Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Church and the Internet: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore (Section 2)

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Yesterday I began telling the story of how the Internet impacted the recent calling of Rich Kannwischer as the next senior pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California.
Now, for the rest of the story. Last Sunday there was a congregational meeting at St. Andrew’s to vote on the recommendation of the nominating committee to call Rich to the church. Usually this sort of thing is a slam dunk. But, in the case of St. Andrew’s, the situation was much messier because one of the top candidates for the position was an associate pastor at St. Andrew’s who has a large following in the congregation. It was well known in the congregation that this other man had been in the running, but he was not the final choice of the nominating committee. This meant that the vote to call Rich would surely be significantly split in the congregation. (Presbyterian congregations almost never know who other potential candidates were. The process at St. Andrew’s, involving a short-term co-pastorate and an internal candidate, was unusual in the extreme. Photo: John Huffman and Rich Kannwischer in front of the congregation at St. Andrew’s. Photo from the nominating committee blog. )
During the early afternoon of last Sunday, I was dying to know what was happening in the congregational meeting at St. Andrew’s, but I was riding in a car that was speeding through the Texas countryside on Interstate 10. What did I do? Using my iPhone, I visited a Twitter search website, and searched for “Kannwischer.” In a few moments I was following two Twitterers who were members of St. Andrew’s. There were present in the congregational meeting and putting up regular tweets on the meeting’s progress. Sitting in a car in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and there’s a lot of nowhere in Texas, I was getting frequent, live reports of a congregational meeting in Southern California. Within seconds of the announcement of the vote, I knew that Rich had obtained a substantial majority. Then, a few moments later, I knew that he had accepted the call and was introduced as the new pastor at St. Andrew’s.
Like I said, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Not by a longshot.
How should we Presbyterians respond to the impact of the Internet on our process of calling new pastors? I can imagine one type of response that laments the behavior I’ve been chronicling and seeks to limit it. I can envision a church saying to its people, “Do not communicate about our pastoral conadidate outside of this church body. Don’t email people or Twitter or blog or anything. Plus, there will be no use of Twitter or Facebook or other social media in any congregational meeting.” This would be an attempt to uphold the past and its benefits. But I am positive that it would eventually fail. The reactive “we must clamp down” reminds me of what we’re seeing in China with regard to the Internet. But the world is just too flat to prevent electronic communication. If a church tries to keep people from communicating via the Internet, it will fail, and its members will feel as if they’re living under a repressive regime. Not a good plan.
The other option for Presbyterians (and other churches in a similar situation) is to think creatively about how best to manage communication outside of Kansas. My guess is that it will be harder and harder for pastors to keep their possible new calls hidden from their existing congregations until they are final. This may mean that both potential pastors and potential new churches will need to work harder, both at discernment, and in using new ways of communication to build support for a pastoral candidate. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, for example, produced a marvelous brochure in support of Rich, and the nominating committee had a very helpful blog with lots of pertinent information. Other churches would do well to imitate the example of St. Andrew’s. (Of course I realize that not all churches have the resources of St. Andrew’s. But it takes relatively little money to make good use of the Internet. A blog, for example, can cost a mere $5.00 a month and is very easy to do.)
Looking at the bigger picture, I think the example of St. Andrew’s points to the need for greater openness in communication, even when it comes to matters that we might prefer to keep quite. For example, one of the best pieces of communication on the blog of the St. Andrew’s nominating committee was a letter to the congregation that spoke with unusual candor and tenderness about the internal candidate who was not called as pastor. This was a bold and wise move by the nominating committee, which, in the end, surely contributed to the church’s ultimate vote. The fact that we don’t live in Kansas anymore will challenge people in church leadership to communicate in new ways. This will be messy at times, but it can also lead to greater health and trust in churches. Clamping down on communication, will, on the contrary, lead to less health and less trust.
Of course when Dorothy Gale realized that she wasn’t in Kansas anymore, she spent the rest of a long movie trying to get back to what was familiar and comfortable. She wanted to go home. Eventually she made it. I expect there will be some church leaders who share Dorothy’s mentality. But we have no Ruby Slippers to turn back the clock. Kansas is gone for good. There is no more home. Technology in general and the Internet in particular have forever transported our home to Oz. Our challenge and opportunity is to discover how to be the church in a new land of open, free, and sometimes frustratingly uncontrollable communication.
I close with a commercial. If you’re looking for help in learning how thrive in Oz, join me at the Christian Web Conference at Biola University on September 11-12, 2009. You’ll be glad you did.



  • Mariam

    You are right, and you are right, but, personally, I find something creepy about the slick brochure.

  • http://www.markdroberts.com Mark D. Roberts

    Mariam: Context is everything. St. Andrew’s does high quality visual material, such that this brochure would seem quite “normal” for that congregation. It’s obviously beyond what most churches are used to.

  • http://robertaustell.blogspot.com robert austell

    Mark, I appreciate the whole article and series… just wanted to add to one fine point… blogging can actually be free (not even $5/mo)… I’m on Google’s blogsite (blogspot) and like most things Google, there is no charge. We even moved our church website (www.gspc.net) to blogspot because I believe static pages are also a thing of the past and wanted to use the RSS feed features and easy updating the blog format allows.

