stay in touch with my children when they went to University, but it quickly grew beyond a simple way to keep in touch with my children and younger people who interact naturally with digital media. Most status updates are fairly mundane, but some can be very thought provoking and might open up a deep conversation.

Occasionally a Facebook status is a cry for help. Anything from a complaint about a minor illness to a deep and heartfelt request for prayer can alert a minister to a pastoral need. I noticed a particularly distressing Facebook status one day and immediately picked up the phone and called the person concerned. We arranged to meet, to talk and pray. I asked why he had posted such distressing news on Facebook, and his response was simple: he knew that someone would respond. He added that he didn’t have the energy to make dozens of phone calls! Facebook had been a genuine vehicle for this young man to seek help.

Other encounters are not so positive, when private matters are inappropriately made public. People have broken relationships through Facebook, and the very public (though often misunderstood) arena that this offers can be harmful and hurtful. There have been a number of occasions when I have asked people if they really want those words left for all to read. This in itself can be a form of pastoral care, if done gently. A private Facebook message is more appropriate for such reminders if the phone is not an option. People are often unaware of just how public their comments and statuses are, and although there are settings to block certain people or anyone who is not a friend from seeing one’s wall and other information, these are often not used.

Facebook is an almost essential way to stay in touch these days, but it can be easily abused. Knee-jerk reactions (and I have been guilty of them) are common, and misunderstandings are easily made because one thing that is sorely missing is the ability to judge a tone of voice or make eye contact. We must ask questions about appropriateness and boundaries when interacting online, especially when that interaction becomes pastoral care. We must ask what is acceptable to share in a visible, online forum, and how to draw appropriate boundaries whilst maintaining online relationships. These are important questions, but actually not all that different from the questions we must ask ourselves when doing more traditional, one-on-one pastoral care!

Virtual Q, Real A

Blogs also provide a forum for deep pastoral discussion. A blog is much more of a one-way communication than a social network, but with commenting features enabled, great conversation can emerge among readers. A blog does not have to have thousands of readers to minister to and connect with people. Many authors of lower profile blogs (like my own) tend to draw a small but dedicated readership, and it is from this readership that pastoral encounters begin.

A few years ago, I blogged about my own struggles with depression. As I did, many of the commenters began to interact with my posts at quite a deep level, some sharing personal stories of their own struggles—stories that they had been unable to tell elsewhere. I wrote:

Why is it hard for Christians to admit they suffer from depression? Why do we try hard to portray near-perfect lives...feeling as if somehow we have let God down, or that we might be asked questions we cannot answer.

Readers responded passionately, confessing their own struggles and affirming that professional help and medication are sometimes needed, and that such needs do not indicate a lack of faith. They encouraged one another in their emotional struggles and in their spiritual lives. As I continued to blog my journey through this time, the commenters began to form into a small community who supported one another and told their own stories. They claimed their right to talk about these personal issues, and found on the blog a safe forum in which to do so. All of this was conducted online, and although I know some of them personally, there were many others I did not know.

As pastoral care, this is far from traditional. There were no face-to-face encounters, but my blog became a safe space for people to share openly. Some shared their real names and others didn’t, but that was not the important part. As time has gone on, some of those folk have continued to comment on my posts, while others have not and probably don’t read what I write anymore.

I often ask myself whether my blogging opened a door to genuine pastoral care, and I have to say that I think it did. Being vulnerable opens a space for transformative dialogue, so I believe that my posts about my own vulnerability opened a way for other people to express theirs.

Is It Really So Different?

Digital media offers us new tools for encounters that would not have been possible before, but in many ways, the care is just the same. Pastors are still caregivers, and must handle those encounters responsibly. The open and fluid nature of the digital media allows for relatively anonymous one-time encounters which may or may not deepen into long-lasting pastoral relationships, but then surely many other pastoral encounters are of a similar nature. When you see the whole world as your parish, it does not matter if a person is in “your” congregation or not; a person in need is a person in need, online or off.

What may be missing is a whole church relationship. Though the growing number of Internet churches may be the answer for some, I suspect that this is a void that can only really be filled in a face-to-face way. The opportunities for people to reach out digitally to invite people into face-to-face relationship should not be discounted as we meet needs in the virtual world.

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