Safe sanctuaries in a virtual world


Many times we try to reduce ethics to a matter of liability. There is a prevailing belief that we require education around sexual harassment, appropriate touching and intimacy, inclusive language, appropriate use of technology, and so on to avoid the possibility of lawsuits and major financial payouts. The reality is that from the perspective of integrity in the faith community, financial and legal liabilities are the least of our concerns. As the church universal, our primary focus is and should be our authentic witness for Jesus Christ to the world as the living embodiment of Christ right here, right now. Legal issues and liabilities are important, without a doubt. Nevertheless, the primary questions should be: Are we really being the light of Christ to a dark and hurting world? Is the church giving direction and leading the charge when it comes to modeling the appropriate use of technology? Or is the church simply jumping on the train of current culture and whatever is the prevailing thought of the day? These are the foundational questions that call us to remember that we are God’s people, called to be Christ’s witnesses in the ways we worship, speak, and conduct ourselves in and with the world.

As God’s people we have to acknowledge and accept that our actions have consequences. Good actions and decisions produce good, healthy outcomes. Poor decisions and actions often produce negative consequences and harm to ourselves, other individuals, and groups of people. The harm that occurs, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional, creates a liability for which the individual and/or the church is responsible. Because we live in a society in which great value is placed on money, the restoration process of a liable action or set of actions is usually realized through large amounts of money being awarded by the court system after a lengthy trial. Once an indiscretion has occurred, the goal is often to mitigate legal actions and financial settlements. The true liability of which we speak, however, is not about money or insurance investigations or timely courtroom proceedings. The true liability that we are trying to address is that of a spiritual and theological nature.

The actions of one have great consequences and affect all: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member [of the body] is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:26-27). When Christ’s body is fractured because of indiscretions, poor decisions, and overall disregard for unity in the Holy Spirit, God’s people are hurt. Trust is destroyed. Christian integrity is called into question. The example of Christ is marred. Those seeking the church as a place of refuge instead find it a place of pain and hurt. Questions, confusion, and concern take the place of peace, joy, and unity. Utilizing technology within the context of ministry comes with risks. Some of the risks are known and others are still unknown. The liability that we carry with us as we use technology is that some may use it inappropriately, thereby harming the unity of Christ’s body, the church. The liability is greatly reduced, however, when we “[bear] with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2) and practice mutual accountability with one another.

Remember, ethics in regard to technology is a matter of ecclesiology, theology, covenantal relationship, and, last, a matter of liability for God’s people. We are called to be God’s church, in this time, in our particular place in this world, for all with whom we will engage. Our theological understanding of mutual care, support, and accountability brings us into covenantal relationship with one another and with God, thereby greatly reducing the liability that exists for God’s people to cause fractures in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

It is because of this that we, as Christians, together journey into the world of technology. 

Our Current Situation

Our twenty-first-century world is flooded with a myriad of ways to stay in contact with one another. From e-mails to cell phones, social networking sites to blogs, video chats to virtual worlds, we are constantly connected without regard to geography, time zone, or depth of relationship. We as humans are made in the image of the triune God, and we long for companionship and connection with one another. Technology and its ease of use fuels our hunger for connection, relationships, and companionship. The problem is that for the first time in human history we have the ability to develop and cultivate relationships with people whom we have never met, whose identities we cannot immediately verify, and whom we may never see face-to-face.

Our understandings of human behavior are based in real-life situations and interactions with one another. Technology and the entire virtual world now skew the personal interactions we have come to rely on when communicating with another person. The screen of a computer, smart phone, or tablet greatly reduces our ability to observe facial expressions, hear the tone of voice when a statement is offered, observe the nonverbal body cues given in personal interactions, or verify the information that is offered regarding the person’s identity, character, and intent.

Families have guidelines and norms for members’ interacting with one another. Relationships with colleagues include a prescribed standard of behavior and set of norms. Within friendships we have normative standards and guidelines related to the way we interact with one another. Communities have social norms and acceptable behaviors. Teachers in classrooms develop class rules and standards for engagement; even states and nations develop laws and statutes that govern the way people are in relationship with one another. So too, relationships in a virtual world need a set of standards, guidelines, and rules in which we operate. Many of these rules and boundaries are offered to us through the “host” organization—be that a social networking site, a cell phone provider, or even the government. 

As people set apart for the work of ministry in the name of Christ, we must continue to heed the words of scripture and apply the principles that we glean from the Holy Spirit in order to lead lives worthy of our calling. Beyond the established rules and norms given to us by the world, we are called to consider the additional practices of ethical behavior that are congruent with our understanding of God and our relationship with God and God’s people. The boundaries and guidelines that we create for face-to-face interactions must also serve as signposts or benchmarks for use on our journey into the world of virtual reality and technology. Our relationships, be they with our next-door neighbors or people halfway around the world whom we may never meet face-to-face, must remain grounded in our scriptural understanding of our calling, the covenantal relationship we are in with God and all Christians, the practice of participation in the priesthood of all believers, and the vows of ordination and licensing that we accepted when we responded to Christ’s call in our lives.

