Building Relationships Online, Offline, or Both?

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on January 2, 2012. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

A friend of mine recently asked me an important question regarding relationships in the context of our local congregations. He asked whether or not the focus of the individuals and leaders that collectively represent congregations shouldn’t be on building relationships offline before engaging social media to this end?

Setting aside the social media aspect for the moment, the question really boils down into two critical points for consideration. The first is finding a model that can best guide our relationships as individuals, leaders, and congregations. The second is to locate how we, as a community, can best embody this model.

For the Christian author and theologian Sallie McFague, these two points come together in her book Models of God in which she examines three models for God: God as mother, God as lover, and God as friend. Through these models, McFague explores God’s relationship with the world as creator, savior, and sustainer. The relationship of God as sustainer, as friend, is one in which we are invited into a collective relationship that is intended to be a partnership with God in caring for the needs of the world. McFague describes this model for friendship as inclusive, one that can be imagined as individuals standing “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” God as friend and sustainer invites us to be in a community “which is a gathering of those committed to the vision of a healed, liberated world.” This is an important distinction from some of the more classical models of friendship which tend to be selective, exclusive, one-to-one and focused more on the needs of the individuals.

And how do we as a community fulfill this type of inclusive friendship? McFague suggests that it is when we openly invite others to join us at the table in the shared meal. Hospitality, in this meal, is not extended only to friends but to all. The shared meal is not unique to Christians as many religious traditions celebrate a shared meal: Muslim iftar, Hindu prashada, and Sikh langar to name a few. McFague suggests that through the shared meal we can begin to break down the fears we maintain of others, of the stranger. And furthermore that it is only by inviting the stranger into our community that we can truly begin to understand others and thus care for the needs of the world.

So back to my friend’s question, should this type of relationship precede our involvement with social media?

If you have been following along with me these past few months you will know that I’ve been thinking about social media as a framework, and as such there is no one size fits all approach. For this reason I feel that there is not a single answer to this question. However I’d like to suggest that we consider social media’s ability enhance our relationships. The type of friendship and relationship building suggested by McFague is applicable to all facets of life — both online or offline. Much like participating in the shared meal can enhance our relationships, social media is a means by which we can gather in community and extend our hospitality to others — including strangers. Social media does not replace our need to gather as a community, but in today’s context the opportunity exists to leverage social media to stand side by side with others, focused on a common vision to heal and liberate the world.

Framing Relationships Online

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on November 17, 2011. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

I have found it hard to miss the tension in the blogosphere as congregational leaders attempt to discern the pros and cons of social media. From what I’ve seen, there are some deep concerns that go right to the core of how social media are shaping us and our relationships.
socialnetworksTake, for example, the post by Laura Truax as she wrestled with the “foible” of un-friending former and current members of her congregation on Facebook. Her decision was driven by a desire to protect those individuals from the possibility of being witnesses to an emotionally charged online discussion over the topic of sexuality. Or a more recent piece by Gail Song Bantum, a pastor at a church in Seattle, that explores the issue of identity online, and if social media represents a true self or not. Her concerns appear to come out of her personal discernment process regarding how much social media should define our identity versus just being a tool or utility.

Have you noticed, or even felt, these emotions? Have you struggled with finding the “right” approach to engaging and maintaining relationships on social media? Or perhaps you have pondered the meaning of friendship online altogether? You are not alone.

Mark Vernon, a former priest in the Church of England, acknowledges the tension in our online relationships in his book The Meaning of Friendship. Vernon writes that “the anxiety stems from whether the virtual world is a good, safe and honest world in which to get to know and be known by another — or at least whether it is good, safe and honest enough.” Or, in other words, is social media a good framework for cultivating relationships?

To help unravel this question, Vernon turns to the philosopher Aristotle for some guidance. Aristotle concluded that there are really different categories of relationships that we might collectively refer to as friendship. In other words, Aristotle recognized that friendship is more of a framework rather than an absolute — there is no one size fits all.

In a prior post, I began to explore a framework of a different kind that also can inform our online relationships, and that is the emotional framework of trust. The trust framework puts an equal emphasis on both earning trust and giving trust, thus recognizing that trust requires a bilateral relationship between leader and follower.

I have to wonder how much of the tension around social media might be relieved if we acknowledge that it is a framework, and as such is a manifestation of the frameworks of friendship and trust. By doing so we allow ourselves to imagine it as a means by which we can enhance and extend our relationships across time and distance. Vernon concludes that this could serve to reduce “the fear that people are attempting to get to know each other via the one-dimensional medium of the screen, and are instead able to draw on what they know of their friends face-to-face.” And after all, isn’t that what friends are for?

There remains the broader question of how congregations engage in building relationships on social media, and this can undoubtedly benefit from this type of thinking — but that will have to be a topic for another day.

Public Leader: Now More Than Ever

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on August 15, 2011. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

Over the past few years, the world has seen the unprecedented growth of social media and has watched as society has reoriented itself around the rituals of tweeting, friending, and liking. Social media are also shaping each of us in the way we communicate, the way we consume information, and the way we define our relationships. On Facebook, for example, the complex personal relationships of everyday life are now defined by one simple category–friend. So how do congregational leaders make sense of their webs of relationships when social media has become so entrenched in society?

Kelly Fryer draws attention to the complex issues at stake for ministry leaders in her blog post, “Pastors on Facebook: Get Real.” Her post questions pastors who elect to create two Facebook profiles–one for personal use and one for professional use. Fryer’s concern is that, in adopting this practice, pastors are not allowing themselves to develop authentic relationships with their parishioners.

Clark Olson-Smith responded to Fryer with his post, “Be real, and, if you want, be friends,” in which he tries to distinguish between being “real” and being “friends.” Olson-Smith raises two interesting points. First, he suggests that, since people enter into relationships differently in their “offline” lives, we should allow that they may enter into relationships differently in their “online” lives as well. Second, Olson-Smith questions if being friends with parishioners is really required for effective ministry—a question that has been asked in seminaries for many years before Facebook’s inception.

It’s becoming clear, however, that social media has elevated the challenges of being a public leader because of its sheer ubiquity. I decided to explore these challenges more deeply, so I interviewed five pastors who had created two Facebook profiles and were willing to talk about what led them to this decision.

While the details differed, the recurring themes of control and trust emerged again and again. These pastors were hesitant to bring all of their offline relationships together into one online space. With their reputations and, perhaps, their jobs at stake, could they risk one of their friends posting something that might jeopardize their relationship with a parishioner? Of course, creating two profiles does not guarantee that this won’t happen, but it does provide some level of control.

But what role does trust play in these relationships? Robert C. Solomon, professor of business and philosophy at the University of Texas, writes in Ethics, the Heart of Leadership that “leadership is an emotional relationship of trust.” While the role of the leader is typically to earn trust, the role of the led is to give trust. Accordingly, Solomon argues that “it is those who would follow, not those who would lead, who are the ultimate power in any leadership relationship.” If this principle translates to our online personas, we must consider how our attempts to control our social media (by maintaining two Facebook profiles, for example) may not engender the kind of relationship of trust required for effective leadership. Without this framework of trust, both leader and follower are left to struggle with the fear and doubt that can arise from issues of privacy and control.