Faith Works 5-4-13
Pastoral care and electronic relationships
It's all quite fashionable to bemoan the rise of the machines, the SkyNet of 24/7 electronic devices now supposedly controlling our frontal cortexes and cerebellums.
I, for one, welcome our new digital overlords. (That's a "Simpsons" joke, gang.)
Seriously, I have to tell you that while I knew that widespread use of e-mail would be a game-changer for ministry and pastoral care, and I didn't mind setting aside my beeper (someone explain to the young'uns what a beeper was), I had no idea in my head that by 2013 we'd be using technology in the life of a pastor the way we are now.
24/7 access can be a burden, no doubt, but for clergy at least as long as I've been alive, there's been an assumption of 24/7 access: when crisis strikes, when ambulances are called, when the funeral home is involved. Just as the doctor and EMT and mortician came when called, so did the pastor.
But in the absence of cell phones and wifi, that often meant your presence was needed long before you got there; you had to get to where the message waited for you before you knew where you had to go next. And those locations were the church office, and at home, making for a ministerial day that was a bit of a daisy, with petals of pilgrimage out, and back, away, and home, off you go, then late you'd return to the house . . . and possibly learn you needed to go back to the same building you just left.
My average day "in the saddle" mapped out (another thing you can do easily online!) now looks more meandering, but with much less retracing, than it used to. I've got a cell phone, and I get more texts on it that voice mail messages. The administrative manager at the church I serve can ping me with updates as to who went home, who just got transported to Columbus, and who is on their way to the ER. I can skip one hospital call, head to OSU Medical Center, and stop at LMH on the way home. Not long ago, that could have meant three out-and-back runs, one of which would have been to an empty bed.
The new devices also mean that there are places where I can't call or text because of no signal . . . but I have wifi access, so out comes the tablet, and on social media messaging I'm conversing in near-real time with the church office. I've stood outside a hospital cubicle while asked to "step out briefly" and finished editing a church newsletter before the doctor says "you can come back in now."
Downtime is what it has long been for clergy, a matter of personal discipline and persistent, loving reminders that you are trying to set aside one day a week when folks need to not expect to get ahold of you. That wasn't easy in 1983, and it can still be a challenge in 2013. Your definition of emergency (bleeding, dying) may not be the same as some parishoners' (editing, wondering), but it's a little easier, IMHO, to sift those requests to speak to you on that Sabbath set-aside when you are getting the question by e-mail or text message.
Much to my surprise, coming up on one year back in full-time ministry, my answering machine is quiet. For many years, the confrontation with the one-eyed red blinking monster was the last battle of the day. You'd come home after a long haul, pull off your shoes, brace yourself, push that cursed button, and learn Aunt Hattie went to the ER five hours ago. So you'd put the shoes on, and head over. And after a warm and meaningful time with Hattie and her kin at the bedside, and a prayer for the night's rest, you'd head home . . . and the red light would be on again, and out you'd go a second time at 9:30 pm.
That doesn't happen anymore. I'm thankful for that, and so is the Lovely Wife. I may have more e-mails to answer, and have to sort out which message pop-up box I'm responding to next on my laptop at home, but the trade-offs so far have been a blessing.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you like to stay in touch with work & faith at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Knapsack on Twitter.