Pastoral Net-hics

As we move toward having more “Fresh Expressions” of how to be and do church (a term I hate, but a concept with which I can mostly get on board), it’s almost inevitable that there will be people who set themselves up as “internet priests/pastors”.  As I’m not attracted to online church, I don’t spend a lot of time deliberately seeking this out, and I don’t encounter it regularly by happenstance. When I do, it is almost always a bad experience. I said a few words about that earlier this week. But I think more needs to be said.

A few decades ago, when the Internet was in embryonic stages, when discussion boards were basically long collections of group emails, Virginia Shea wrote a book called Nettiquette.  Much has changed, but her core rules are still helpful–even though, in an age of things like LinkedIn and Facebook (not to mention the fact that we are no longer tied to only interacting when at our desks, but portable devices allowing instantaneous participation are widely and cheaply available), the reach of our online “communities” has vastly increased.  Perhaps that is why it is more important, rather than less, to observe some of what Shea sets out as guidelines for how to behave well online.

I will admit, I’m not always in complete compliance with the rules of netiquette.  I have strong opinions, and am better than many people at explaining why I hold them.  I don’t think that something being possible makes it right. But mainly I try–especially rules 1, 2,  and 8.

All of those were broken by the owner of the Saint Laika’s page in a Facebook discussion on 2 February.  Especially Rule #8, respect other peoples’ privacy.  As Mr. Hagger has set every post on his page to public, and by his own defense of his behavior he cannot possibly object to my using any of it here. Toward the end of the discussion (on which I looked in on his very public page even after I had deleted him from my friend list), I note that Mr. Hagger not only persisted in his zeal to take whatever he found online and use it however he liked (mostly the self-aggrandizement of looking as though he has a massive international prayer ministry), but he used a private message on a public forum.

Now, I’m happy for the world to know that I un-friended Mr. Hagger within a few days after he sent me a friend request. I do not know why he would have done so–we have friends in common, but we do not know each other in face-to-face settings, and we had had no interaction online which would have prompted me to seek him out.  It does strengthen my resolve to always send a private message to a person with whom I’ve not interacted to ask why they are inviting me to their friends list. I slipped on this one, and will be far more vigilant in the future.  But I set 90% of my Facebook posts to “Friends Only” for a reason.

When I accepted Mr. Hagger’s friend request, I did not give consent to my “Friends Only” posts being used as fodder for the Saint Laika’s intercessions. I did not accept this person as having any pastoral responsibility for, or spiritual authority over me.  Had I known that his intent was a sort of pastoral hostage-taking, I would certainly have declined.

And an “internet priest” using a private message on a public page seems to me similar to reading a personal letter from the pulpit. It’s a violation of good pastoral practice. Mr. Hagger was, according to the Saint Laika’s page, “originally ordained” in the Church of England, but now functions only as an “internet priest”.  One wonders under whose auspices or supervision he exercises his “ministry”, and by what code of conduct he  believes himself to be bound. One wonders why he does not function as a real-life priest as well.

This is a far more serious question than my having been put off by one unscrupulous internet minister. Given how easily people (from wiser and more media-savvy generations than my own) have been fleeced by shepherds using the newest forms of communications technology, and the inevitability of those technologies being used, there does need to be some way of making sure lay and ordained people who minister on the internet are held to some standards and accountability. If they are not, internet church will be viewed with  the same suspicion and derision that people like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker earned a few decades ago.

Thus, I propose that we adapt and adopt Ms.Shea’s Netiquette, and start a conversation about what should be contained in a code of conduct for the use of electronic media by Christian ministers–whether as the sum total of their ministry, or as an enhancement to received modes of face-to-face church.

I call this Pastoral Net-hics. It must be held to an even higher standard than Netiquette, because as I noted a few days ago, a higher purpose cannot hold itself to lower standards. In addition to the three of Shea’s rules cited, which are pretty standard principles for the conduct of pastoral relationships, I think proper pastoral net-hics require at least the following . They should be clearly posted on the first screen of any website, and anything presenting itself as an “internet church” without them should be considered suspect:

  1.  A clear affiliation with either a denominational, ecumenical, or interfaith body, with a link to that organization’s website. The endorsement of the body should be sought, and it should be evident  that the internet church is supervised by and  accountable to a larger authority than the minister who runs the website.
  2. Identification of the people who minister on the website, their role in the running of the internet church, and (ideally) a photograph to identify them should members meet them in public, and a profile stating the credentials and experience which have prepared them for their role .
    3.  A  statement of belief.
    4. Transparency about what constitutes membership, including how one becomes a member, what requirements apply (e.g. financial contributions, how personal information might be shared), and how to terminate membership.
    5.  The code of conduct by which both ministers’ and members’ online (and if applicable, in-person) behaviors are bound.

I am sure there are many more things that could be added. This is my minimal list of requirements for Internet Church for Non-Idiots, a book that does not yet exist, but probably should in the near future.

Further thoughts, anyone?

Update 9 February:  Mr. Hagger’s response can be found here:

Mr. Hagger is entitled to his opinions.  However, mine is that a priest who would find the five guidelines listed above to be “controlling”, and would object to working within them, is unlikely to have a high regard for the safeguarding of his or her people, and is thus a priest to be avoided.


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