  • Joe Arnett

    It was my understanding that in the Presbyterian system an associate pastor is not eligible for consideration to become senior pastor in the same church when the senior pastor leaves.
    Maybe I misunderstood?
    I expect there are downsides to the openness that the electronic communications now give us, however, it’s my opinion that it is overall for the good. I believe it will force everyone to be more honest and above board. I have been involved in churches where I felt situations were kept hidden in the name of trying to contain a problem.
    At any rate, as you say, we’re not “living in Kansas” anymore and we can’t go back even if we wanted to.

  • http://www.markdroberts.com Mark D. Roberts

    Joe, you are almost 100% correct. In special cases, there is a way for an associate pastor to become a co-pastor and then a senior pastor. This is very unusual, for lots of good reasons. One of the reasons have just witnessed. If there had not been an internal candidate, Rich would have received a unanimous (or nearly so) vote. Now he has to deal with two hundred plus people who are upset because he displaced their guy. Not a good start, though I expect Rich and St. Andrews will weather it.

  • http://www.communionpres.org RevK

    Nice to see that someone is actually moving FROM Texas TO California!! I hope to meet him someday.

  • Bill Goff

    I know I am getting in late on this discussion, but want to post a few comments.
    1)I agree that there is something creepy about the slick brochure. Most creepy to me is using the young children’s photos and quotes. I believe that their privacy should have been protected.
    2) Rev. Kannwischer is an impressive person. I followed a link to one of his sermons which was excellent. I am glad he is coming to St. Andrews which is about thirty minutes from where I live. That said, I have always been troubled by the upward mobility of Presbyterian clergy. Why is it that clergy seem always to seek and accept positions in churches that are bigger and richer than the church they currently serve? My awareness of church history is limited, but I know of no case where someone as young, gifted and capable as Rev. Kannwischer has sought and accepted a call to a smaller, struggling church. Are Presbyterian clergy deaf to such a call?

  • Steve Yamaguchi

    To Bill’s Question: No, not all are deaf. (Although all of us may be inclined to exercise selective hearing when it comes to God’s call.) I do know of gifted, young Presbyterian ministers who have taken calls to small, struggling congregations. It can be an adventure and an opportunity to see God do wonderful, surprising things. I’ve been watching this happen for over 20 years in my experience. I’m sure it has happened before and elsewhere. I’ve seen it happen again just recently, right here in our own presbytery, Bill. Just because you haven’t witnessed it doesn’t mean all Presbyterian ministers aren’t hearing and heeding such a call.
    And there is some logic in pastors using their hard earned experience to serve in larger, more complex and demanding situations where their experience can serve the people. Sometimes it’s the responsible stewardship of well honed gifts. That is ALSO a call. The motive is not always “upward mobility” and opportunism (although some will even admit that it is).

  • http://www.markdroberts.com Mark D. Roberts

    Bill: I get your concern, because there always is the possibility of pastors being motivated more by ambition than by the call of God to servanthood. But I have known several pastors who have gone “downward” out of a sense of calling. I also think that good stewardship of gifts often (but not always) means one should consider the possibility of reaching more people through a larger church.
    In terms of Rich, St. Andrew’s is only a little bigger than First Pres San Antonio. So this really isn’t much of an upward mobility move. Now a move from hot as you-know-where San Antonio to the ocean breezes of Newport Beach . . . that might be of the flesh. Understandable flesh, I think. :)

  • http://dev.highcallingblogs.com/2009/08/05/test-1-web-conference/ Test 1 – Web Conference

  • http://www.myrealjourney.com Maria Kettleson Anderson

    I did a search on twitter again. The only two twitterers that day were Erin and myself. I did not tweet *during* this long meeting. I *did* tweet the vote at the end of the very long meeting. And Erin’s tweets were also not taking her attention off the people around her.
    Certainly there are meetings that are practically broadcast to the world through twitter, but this was not at all one of those meetings.
    I did engage in quite a bit of twitter conversation about this meeting after it was over and I was at work rather than at church. Anyone who gets the feed of those tweets can see where I was by knowing the time of the meeting that day. I tweeted the previous day, then did not tweet at all until 2:45, when I tweeted the results as the meeting came to an end. The rest of my chatter happened hours later.
    The reason this matters to me is because of the question of a stewardship of my own presence. I desire to be fully present in whatever place I have been led to be present, and to not dilute my ability to be where I am called by splitting my attention inappropriately.
    My attention during this important church meeting was fully on prayer and on giving my attention to the process of the meeting.
    There are meeting that I end up attending where I do not feel my full presence is necessary. During those meetings I may split my attention and engage in communication with those outside the meeting, if I feel it will not seem rude to those around me.
    The use of all our new channels of communication don’t change the basic rules of good stewardship or of etiquette, and any seeming breach of either is not due to the new ways to communicate, but rather to the lack of judgment on the part of the user.

  • http://www.markdroberts.com Mark D. Roberts

    Maria: Your attention to presence is right on. Although you didn’t twitter in the meeting, I expect that you could have done so every now and then without losing track of the proceedings. It was a LONG meeting, after all.

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