I know, I sound a little… Clintonian here, but I have a question about the meaning of pastoral contact. You see, according to our guidelines for appointment, clergy covenant, and countless other documents,
After the change of appointment, the outgoing pastor will not have pastoral contact with any member of the congregation without the invitation of the current pastor.
So here’s my question, and it is in many ways tied to earlier discussions on both my blog and Jeremy’s (Hacking Christianity) about the role of ministry and the gospel in a digital medium: can interaction online constitute pastoral contact?
On the one hand, I want to say yes it can, because I think connections are made between people through emails, facebook updates, blogs and so on. Certainly people from my congregation have emailed me and shared prayer requests and celebrations and asked for feedback or prayer or support. That’s definitely pastoral contact, just as it is when we have the same conversation over the phone. Likewise, people who are not part of my congregation will reply to things I post and we’ll begin a conversation that is spiritual or pastoral, or, even more likely, a virtual friend will be going through a difficult time, and I will respond with notes of encouragement and prayer. I’ve even lifted virtual friends up in prayer from the pulpit. I’d call that pastoral contact in many ways.
On the other hand, I have this blog, you see. And I have a congregation who knows about it (although I’m still not sure that any of them read it, because none have responded). If I maintain my blog after my change in appointment, and my congregants from my previous church read it, engage in discussion on it, and listen to my sermon podcast, does that constitute pastoral contact?
I would argue that this blog is not reaching out to any one person, but is an exercise, largely, in shouting into the void, and if a former congregant happens to hear the echoes of what the former pastor shouts into the void, that’s not pastoral contact; that’s connectionalism. It is no different than a pastor whose services are broadcast on public access TV. Or is it?
This blog is also interactive in a way that the one-sided nature of TV or letters to the editor or books written by former pastors are not. What about a specific response in the comments? Are those really any different than emails? If, say, a member of St. Paul’s leaves a message that they are having a tough time in their life, should I refrain from responding? What would other readers think about the cold-hearted blogging pastor who answers every other comment but ignores the “dear pastor becca, my friend just died and i’m really mad at god right now; can you please pray for me?” Further, how am I even to know? What if JesusGurl23 is really a fifty year old woman from my former congregation, adopting an anonymous online handle? I’m not trying to give out ideas here, folks, but I have a personal blog and a personal handle, and without a picture or some identifying characteristics, how am I to know who is who? Could– and perhaps more importantly, should– the Conference hold me accountable for not interacting with former congregants online when I might not even be able to tell who they are?
In a world where distinctions between here and there, contact and distance are so easily blurred, how do we maintain faithfulness to the formation–and in this case the termination–of our covenant relationships? Is it enough for me to simply not seek out my soon-to-be former congregants, and trust that I am upholding my covenant?
I anxiously await your thoughts!