Seeing the whole person

I wrote recently about having friendships that can continue in the digital world without necessarily needing to actually meet.

There is a downside to that in that we only see what the person posting wants us to see. That's  often the happy things in their life that they want to remember and share, but rarely do we see the dull, the mundane, the struggles and the pain. We need to be aware of those parts of people's lives, even when, and perhaps especially when they are not visible.

Recently a friend of mine posted on Social Media about his emergence from a brief period of what Churchill called Black Dog. There was a lot of supportive replies, and it directly led to me having a conversation with someone about my own struggles.

Part of being prepared for ministry in the church is being deemed fit for work - even if like me that you're doing it without any payment. This process really kicked in over the last few months - after the church and the ordinands had invested a great deal of time and money over the previous 2 1/2 years. There were questions over health, and in particular one over mental health. I answered honestly that I had a particularly dark period about 15 years ago, and was surprised when I had to undergo a telephone interview to ascertain whether it was still an issue. I have had more serious health issues since then, but they were not referred to. I must admit the whole episode felt more than little like the Church covering its back, and I know that I wasn't alone in experiencing that process.

And it's still part of my life, I think it's part of the human condition, whether we have a faith or not. My experience of dealing with this varies, but often it just makes me angry. Angry at the big things, the injustices, the problems that we see and experience; but also angry at little things that don't matter. And then angry at myself for getting angry. A lot of time I can present a broadly positive persona to the world, even when I'm struggling, but I know that it's when I'm at home that I'm probably the most difficult...which you've guessed it, makes me angry!

In a similar argument to the FACT that The Beatles are the greatest group ever, The West Wing is the greatest TV show ever. There are two central characters, Josh - Deputy Chief of Staff, and Toby - Director of Communications. Both are brilliant at their jobs. Josh is full of energy, his anger is righteous, people like him, but he's no pushover. Toby has a real tendency to be morose, curmudgeonly, he rarely smiles, and often just seems sad.

I like to think of myself as Josh, but suspect that a lot of the time I'm Toby.

So what is this doing in a blog about digital life. Just as I said there could be a tendency for people to filter out the bad bits, there is also an opportunity that the remoteness, or even the anonymity of writing for a screen allows people to share more than they can face to face. Digital offers us a different perspective to be friends with people, to communicate, to seek support and care. We are all individuals, made in God's image, have different needs and preferences. We need to recognise that in how we interact with people, sometimes face-to-face is the best way to get people to open up; sometimes it isn't, but if we only work one way then we miss opportunities, as an organisation, as ministers, as friends.

It's a different way of thinking and responding, but it's still relational, it's about ourselves and others and how share the joys and sorrows of this journey that we're on.

And on my journey I hope the reality is that I'm like both Josh and Toby.

toby and josh.jpg

No more goodbyes

As I approach ordination as a deacon this summer the milestones keep coming. Last Sunday was a major one, the final residential training weekend with all years in training. There are over 40 people that I'll never be training with again, although there are still two residential sessions to go.

As I left after lunch, I went round a few tables to say goodbye, and jokingly said, hope it all goes well, as I guess I'll never see you again.

The reality though is that I am friends with most of these people on Facebook. I'll see them as they go through the rest of their training over the next year or two. I'll see them relaxing, sharing fun time with their families.

I do know that for most of who post, we only post what we want people to see, there is a filter there that tends to present the positives, which I will return to in future posts.

The nature of friendships has changed in the digital world. My recent post about those giving up social media for Lent, has encouraged other people to engage with me and discuss things, conversations that would not have taken place without that original expression of views. Some of those conversations have been face to face, some on-line, the distinction doesn't seem important. What has been important it's the opportunity to interact with others. 

Through social mediaI have connected with people I lost touch with; people who were mere acquaintances; people who live so far away that it's just too difficult to stay in regular contact. even though I don't see them, or speak to them, I count them as my friends, people that are part of my journey in life. I pray for them, laugh with them, and have shed a tear for them. That sounds pretty much like friendship to me.

So if you're one of those people I'm no longer training with, I will see you again, I will continue to uphold you in my prayers as you head towards your ministry, and I hope to share some of the joys and sorrows of mine.

And if I've yet to meet you, in person or digitally, I look forward to connecting and engaging with you in the future, building those rich friendships that keep us going.

Judging by appearances

Yesterday I drove to another country (Wales!), to this beautiful sunny location to be fitted for my cassock and surplice ahead of my ordination this summer. 

For those uninitiated in the garments clergy wear (collectively known as Vestments), the cassock is the long black gown, and the surplice is the white covering over the top. I now just have to buy a set of stoles (the long scarf like things) and the shirts.

I am still working out which of the different designs of shirts , I will go for, and which collar type. (I still can't work out how the church keep calling it "dog collar"). It's a mixture of how you see your ministry, aesthetic preferences and cost. The first part, about how we see our ministry is the most important, and the part I'm reflecting most about before I buy.

Those outward appearances say so much about us. Yesterday was also world book day, and seeing lots of pictures of kids dressing up as their favourite characters re-inforces the importance of images even in a world of text.

An image and what that image conveys is important. It is one of the essential components of a brand, the way an company, or organisation presents itself in a way that builds support and loyalty from their audience.

The church gets that, with its vestments, its rituals and traditions, yet I've been in meetings in churches and other Christian organisations where the term brand is seen as something of the world, too commercial, not for us. 

