?How can pastoral care happen through the Internet? Doesn’t the impersonality of digital communication virtually contradict the essence of pastoral care? Let me say at the outset that I do not believe the Internet can replace personal pastoral relationships. Pastors need to look people in the eye, listen to their voices, shake their hands or offer a supportive hug. Nothing can take the place of genuine, one-on-one conversation.
However, the Internet can enhance and extend that which is centered in immediate fellowship. To cite an obvious example, Marc, a member of Irvine Presbyterian, chose to put aside his military retirement in order to serve a year’s term in Iraq. While he was overseas, he listened to my sermons online. He read my Pastor’s Letter (see below), and we kept in touch via e-mail. Our personal relationship continued electronically so that when I saw Marc again face-to-face, it felt as if we had hardly been apart.
Speaking of my Pastor’s Letter, this was another of my surprises from the new media. My Pastor’s Letter was an e-blast (an e-mail sent simultaneously to all church members who had signed up for it). I began the letter partly because I realized many in my flock, especially older adults, didn’t visit blogs, though they did read e-mail. Also, I was looking for a more personal and intimate way to address issues of concern within my church family, the sort of thing I wouldn’t post on my public website.
When I began sending the Pastor’s Letter, I was astounded by people’s response. Though they knew this was an e-blast, they received what I had sent as if it were written personally to them. It extended and enriched my relationship with my flock in blessed new ways. I would say that in most cases this mode of Internet communication is more immediately useful to pastors than blogging.
Although I greatly prefer face-to-face conversation for pastoral counseling, I found that some people prefer the safe distance of e-mail. I had some members, who would never in a million years make an appointment with me, open up about deep struggles in an e-mail. Sometimes this led to personal meetings; sometimes an e-mail relationship sufficed. By the end of my tenure at Irvine Presbyterian, though, my number of weekly counseling meetings remained the same as at the beginning of my ministry there. To put it differently, the Internet enabled me to do four times more pastoral care than I’d have been able to do in person.
New Media Devotions
The Internet also allowed me to offer devotional input to my congregation on a daily basis. I began with a website called PrayThePsalms.com. This site focused on a psalm each day, offering a short excerpt for reflection, a link to the whole chapter, my prayer based on the excerpt and a brief postscript or question for further reflection. In actuality, I was putting online a portion of my own daily devotions, inviting my flock to join me as I spent time each day with the Lord.
You could use the Internet in other ways to help members of your flock grow deeper in their relationship with God. A regular devotional e-blast is one obvious option. Another would involve sending or posting devotional links rather than original devotional thoughts.
Go with Your Strengths
I realize that what I’ve described about my own online pastoral ministry might feel overwhelming to you. In particular, if you’re not an especially quick writer, you can’t imagine imitating my efforts. So let me say it clearly: Don’t! Don’t try to do all that I have done. Rather, let me serve as one example of an effort to use the new media to strengthen pastoral ministry. What I’ve done fits my particular mix of talents and gifts and makes sense in my particular community. You should do what fits you and your pastoral context.
As you consider how you might make use of new media options, be sure to pay attention to your personal strengths. Do you write fairly quickly and easily? Then a daily blog might work for you. Or you might choose to blog on a weekly rather than a daily basis. A successful blog needs to have regular input, but regular could mean once a week or twice a week.
If you’re not especially good with the written word but are better in person, you may wish to investigate the world of online video posting (see YouTube and similar sites). You may have talent in making videos in which you’re behind the camera rather than in front of it, or you may be inept in this technology but an expert at motivating others to do it. However you move forward with new media, go with your strengths.
Adapted from The New Media Frontier. Copyright © 2008 by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton, editors. Published by Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois. Used by permission.