Long, long ago, near the turn of the 21st century, the definition of “public ministry” (“how ministers, educators and laity relate to the public role of religious faith”) implied a limited set of ways to engage with the world. You had your professions from the pulpit, your op-ed pieces in the local paper, your presence at protests, and your occasional appearances on the local radio call-in program. All you needed was an issue on which to take a stand, some reflection on what you wanted to say about it, and a enough chutzpah to make yourself seen and heard. Actually, the chutzpah was a pretty integral part of the package. As former UUA president John Buehrens noted in a workshop on Public Ministry at the 2001 General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio, “public ministry can be a stretch for many ministers, a large number of whom are introverts, preferring reading, reflection and introspection to recharge their energy.”
Fast forward ten years. While there are still plenty of opportunities for highly motivated (and/or caffeinated) ministers, educators, and laity to be seen and heard by the public using 20th century media, digital media and web technologies have opened up a whole new frontier. We now have WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumbler, YouTube, etc.—not only are these social media platforms changing the way ministers, et. al., do public ministry, they are changing the very nature of “the public role of religious faith” itself. To paraphrase UU singer/songwriter Peter Mayer, “Everything is public now.”
And believe it or not, this is good news for all ya’ll introverted ministers, educators and laity. Social media is like Garrison Keillor’s Powder Milk Biscuits: it gives “shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” For example, every time I’ve taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I always score as an Introvert. I’m totally exhausted after any sort of work-related function that requires my interacting with a group of people larger that, say, twelve. But thanks to the miracle of digital technology, I’m able to connect with hundreds of people on a daily basis through this blog (as well as Facebook and Twitter).
Granted, I don’t regularly speak out on the important issues of the day (immigration, marriage equality, ethical eating, etc.), but I do feel an obligation to publicly share some of my thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a person of faith (thus the small group ministry sessions I post each week). Another example is the Rev. Naomi King’s steady stream of tweets about liberal religion, progressive spirituality, and Unitarian Universalism. Look up “inspirational” in the dictionary. You’ll find a picture of @revnaomi.
By the way, if I’ve mislabeled you as a introvert, Naomi, please let me know! Consider as well how the Rev. Dr. David Breeden, minister of the Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship, is using YouTube to publicly answer questions like: “Why Are There No UU Mega-Churches?”; “Is Garrison Keillor Right About Us?”; and “Are All Humanists Atheists?” Again, I’m not positive that David’s an introvert, but he was a poetry professor for a number years—a position not usually associated with raging extroverts.
The point here is that all three of us are doing very public ministry in ways that John Buehrens and his fellow presenters may never have dreamed of in 2001. Furthermore, this new public ministry encompasses more than the traditional model of advancing the social witness of a particular congregation. Naomi, David, and myself are bringing our faith (both individual and collective) to an online public of digital natives and digital immigrants who expect, maybe even demand, the opportunity to interact with us in ways that transcend the Sunday morning sermon or the monthly newsletter article. Speaking for myself, I would find it impossible to do that primarily as a face-to-face ministry. Yet thanks to digital media and web technology, I’m able to do it on a daily basis. Even without those biscuits.