Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Church and the Internet: Weâ??re Not in Kansas Anymore

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Yesterdayâ??s post focused on the Christian Web Conference at Biola University (September 11-12, 2009). Todayâ??s post illustrates why I think Christian leaders need to attend this conference. Whether we like it or not, the Internet has changed (and will continue to change) the way we do church.
In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), pastors are called to churches through a process that involves a search committee (called a â??Pastor Nominating Committeeâ? or PNC, for short) and the affirming vote of a congregation. Given the touchiness involved when a pastor considers leaving a church, this process in a church is usually shrouded in secrecy so as to protect the pastor, the pastorâ??s family, the pastorâ??s existing congregation, and the integrity of the process in the calling church. In most cases, the pastor who is called to a new church has the opportunity to be the first person to communicate this news to the former church, beginning with church leaders. This communication comes after the vote of the calling congregation, when the deal is sealed. If for some reason the pastor does not go to the new church, the existing congregation doesnâ??t have to know.
Thatâ??s how we Presbyterian have done it for a long time. But, in the famous (though often misquoted) words of Dorothy Gale, â??Toto, Iâ??ve a feeling weâ??re not in Kansas anymore.â? For Presbyterians, â??Kansasâ? was the familiar land of carefully managed communication and comfortable secrecy. But the fact is plain that weâ??re not in Kansas anymore.
Iâ??ve watched with interest a recent example of the â??not in Kansas anymoreâ? syndrome. It involved the calling of a new pastor for St. Andrewâ??s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Iâ??ve known this fine church for many years, since itâ??s quite near to Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I was Senior Pastor for sixteen years. St. Andrewâ??s has been ably led for over thirty years by the Rev. Dr. John Huffman, Jr. Johnâ??s imminent retirement required the calling of a new pastor, so St. Andrewâ??s began a long process of finding that person.
This new pastor turns out to be a good friend of mine from Texas, the Rev. Richard Kannwischer, currently the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. I must confess that, though Iâ??m pleased for St. Andrewâ??s, Iâ??m sad that Rich is leaving Central Texas. He has been a great colleague and friend. Now our collegiality and friendship will be of the long distance variety. Plus, First Pres San Antonio, an excellent church and long-time partner of Laity Lodge, will have to go through another, long transition. The good news for this church is that they have an excellent pastoral team, not to mention a bunch of outstanding lay leaders. But they will surely miss Richâ??s superior giftedness as a preacher and leader.
Nevertheless, the point of this post is not for me to lament or celebrate, but rather to note how the Internet has changed forever the protocol and assumptions of pastoral changes in the PC(USA) and beyond. Evidence of this change began right after Rich agreed to be the Pastor Nominating Committeeâ??s candidate. No sooner did the word get out at St. Andrewâ??s (in the correct way, from the nominating committee, I believe) than someone in that congregation emailed lots of people at First Pres San Antonio, seeking information about Rich. (Update and Correction: The sender of the email may well not have been a member of St. Andrew’s church. This was assumed by the person who related the incident to me, but his assumption may not have been accurate.) I did not see this email, but only heard about it from a friend. In the old world of neatly managed communication, a candidateâ??s current congregation would not have heard anything until after an official call was extended, which requires a vote of the calling congregation. In this case, however, the folks at First Pres knew well in advance. This meant that Rich had to notify his congregation of the possibility of his leaving First Pres for St. Andrewâ??s . . . not the best scenario, thatâ??s for sure. If, for some reason, Rich had not gone to St. Andrewâ??s, his relationship with the San Antonio congregation would have sustained considerable damage. Most folks donâ??t like the idea of their pastor looking for a new job (unless, of course, they donâ??t like their pastor!).
Besides the email from a member of St. Andrewâ??s to people at First Pres, Richâ??s nomination by the PNC was also published on Twitter soon after it was announced in California. Even if the email hadnâ??t been sent, any hope of secrecy was lost with the â??tweetsâ? that were available to anyone around the world, including Central Texas. (Yes, we have Internet here.)
At this point it might seem as if the Internet is no friend to the process of calling a new pastor. But, stepping back for a moment, I should mention how the Internet has become a huge help to pastor nominating committees. The online process of dossier publication makes it much, much easier for committees to learn about potential candidates and vice versa. The fact that most candidates come from churches with websites also allows committees to learn lots about the candidates before contacting them directly. This saves countless hours and minimizes the awkwardness of saying â??Noâ? to potential candidates who are rejected. Plus, many pastoral candidates now have sermons that can be streamed or downloaded. In years past, it was an arduous task for committees to listen to sermons, a task requiring mailing of original tapes, duplication, distribution, etc. etc. Now a committee can hear sermons of a potential candidate without even letting the preacher know this is happening. This is a giant savings of time and energy for all involved.
The situation is similar for a pastor who is considering a new church. In the past, it was cumbersome for a pastor to get accurate and extensive information about the church. Now, a churchâ??s website reveals all sorts of relevant data, including theological perspectives, ministry programs, church newsletters, etc. (I realize that some smaller churches donâ??t have extensive websites, or do not make sermons available online. But, increasingly, most churches have some Web presence.)
So, on the downside, the Internet has compromised the secrecy that was once an essential element of a pastoral calling process. On the other hand, the Internet has made many aspects of that process much, much easier and more effective. And I havenâ??t even mentioned the way email can accelerate communication in a committee.
I realize that Iâ??ve left you hanging concerning how things played out with Rich Kannwischer and St. Andrewâ??s, though I revealed the ending. Iâ??ll finish that story tomorrow, adding a truly mind-bending impact of the Internet. Stay tuned . . . .