In the digital world, having an effective brand, and using it well is not only desirable, it is essential. Think of the volume of images we are bombarded with when we are online. It could be anything from playing a free game, through to a news site, and then when we get to social media it's even more intense. 

Brands need to be distinctive, and they need to be present. You need to stand out, people need to recognise instantly that it's you, and you need to quickly engage them well. And you need to be there often. Many of those people you want to reach will not see your perfect post. Their timelines will be full of other things, so you need to make sure that you're there. You're the organisation they want to engage with, you meet their needs. You're the one with the interesting posts that makes them stop and think. You're the one that supports and encourages them when they need it. 

It can be difficult to get people to open the book, to engage with what's inside. But it can be a lot easier if we make the outside something that means something to them. 

Giving up giving up?

My timelines over the last few days has been full of what people are giving up for Lent. I suspect that as a Christian, connecting with many Christians, it's highly probable that I will see more of these, but I get the sense that I am seeing more this year across my whole range of friends. There's even a minor celebrity who has committed to give up Wheat, Cava and Chocolate - if you're one of the 70,000 + followers on Twitter you'll know who it is.

The last few years have seen different agendas around Lent within the church including starting something rather than just giving up. One that I particularly like is the daily collection of goods that can go to a food bank.

But returning to the more traditional idea of Lent being a time of giving something up, One of the most interesting things that people are giving up is Facebook, which poses some interesting questions.

We're on break...

We're on break...

Undeniably Social Media can become more than just a habit. I hesitate to use the word addictive, but there is for may people (perhaps even myself) a tendency to inhabit that space more than I should. If my life was perfectly balanced there would be Work Time; Reflection Time; Prayer Time; Reading Time; Studying Time (in case tutors from course are reading this); Family Time; and Me Time. I know though that my life is not like that. 

This morning I set off to Bristol for a days work, planning some of the next development of the Scripture Union Digital Transformation Project. Despite the very early start I was able to find time to pray, and clear emails on the way down. Yesterday I had a similar journey length, at a similar time, and it was all I could do not to make odd noises as I nodded off on the train. Life cannot, and should not be planned into perfect balanced chunks, it's not like that. we need the flexibility where possible to respond, and that could be responds by doing nothing.

Time is therefore precious, we know that, and many of those who have posted about giving up Facebook have suggested they will use their time more productively over the next 7 1/2 weeks. Implicit in that is the idea that time spent on Facebook is wasted time, not productive. Social Media; Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat is for many people their community. In the same day as I saw one set of friends giving up Facebook, I saw my 80 year aunt, who struggles with leaving the house, communicating with friends and family about the recovery of my uncle from a serious heart operation.

The interaction, engagement, communication that we experience on social media, is just a part of how we exist and work together in community. Sometimes we sit back and consume, sometimes we offer our views and opinions, sometimes we interact. We wouldn't say that we would limit our exposure to our friends and family in person over Lent. In fact, in line with the more recent ideas of starting something, we may want to increase the time we spend with those closest to us.

We may have a preference for physical, face-to-face engagement, but for many of those we serve and seek to reach, digital is where they spend their time. We need to communicate, interact with, and be ourselves in the fullness of what we are with all those we reach, in all ways.

So I'm not giving up Facebook, Twitter or any other social media for Lent. It's important that I remain part of the communities and networks I engage with whether it's digital or not.


PS: for those who are giving up Facebook and may be putout by this, well at least they won't see it!

Consistency in a time of constant change

I've been working in the digital world for over 25 years. I remember seeing the first browsers at a conference, and the emergence of the early websites. Then came the development of online businesses and communities driven by the impact of broadband. What became known collectively as Web 2.0 those sites we use everyday to share our thoughts and likes with, Facebook, LinkedIn and others. Now the mobile paradigm has changed things again.

We are in a period of constant change, it's been going on for over 20 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact it only looks like increasing. What will be the impact of BlockChain? How will traditional media, in particular news sources respond? What about the impact of real-time personal "live" sharing? What's the future of Social Media, still in its infancy? Are we seeing fragmentation as we access a multiplicity of content; or consolidation as the strengths of Facebook, Google, and Amazon increase.

Amidst this uncertainly, there is a need for consistency. Not the consistency of doing the same thing, but the consistency of being aware of the changing needs of your audiences, supporters and customers.

When we think about how the Church behaves in the digital world, it's even more complex. We have a story over 2,000 years old. We have institutions and structures of a similar vintage. Decision making can be tortuous even when we all agree, and that's not often! Our existing audiences tend to be ageing and behind the curve in terms of technology, yet to paraphrase William Temple, it's those who are not in our current audience that we want to reach.

Our challenge is not just to talk in a new language, to use different channels of communication, but to behave differently. Digital, for many of those people we want to reach, is not only the starting point, but the place where many important things happen. The Church has challenged itself, and developed new ways of doing church over recent years with what we call "fresh expressions", yet this has broadly remained outside of the digital space.

We understand that the Gospel message of love, is to enter a relationship with God and our neighbours. When it comes to the activity of the Church, we have a tendency to see our engagement as being in person, yet for many the relationships they cultivate in the digital space are as at least important and relevant as their face to face ones. We need to find ways of being authentic, relevant, engaging in the digital space, and still be capable of demonstrating the God's unchanging love with an invitation to enter into a relationship.

It's not an easy challenge, but it is one that we cannot ignore. We have to be creative, quick to respond, aware of the changing needs of those we want to reach, and in doing so demonstrate the constancy of God's love as we share in His mission.