The secret to relationship is availability

Wireless world, networked ministry — Part IV of a series

by Rev. Rick King

Much is changing in the institutional church today, and the pandemic sped up the change in the past year and a half. This new series of columns is based on the book “The Digital Cathedral,” by Rev. Keith Anderson, to expand our concept of Church beyond the bricks-and-mortar, exclusive-membership, financial and flesh-and-blood institution we’re used to, allowing God to birth the NEW reality, already underway in the world.

Keith Anderson shares a wonderful story about Pope Francis, some youths, and his “availability” to others in the chapter of his book on Relational Ministry. It seems the pope was meeting with youth from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio one day, when three of the young people approached him to ask if he would take a selfie with them.

A selfie is a photograph one takes of oneself and others with the camera in a smartphone, using the feature that enables you to use the lens on the screen side of the phone to frame the picture. You then touch the button to snap the photo, which you can then share on social media or in a text, or even send it attached to an email.

Francis’ willingness to take the selfie has become shorthand and a symbol of his relational style of ministry. It is often contrasted with his predecessor Benedict’s style, which involved traditional, one-to-many communication, rather than authentic, organic, and one-to-one. (If you haven’t watched the wonderful Netflix movie, “The Two Popes,” please do; you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

Anderson contrasts an official Vatican photo of Benedict’s first papal tweet, seated at a big desk, surrounded by staff members and typing on the papal iPad, with the selfie Francis took of himself with the young people on that day in 2013.

This makes me think of the way Jesus made himself available to humanity in the flesh as the incarnation of God. It may be risky and unpredictable to be available to others, but Francis’ availability is one of the primary reasons for his effectiveness, and not just his popularity. Leaders on the scale of the pope are always challenged to keep their finger on the pulse of the people, and to stay approachable and accessible so they can be a human bridge between the people and the unconditional love of God.

I struggle with the ethical dilemma of supporting a huge corporation like Facebook, which has lately proven itself guilty of what we always suspected: being willing to sacrifice user safety in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Yet, social media platforms are powerful tools for building and strengthening relationships, which are the bread and butter of ministry.

But networks of relationships also get built because smartphones enable us to take and share photos or reach out to one another via text message. In our congregation, we often create and use texting groups not only to communicate our plans for programming, but even more than that, to check in with each other and practice caring and compassion. I’ll often text someone I know has been having a rough time or been sick, to see how they’re doing on a given day and ask if a phone call or a visit is in order. Because it’s quick and easy and I can do it when I think of it, I make more pastoral contacts more regularly with people than I did before I got my first smartphone.

This fall as part of our annual stewardship pledge campaign, we’re launching a hashtag campaign called #FHCWhatGroundsUs, the goal of which is to help people discover each other online and learn a bit more about how we stay grounded, balanced, and sane in our everyday lives.

If you’re on social media, take or share a photo of yourself doing some activity that “grounds” or roots you and in which you find joy and balance. For me, working out at the Y is one of those activities, and it has a spiritual dimension. Then share your photo on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter (whatever’s part of your network) with a brief explanation of how it grounds you, and then add the hashtag #FHCWhatGroundsUs. It will be grouped with all the others people share under that hashtag. In November, I can’t wait for us all to discover what others have shared!