  • Thomas Buck

    That’s disappointing to hear about all the e-mail and Twitter stuff. As if a minister’s job isn’t tough enough.
    Tom

  • http://www.quotidiangrace.blogspot.com Quotidian Grace

    Thanks for giving the background on this story. Looks like someone on the PNC broke the confidentiality guidelines for the process and that is very troubling. I’ll be interested to your next post on the subject.

  • Evan

    In my experience, the crucial time for secrecy is when the Search Committee is “checking out” the prospective Pastor, usually by going in person to hear a sermon in the usual worship setting. Once the candidate is invited to preach at the new church “in view of a call,” his congregation will surely know about it via long distance phone call, etc. The Pastor had best let his congregation know he is going “in view of a call,” because they will otherwise find out another way, likely in short order.
    Of course, it is at that point a 99% certainty a call will be extended at that point if the Search Committee has done their work properly… still, I cannot imagine how awkward it would be if the Pastor is rejected once he comes. His home church is aware he was looking to leave, but now he is “stuck” where he is at. Yipes.
    But your point is still well taken. It used to be that folks had to wait until church was over to rush home and light up the long distance lines, but now they can text or email immediately in the pew. :P Ah, “progress.”

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

    Actually, as far as I know, nobody at St. Andrew’s broke the confidentiality guidelines. All of this happened after the PNC announced their results to the congregation. The new part is the ability for communication to happen instantly outside of a congregation.

  • Mariam

    I agree with Evan. The confidentiality should end once a candidate has been invited to make a candidateâ??s sermon and accepts the date for that invitation. The ordinary members of the potential new congregation should be allowed a couple of weeks to do their own â??investigatingâ? and discussing without having to resort to checking their Blackberryâ??s in their pews. Iâ??ve known it to happen when a candidateâ??s name is kept secret until the very day of the sermon/congregational meeting. That is a real scandalâ??another reason why I have no confidence in Presbyterianism and its ways.

  • http://churchandinternet.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/natets-oppenhet-paverkar-rekrytering-av-pastorer/ Nätets öppenhet pÃ¥verkar rekrytering av pastorer « Churchandinternet Blog

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

    I was the one who tweeted Rich’s name, and did not do this until after I had been told that he had informed his congregation, which was after the incident you relate about the email to his staff and after his name had been released publicly to our congregation. I just searched to see if anyone tweeted earlier, and don’t see that anyone did.
    In my tweets and posts on my blog, as well in my verbal communication, I was careful to respect the desires of the cpnc and the presbytery as to timing, and to also consider the interests of the now pastor-elect. Certainly the world of communication channels has changed, but ethics and etiquette have not.
    The advantage of public posts and public tweets is that those in leadership can see what has been said and also see what “people are saying”. Unfortunately, there are still all the old channels and plenty of new ones that allow private gossip and maliciousness to flourish in a congregation.
    The bottom line to me is this: technology of any sort is just a tool that doesn’t affect sound polity and leadership in any new way. Sound polity and leadership have their own power that holds up and shows up — today as yesterday.

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

    I was the one who tweeted Richâ??s name, and did not do this until after I had been told that he had informed his congregation, which was after the incident you relate about the email to his staff and after his name had been released publicly to our congregation. I just searched to see if anyone tweeted earlier, and donâ??t see that anyone did.
    In my tweets and posts on my blog, as well in my verbal communication, I was careful to respect the desires of the cpnc and the presbytery as to timing, and to also consider the interests of the now pastor-elect. Certainly the world of communication channels has changed, but ethics and etiquette have not.
    The advantage of public posts and public tweets is that those in leadership can see what has been said and also see what â??people are sayingâ?. Unfortunately, there are still all the old channels and plenty of new ones that allow private gossip and maliciousness to flourish in a congregation.
    The bottom line to me is this: technology of any sort is just a tool that doesnâ??t affect sound polity and leadership in any new way. Sound polity and leadership have their own power that holds up and shows up â?? today as yesterday.

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

    Maria: Thanks for the comments. You did a great job twittering in an appropriate and helpful manner.

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