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.

Managing Safe and Secure Congregational Computer Networks

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on October 10, 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.

In 40 Days and 40 Bytes, Aaron Spiegel, Nancy Armstrong, and Brent Bill refer to computer networks—and, by association, the Internet—as “a part of today’s techie society.” Their vision, when the book was published in 2004, was that computer networks would become increasingly essential for businesses and congregations alike, and how right they were.

Simple dial-up Internet access in congregational offices was at one time considered a luxury. However, with increased availability of affordable high-speed Internet and the changing landscape of our culture, congregational networks that are able to access the Internet have become a near necessity.

The transition to a networked congregation, however, is not completely free of pitfalls. The growth of wireless mobile computing devices has introduced a new era of networking. With these devices, the Internet is available at nearly any time and in any place. At the same time, the Internet continues to be a vast ocean of content, some of which could be considered unsavory or even illegal.

The reality for congregations using wireless networks, also known as Wi-Fi, is that they are also a public space. As such, congregations frequently host visitors who carry computing devices (laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc.) that are hungry for network bandwidth. For a number of reasons, it may not be desirable to have all these devices connected to a congregational network.

By enabling the security features on your wireless router, network access to mobile devices can be limited and controlled. In general, there are two common types of wireless security—Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). Both WEP and WPA are similar in that they will require a device to provide a password to connect to the wireless network.

Those wanting additional security beyond WEP or WPA may also disable the feature that broadcasts the presence of your wireless network. This will hide the network from those mobile computing devices that are constantly sniffing for wireless access. With broadcasting turned off, access will only be granted to those devices that know both the network identifier (commonly called the SSID) and the wireless security password.

But even when devices are legitimately connected to a network, it can be difficult to monitor these resources to ensure that they are used in ways that are consistent with the ministry of that congregation.

One solution to this problem is to implement some type of filter that will limit the Web content that is accessible from the network. For these situations, I’d recommend that you consider using the services of OpenDNS. The way this works is that your router will be configured to use the OpenDNS service as a means of connecting to any website on the Internet. The OpenDNS service can be configured to filter out a known set of websites based on content, or you can pick and choose what content is acceptable. You can also use the reporting feature to see what websites are visited most often from your network.

The OpenDNS knowledge base provides detailed instructions on how to set up several of the more popular router brands. While the service is not free for enterprise use, OpenDNS says that it offers a special price for non-profit organizations.

The Internet has become a key element in the ministry of congregations of all sizes. Maintaining a safe and secure computing network is the first step of many for congregations to consider as they begin to embrace the expanding world of networked computing.