Digital ministry: It's not brain surgery


Digital ministry: It's not brain surgery

One of the most common questions about social media in ministry -- "How much time do you spend on Facebook?" -- is quickly becoming an irrelevant one.

Today 46 percent of American adults own smart phones and nearly 20 percent of Americans use a tablet or e-reader. They manage multiple social networking profiles, spending upwards of 15 minutes a day on Facebook alone, and carry out many everyday tasks like shopping and banking online.

As the Internet goes mobile and we spend more time there, the line between our digital and face-to-face lives is rapidly blurring.

This integration of our digital and analog lives, whether we choose to embrace or resist it, is changing our lives and, therefore, the practice of ministry, in profound ways. Today’s ministry leaders are called to be present and minister not only in person, by phone, snail mail and email, but also via text message and social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

'Talk about serendipity of grace'

I experienced this myself recently when one of my parishioners -- I'll call her Sally -- had surgery to remove a tumor from the right side of her brain.

I did all those good pastoral care practices I was taught to do in divinity school. We talked, visited and prayed together beforehand. I added her to the prayer list and made arrangements to get updates from her family -- her son said he would text me -- and planned to see her in the hospital when she was permitted to have visitors.

But it was our connection on Facebook that yielded perhaps the most grace-filled moments. The night before brain surgery, I sent her a Facebook message:

It is much, much too late to call but I wanted to say you are and will be in my prayers tomorrow... Lifting prayers for peace and healing and a successful surgery.

Given the late hour, I hadn’t expected a response. More than anything, the message was an expression of the prayer rising up in me. Unexpectedly, she responded,

Thank you so much. it means a lot. don't know why i am not in bed yet; i have to be at (the hospital) at 5:45!

This small exchange, in those anxiety-filled hours before surgery was yet another acknowledgment that God, her pastor and her church community were with her.

The next day I received text messages from her son throughout the day. The early reports indicated that the surgery had gone well. His wife confirmed this in her Facebook posts.

At around 9:00 the next night, as I waited for her to be cleared for visitors after surgery, a Facebook chat window popped up on my computer. It was Sally:

So today i was having trouble getting the internet on my hosp tv... i saw a woman walking past my door in a maroon jacket whom i thought might be the tv lady...i asked her if she could come in... turns out she was a chaplain and gave me ashes! (i can never get them cuz i always work wed nights) talk about serendipity of grace!

Cool! Oh my goodness, its so great to hear from you! I'm glad things went so well. I'm going to come over tomorrow.

thank you! so far my recovery has been going very ver well. determination but mostly the power of prayer! ps this keyboard is awfl. look forward to seeing you, keith.

Okay. Much peace and prayers and healing to you tonight.

thank you

This mash-up face-to-face pastoral care, conversations and prayer on Facebook chat, updates via text, and the imposition of ashes by a hospital chaplain at first mistaken for, of all things, the TV lady -- as well the many prayers and well wishes posted on her Facebook timeline -- is a wonderful picture of what it looks like to do ministry in our digitally integrated, socially networked and mobile world.

The art of digital ministry

This story also captures the relational, networked and incarnational nature of what Elizabeth Drescher and I call "digital ministry" in our forthcoming book, "Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible."

We define digital ministry as:

The set of practices that extend spiritual care, formation, prayer, evangelism, and other manifestations of grace into online spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where more and more people gather to nurture, explore, and share their faith today. It can also refer to these practices as they are influenced by the networked, relational character of digital culture in general, in both online and offline spaces.

Social media are not just add-ons to an already busy ministry schedule. They are not simply tools. Social networking sites are places where people gather for fun, support, inspiration and for relationship. They are places in which we can extend God’s love and grace to people within and well beyond our local ministry settings. They are now and will remain an integral part of our lives and ministry.

We do well, then, to follow the good advice of Clint Schnekloth, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Ark., one of the more than 40 digital ministry practitioners profiled in "Click2Save," "Think of what you’re doing in social media as ministry, not commentary on it, not ancillary to it."

Finally, two weeks following the surgery, Sally shared -- on her Facebook timeline, of course -- the great news: her tumor was benign. Thanks be to God.


Keith Anderson is pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Woburn, Mass. and is co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of the upcoming book "Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible," a hands-on guide to social media for ministry.

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