For the majority of us, our use of multimedia, in one form or another, aids our ability to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. When we speak of technology we are including cell phones and all their capabilities, the Internet, social networking sites, and even e-mails.

We are in contact with others in numerous ways throughout the day and night. As clergy and leaders in the church, people seek us out for comfort, advice, leadership, support, and spiritual growth. It is important for us to remember that these relationships are sacred gifts from God. Technology is a tool that we use to be in relationship with others. The use of technology is a privilege, and in using that privilege we must exercise responsibility.

Even as we engage in this conversation, we are aware of those among us whose lives are constantly and intrinsically connected with technology—and we are also aware of those on the other end of the spectrum who avoid technology and any use of it. The great majority of us live somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Technology is an ever-present reality regardless of how we feel about it. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to understand how people use technology and how people’s abuse of it causes harm to themselves and others.

Cell phones, the Internet, and social media have proved to be helpful and useful tools in our ministry. Technology 

  • helps us communicate in real or near real time;
  • provides an avenue to disseminate a lot of information in a very short amount of time; and
  • is generally readily available and spans large geographical areas without a lot of problems.

Multimedia usage is an everyday part of our culture. It is a mechanism we use to engage in ministry and equip others for discipleship and ministry in the world. In our use of technology, it is imperative that we continue to consider the boundaries we establish, the ways we respect other people’s boundaries, and the dynamic that exists when engaging in conversation with a person who is not physically in front of us.

Two of the biggest problems facing the church today in the area of technology are:  

  • online sexualized behavior; and
  • the use and abuse of pornography found online. 

Both of these stem from a third problem, which is inappropriate personal and interpersonal boundaries. We are living in a society in which cultural norms and values are quickly shifting from a communal sense of right and wrong to a more individualized “me-centered” society where anything goes, and to each their own. It is becoming more and more difficult to determine and define communal boundaries. Because of the eroding nature of community and the continual rise of the “Just do it” culture, many people are growing up without any sense of appropriate personal and communal boundaries. As leaders in the church, we are highly shaped by the world and our experiences in it. Given our desire to stay relevant and of the world while not in the world, we too are struggling to understand what is right and what is wrong, where the proverbial line in the sand is between the two, and the ways we intentionally and unintentionally cross that line.

More and more church leaders are struggling with appropriate boundaries related to the use of multimedia in ministry and relationships. Boundary-crossing can be as simple as the tone and character of our e-mails and actions shifting from professional and business-oriented information sharing to more personal and informal sharing. It is easy to forget that our written words are just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the words we speak. When we change our Facebook statuses to reflect our frustration with some unnamed church member who has just stormed into our offices; or we tweet or blog about how tired we are, how unappreciative our spouses are of all our hard work, and how taken for granted we are as leaders in the church, we have crossed personal and professional boundaries. We begin to walk on a very slippery slope when we do not have healthy boundaries in place concerning the use of technology. The slope continues to become more slippery when we begin to engage in relationships online.

excerpt from: Safe Sanctuaries in a Virtual World by Joy Thornburg Melton and Michelle L. Foster Copyright © 2014 by Discipleship Resources. Used with permission.

The book includes these chapters:

  1. Foundations and Pillars: Eccelsiology; Theology; Covenantal Relationship; Liability; Our Current Situation; Boundaries; Sacred Space.
  2. Application of Law to the Life of the Church: Copyright and the Digital Age; Selection; Hiring, and Supervision
  3. Basic Procedures for Ministry in a Virtual World: A Story of Power, Pain, and Technology; Cell Phones; Social Media
  4. Pornography and Obscenity: The Gift of Sex; Pornography; What the Laws Say about Pornography and Obscenity
  5. Specialized Contexts of Ministry—FAQs: Camping and Retreat Ministries; Campus Ministries; Preschool and After-school Ministries; Sports and Leisure Ministries; Pastoral Moves and Social Media; Visitor and New Member Assimilation Ministries
  6. Training and Response: Opening Worship; Introductory Information; Closing Worship; A Model for Response; Continuing Ministry of Response
  7. Sample Forms: Social Media Use Policy for Employees, Volunteers; Youth Ministry Leadership Covenant; Authorization Form for Photo and Video Usage; Pastoral Ministry Covenant Regarding the Use of Facebook and Other Social Media
  8. Sources and Resources: Books and Publications; Helpful Websites; Newsletters; Blogs; United Methodist Resources
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