by the Rev. Charles Austin (March / April 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 2)
There is such variety in the pastoral ministry that everyone feels overwhelmed at times. And the daily ministry in our varied communities ebbs and flows with unpredictable and sometimes disturbing force. It seems impossible to be prepared for everything that challenges our days.
I have always believed that information is both comforting and powerful. However difficult something may be, the pressure is eased if I know something about it. The knowledge gives me power and helps me understand what I can do and what I cannot do.
When I arrived in my first parish many years ago, I made a point of going to as many meetings of community organizations as I could so that I knew what kind of projects they had and what their concerns were. I asked for a tour of several hospitals in the area and stopped in to see the mayor and visit a town council session. I had grand hopes of “keeping in touch” so that I could help my parishioners, some of them volunteers in these groups, and understand their service in the community.
It was just too hard to do, and I did not have enough time to keep up on a very broad range of community activities. The best I could do was glance at their newsletters, if they had one. But I could never locate those newsletters again if I wanted to retrieve some information about a project or issue.
Today, the Internet puts such information near at hand. But, of course, it puts so much information near at hand that it can be hard to manage. (There’s a reason they call it Web “surfing.” We ride along rolling waves of information, trying to keep our balance and not be cast off our boards.)
The solution, I believe, is to build small “holding ponds” of online data and Web sites that contain what we need, but in manageable quantities and without the roaring surf.
I would establish on the “favorites” list of my Internet browser some special folders. Each would contain a small selection of sites that could quickly provide me with necessary information.
|If you feel that you are about to go under while “surfing” the Web, paddling in the smaller ponds that you have created yourself might help.|
One folder would be labeled “Medical.” It would contain the Web sites of local hospitals and access to information about their special programs, the conferences they run for patients and others, and community events such as programs for new mothers. That folder would also link me to the site of the Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), which opens the door to a vast amount of information about diseases and related issues. It’s much easier to be helpful during hospital visits and at other times if one has a basic understanding of the diagnosis. If someone tells me he has iron overload and hemochromatosis, I will know what kind of fatigue and weakness he faces and what additional illnesses he may confront.
The medical folder should also contain links to other reliable sources of medical information, such as the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), the American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org) and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders (www.ninds.nih.gov).
A folder labeled “Civic Groups” would have the Web sites of local organizations like the League of Women Voters, Habitat for Humanity, Chamber of Commerce, Red Cross, Sierra Club, the local government, and whatever other groups serve the community. You can check the sites periodically to see what local groups are doing and how the ministry of the congregation might be applied.
More Holding Ponds
A third folder would be “Demographics.” Every congregation council and evangelism committee has discussions about “what people are like” in their town. Every budget committee speculates on the financial health of the congregation. Well, thanks to the U.S. Census, we don’t need to speculate. A dazzling amount of information is available at census sites. At one (factfinder.census.gov) the data include not only how many people are in a town but how much they earn, their education level, whether they live in apartments or houses, what kind of work they do, and how they commute to work. It takes a while to learn how to navigate through the site, but the data are spectacular. And if you are comfortable downloading or converting tables, you can get the data in spreadsheets to share with congregational leaders.
Another folder, “Faith Groups,” would contain Web sites of local churches and other religious institutions. If all local churches don’t have Web sites, perhaps a cooperative site could be developed, so that everyone can have quick access to information about ecumenical events.
The situation in a particular place might require additional folders. You might want to monitor the local business community or follow real estate sales through the listings in the online version of the local paper.
Pastors should also be using the Internet to access basic reference materials like Project Wittenberg (www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-home.html), which has lots of historical documents and other information, and sites with historical information about church history or seminary-sponsored sites with preaching helps.
Maintaining a list of sites containing information needed for the right kind of pastoral care or leadership in a particular community won’t totally eliminate those times when pastors feel overwhelmed or inadequate. But if you feel that you are about to go under while “surfing” the Web, paddling in the smaller ponds that you have created yourself might help.
Charles M. Austin is interim pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Ridgefield, New Jersey.