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Pastoral Care in a Digital World

This rumination, in many ways, continues my reflection on Church in the Metaverse – so it is worth reading that post first.

In the not-so-distant past, church – at least in an Anglican and other understandings – saw itself as having pastoral responsibility for everyone in the local area. A parish had everyone living nearby. The priest had pastoral responsibility for everyone within parish boundaries – not just those who regarded themselves as parishioners or went to church. Visiting was a central part of church life.

Just as secular agencies have taken over much that once was strongly associated with churches (education, health, even spirituality) – so pastoral care is increasingly being picked up by non-church organisations.

The church’s pastoral visiting – at least from where I stand – is much less of a thing now. The revelation of appalling abuse by church leadership has rightly made the general population wary of random visits by church leaders; honourable church leaders attempt to keep themselves safe – including from false accusations – by not visiting people at home. “Creativity” in worship regularly means days spent at a computer preparing for the hour of Sunday worship for a small and shrinking congregation. “Work-life-balance” perspectives (and measuring priestly roles as percentages of “full-time equivalents”) have seeped into priests’ understanding of themselves and their “job”. Priesthood is increasingly a desk job with office hours.

This decrease In Real Life(IRL) pastoral care is more than offset by the possibility of online, digital engagement. It is worth reflecting on on-line pastoral presence. Here are some beginning thoughts, in no particular order. And do add your own ideas.

If you are present online, be prepared to be hurt. Be prepared to be impacted by people you have no Real Life connection with, including anonymous people about whom you don’t even know in which country they live; including from (anonymous) trolls – whose sole purpose is to disrupt your online activity, to inflame division, to encourage anger,…

If you are present online, be prepared to be misunderstood. The subtleties of tone of voice and of facial expressions are mostly missing online – emoticons and other signs notwithstanding. My rule of thumb is the same as I apply IRL – asume the best, most positive possible reading of what is written. Unfortunately, many, many others online don’t apply that principle.

Online, people quickly forget that the (nasty) statement they are making is addressed to a real person and might deeply affect them. Would you say this to their face IRL? The THINK acronym is helpful: is what you are placing online True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind?

Then there’s the limitations of the particular platform. Twitter, for example, has a 280 character limit – not the sort of platform that encourages subtlety, deep discussion, clarification of misunderstanding,…

People online need pastoral care. Digital apps are intentionally addictive. Plenty has been said and written about the impact of online porn. Much study is around on the effect of digital gaming on young people; less discussion is around on the effect of such gaming in adults. Social media is – we now realise – not just accidentally inducing FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), envy, jealousy, anxiety, and depression; the algorithms of some social media are designed to bring this about.

Online, many people curate an image of a life that others look at with envy. – we may or may not even know these people (and the curating person might even be anonymous).

But wait: not only do people struggle with the impossibility of living up to the online carefully curated “lives” of others (including people they don’t know and even anonymous ones), but people get depressed and anxious with the realisation that they cannot possibly live up to the image that they have created of themselves online. Someone, online, appears witty, confident, intelligent, deep – whilst actually, IRL, they are nothing like that. But the online context allows them time and tools to research and respond. And they themselves, more than anyone else, know it. Depressingly so. Distressingly so.

Many curate an image of “living my best life”. Others are curating an image of an online soap opera – an incessant roller-coaster life lurching from crisis to crisis. You, as an innocent online bystander, may find yourself dragged into such a person’s saga – comments and statements you meant one way are adapted to fit a narrative you never anticipated yourself becoming part of. And such a person curating a roller-coaster coaster life on one platform may very well be curating a living-my-best-life, offering-advice on another (or even on the same platform), sometimes struggling to remember which version of themselves they are presenting, struggling to prevent bleeding from one into the other.

Just as IRL, providing pastoral care in the digital world can result in projection. What supervision is provided or even available for those providing pastoral care online? We have clear structures for IRL oversight – What oversight is there for the virtual world?

Online, you may end up being the only one available to people in dire straits, contemplating self harm,…

Being online opens you up to all sorts of possible challenges to the legality of what you place there, possible breaches of copyright, lack of moderating inappropriateness that you had control over… And scams: including people giving the impression of your having breached all the stuff in the previous sentence.

Then there’s all the issues around Zoom (or FaceTime or Google Meet or equivalents). Zoom may be “better than nothing”, but we need much more reflection

  • on the way we pick up so much more in the bodily presence of another – in gestures; in seeing more than a face; in posture…
  • on how in an IRL conversations we are not constantly staring into another’s face – we spend a lot of an IRL conversation looking away in a way that Zoom discourages
  • that in an IRL conversation we are not constantly distracted by seeing our own face all the time

Don’t forget to be clear how much information about yourself, your life, and life events you put out into the digital world – and how you put it out there. There is a reason our memory fades, blurs, combines – the digital world does not do that. A future employer can easily locate a past “error of judgment”. An insurance company can demonstrate your public holiday photos were an open invitation. Suddenly, facebook reminds you of an event ten years ago that, without this digital world, you would have had faded into the background of your now-different life…

This is simply a start to reflecting on pastoral care in the digital world. What has been your experience?

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