I must confess that I have been a less-than-dutiful clergy colleague. In Lutheran polity, congregations are organized in small geographic clusters called conferences, and their clergy gather for monthly meetings for mutual support and, oftentimes, text studies. Good times, right?
Although it has been over three years since I took my new call, I still have not yet attended our local clergy conference gathering.
Why haven’t I gone?
I enjoy my colleagues immensely, but, frankly, the idea of sitting in a church basement or fellowship hall with a group of clergy just really isn’t all that appealing. While I’m grateful for the relationships and support my conferences have given me, especially in some tough times in ministry, I always have this sense that there is a certain accident of geography when in comes to our gatherings—the result of a kind of ecclesiastical gerrymandering that evolved over the decades and that at some point became inviolate. When I have participated in clergy gatherings in the past, I sometimes have looked around the room and wondered why we—a particular yet random configuration of ministry leaders—were together, except that we happened to be geographically close to one another.
Certainly, part of the wisdom of these local gatherings is that we share a similar region; we are affected by the same local events, not to mention changes in state and local laws. Furthermore, during these in-person gatherings people can quite literally hold your hand and embrace you when you need it. Still, just because we happen to have been called to the same territory doesn’t mean that we share the same context.
And, the digital age truth is, we have alternatives.
Today, much of clergy collegiality takes place through digital social media. Many clergy assemble in digital gathering spaces like Facebook groups and blogs. They exchange ideas and information about themselves via free-flowing hashtags like the recent #realclergybios (developed by Bearings contributor Mihee Kim-Kort). As I have done over the last few years, many clergy have cobbled together informal digital collegial networks of their own making and choosing. We may not meet for an hour once a month, but our relationships, and the support we offer one another, are no less real. And in many ways, we are actually more connected than we might be in contrived face-to-face gatherings, because we are in constant contact with colleagues from around the church, gaining (and offering) wisdom, experience, support, and inspiration. Indeed, our digital connections have become such and essential part of the work of ministry that tech-savvy Lutheran pastor David Hansen has called them an “online ministerium.”
Changes in the nature and location of clergy collegiality reflect a shift to what Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman have called “networked individualism,” in which people tend to connect through networks rather than through established or inherited groups, especially institutional ones.
These new networks are not geographically bound. They are often highly ecumenical and can be multi-disciplinary, bringing together pastors, lay leaders, scholars, bishops, and more. What many clergy are searching for, and have found, online are communities of colleagues and practitioners that are rigorously engaging the context of 21st-century ministry, with its rise of the Nones, explosion of digital technologies, and shifting models for being church and the practice of ministry. Indeed, to hear Martha Spong describe the genesis of RevGalBlogPals, it can feel as though that these digitally-facilitated collegial networks find us. They enable us to discover a shared context that transcends the geographic.
Of course, digital clergy networks are by no means utopian. While it’s true that they can be vital lifelines for clergy who have no nearby colleagues—or who possess no other way to ask for help with the latest congregational drama at 3AM—they can be just as toxic and vicious as other parts of the internet, with its haters and trolls. (Word on the digital street is that you are not really a social media mogul until you have your own troll.) But they are much more than that, too.
A Community of Makers
In own experience, one of the greatest blessings of online social networks for clergy is that they can include people and colleagues from beyond the church (and often way, way beyond). I count as colleagues, for instance, friends who are brewers, a distiller, a photographer, and even a farmer-florist. I have started referring to them as my “community of makers.” They are small-business owners, entrepreneurs, and artists who are gifted in their particular fields. I learn so much from them through informal conversation and following their work online. Lucky for me, my “maker” colleagues are welcoming, authentic, generous, and just as focused on the relationships they build as they are on the products or art that they produce. All in all, they are great role models and colleagues for a clergy person figuring out how to forge community, create welcoming spaces, and make something beautiful in ministry.
My desire to broaden my “ministerium” has been affirmed as I’ve listened to a podcast hosted by Rob Bell called the Robcast. On the Robcast, Bell interviews people from a variety of fields, from Martin Gore of the band Depeche Mode, to Jeremy Courtney of the Preemptive Love Coalition, which provides amazing social services in Iraq, to neuroscientist Lynn Paul.
Bell’s interviews, like my engagement with my community of makers, invite me into a much broader and deeper sense of the ways God is at work through the world in art, creativity, service, and science. Makers in many of these fields—as with the entrepreneurs I count as friends—are much more in touch with our culture as it is today aesthetically, technologically, generationally, than the church.
To only count ministry leaders, and more narrowly, those that happen to live in our conference, synod, and/or diocese as sufficient for a clergy network misses a vast opportunity to learn and grow beyond the boundaries that church work and life sometimes fashion for us. We can become limited, not only by the institutional structures of which we are a part, but also by narrowness of those we count as colleagues. This is why, I think, many of the most dynamic clergy I follow not only read up on theology and ministry practice, but also regularly read authors like Seth Godin and Gary Vaynerchuk, who help to map the emerging digital, cultural, and business landscapes. (If you are interested in thinking more about these affinity networks, check out Godin’s book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us.)
Incubators of Innovation
Perhaps the final reason for my resistance to the traditional conference model of collegiality is that it seems designed to meet a different type of need than I experience in my ministry today. When the role of a pastor was to manage and maintain the congregation as the local franchise of the denomination, monthly meetings seemed a good way to facilitate communication between franchisees and the franchise. The time for that way of thinking about church and ministry are far past.
Today congregations and ministry leaders must rapidly catch up to the cultural changes that have been taking place for years and that we are only now starting to notice and understand. As much as we value one another as clergy colleagues, we need to expand our networks of practice, drawing on the knowledge and savvy of those with their fingers on the cultural pulse. We need to move from the echo chambers we have created within the church to incubators for innovation that include people far beyond it.