Women Clergy Seeking the Digitally-Integrated Real

It was a snow day in 2004 when I started a blog. I wrote about my dog, but it didn’t take much shoveling to see that I was really writing about my loneliness as a small church pastor juggling her vocation and motherhood.

After I pressed “publish,” I spent the rest of the day searching online for other pastor bloggers who were moms. Over the next year, I found more and more of them, and I began leaving encouraging or appreciative comments on blog posts about their daily lives, family challenges, or church experiences. By the summer of 2005, we had spun a significant web of connections, mostly between people who had never met each other #IRL—the now almost-quaint-sounding abbreviation for “in real life” that was used back in the days when people still believed that what happened online was somehow less “real” than what happened in face-to-face communications.

Even in those early days, we knew better.

A blogger I know only by her pseudonym, St. Casserole, lived somewhere on the Gulf Coast. She wrote that July about making preparations for a storm by boarding up windows, stocking up on bottled water, and baking a Texas Chocolate sheet cake for her family. That Saturday I baked a cake, too, sending my oldest child to the store for the necessary buttermilk. As I stirred the batter, I pondered her location and the odd phenomenon of caring about someone when you cannot put a face to her nickname. Like me, clergywomen who did not know her by any other name stood up in their churches that Sunday and asked for prayers for their friend who worried about a hurricane. “Please pray for Cassie and her family,” we asked.

Touched by the concern, St. Casserole wrote on her blog that she wondered if we could get a t-shirt to mark ourselves as connected. Thus RevGalBlogPals was born, a loose alignment of clergywomen. Within the first day-and-a-half, we had a CafePress store for those t-shirts, an account with RingSurf to link our blogs together, and a group blog that originally had no grander purpose than to be a neat thing.

As one of the more technically adept members of the group, I learned that anything we came to rely upon would change before we were ready. This ranged from the available templates for blogs to the programs available for listing members of our ring to the membership of the group. A core group stuck together, but much like a church, we saw a larger circle form and re-form and appear to break down only to come back together again with new members.

. . . anything we came to rely upon would change before we were ready.

We watched each other’s lives from afar and saw the same dynamics. People married, had babies, searched for new calls, got divorced, dealt with conflict in their churches, fell ill, mourned parents and spouses. Our lives changed while the social media landscape changed. We joined Twitter and learned to use hashtags—the markers of words and short phases that make them more searchable on social networks. Then, in late 2007, when many of us became “friends” on Facebook, too, the great revelations came as we learned each others’ names and places #IRL.

friday_prayers_head_shoulders_knees_toesFor several years the blog community continued to grow, but by 2012, we noticed a move away from blog commenting and toward conversations on Facebook. Of all the online shifts to which RevGalBlogPals has adapted, this was the biggest. After a little grumbling and some significant hesitation, I recognized that we were like an established church reluctant to try a new thing. Just like the late adopters of computers who feared a digital newsletter would be the end of the paper one they got in the mail, we early adopters of digital community resisted moving to a new format.

And here’s the thing: We were right. We started a private Facebook group, and in three years that group has grown from 200 to over 2500, including many who found us without knowing our history. Some of the favorite weekly blog features of our early years came to feel as dusty as silk flowers consigned to the church attic. Like a church, we tried to add new things without taking away the old ones, which sometimes feels right and other times like digging our heels in needlessly. From our remote locations, often by video chat (another innovation since our founding), we try to discern the right thing to do, to find where God is moving us, and to have the courage to follow.

In 2013, after eight years of volunteering, I moved into a newly-created position as Director of RevGalBlogPals. Part of my job description is Social Media Minister, which means keeping track of who is hurting, and who is new, and who is trouble, and who would be a valuable addition to the team of volunteers that makes our online community happen. I found a huge block of my time taken up by that Facebook group, where I was in the strange position of having a lot of authority: I could add members, delete comments, even block “trolls.” But I didn’t really have a discernible community identity to the newcomers.

To do ministry online you have be seen by people to whom you’re otherwise invisible. You have to make your voice heard by people who don’t know you in person.

I began to describe myself as an invisible megachurch pastor. Now, it was never my desire to become a megachurch pastor, visible or otherwise. Most of my work has been in smaller churches, with memberships anywhere from 85 to 150—that perfect size of community where you can actually know everyone you see. I puzzled about God’s apparent call to lead this gigantic thing on the Internet from a position of relative invisibility.

How do you lead, much less provide care, when no one can see you?

For some of us, making ourselves more visible online may go against our natures. I was raised to be modest and self-effacing. But to do ministry online you have be seen by people to whom you’re otherwise invisible. You have to make your voice heard by people who don’t know you in person. I worried that my repeated attempts to self-identify by announcing events, sharing news and stating the rules for the group over and over would be alienating or even seem egotistical, but I sensed this was necessary.

Then I saw things start to happen that felt better. A single pastor moving to an unfamiliar city asked if anyone lived nearby, and suddenly she was having coffee with five new friends. Another whose college-aged son’s car broke down far from home found someone willing to pick him up, even though it was Good Friday. Maybe we were doing something right? When an active group member’s husband died, members who had never met her before went to the funeral services in two locations. People began show up for ordinations, too, after discovering they lived near people they had only known online. It didn’t matter whether these relationships dated back to the old blogging days or if they’d formed weeks or even days before through a Facebook exchange.

The members of the RevGalBlogPals community—whether they find one another on the original (though substantially updated) website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads, or some new social networking site not quite on our official digital radar (like Pinterest, where RevGalBlogPals have taken their own initiative to pin content from our other sites)—are finding what I longed for the day I typed my first blog post, but never expected to find on the Internet: real community #IRL.

Martha Spong

Martha Spong is an author, a clergy coach, and executive director of RevGalBlogPals, an international online community for clergywomen. She is co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith)with Rachel Hackenberg (Church Publishing, 2018). Martha is an ordained United Church of Christ minister married to a Presbyterian pastor; she lives in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She offers her thanks to the Rev. Dr. Paul R. Adkins, who taught Church Administration at Andover Newton.

Photo Credits:

“Some of Our Founders, Gathered in Atlanta in 2007,” as found on the “About” page of the RevGalBlogPals website. Used by permission of RevGalBlogPals, which reserves all rights. Desaturated from original.

Untitled. One of a series of revolving header photos found on the RevGalBlogPals website. Originally viewed when it appeared at the top of the October 24, 2014 blog entry entitled  “Friday Prayer: Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” Used by permission of RevGalBlogPals, which reserves all rights. Cropped from original.