From transparency to enlightenment

Second of two parts. (Part one is here.)

By Helen Thompson

Regular readers of this column may recall that earlier this year, I turned down a job offer. What I wasn't able to talk about in that essay was that part of the reason I turned it down was that there were still unknown doors waiting to open, and in late July I accepted a different job offer that allows me to continue to build my understanding of social media and how it can help organizations grow. It's a lovely parallel to the thing I was writing about in my last essay, that social media may be the door to reaching the hundreds of thousands of people who are unchurched yet spiritual. If that point wasn't clear in the last part of the essay, I'm underscoring it now, but that's not what I want to talk about this time around. Rather, I want to talk about how the Café's Ethic of Transparency opened the door to this new world.

I think I was invited to participate in the Café because my RevGalBlogPals "Ask the Matriarch" column (which I edited for the first year of its existence and recently resumed doing) had caught the attention of several Episcopalian priests. Truth be told, I have no formal training in theology, ecclesiology, homiletics, or any other of those ten-dollar Latin cognates that compose the Divinity curriculum. I'm barely even a good layperson--I'm not in the choir, not a lay reader, not a Daughter of the King, not on the Altar Guild, not working in the shelter, not.. not.. not.. I'm not even a good tither. Shame on me!

Part of the reason for this, despite the nifty blogroll I have over at Gallycat's Lounge about the churches I attend and have attended, is that I haven't been a regular churchgoer. I've moved a lot. I travel a lot on weekends. I have joint custody of my son, whom I didn't raise as a Christian, and so we find other ways of exploring the sacred on Sunday mornings. Sometimes it involves church, but not always, and not even often.

Yet. I am in my second year of Education for Ministry, and I'm very active in several online communities that are based around faith, spirituality and/or the Episcopal Church. But for a long time, people didn't know that I was me. I'm gun-shy about openly tying my name, Helen Thompson, to my various online handles. I have several. I compartmentalize myself in some ways, packaging the faithy bits at Gallycat, the irreverent bits at Deviathan, the work-related stuff to Exurbanista, the deeply personal journal to Zen Pooky, the reproductive clock angst to Kersplunkity, the Second Life persona to Vahnia, the knitster knots at Knitster, the life-in-the-valley explorations at and so on. One person recently told me that my collection of Web 2.0 presences might be a manifestation of Multiple Personality Disorder, to which I strenuously (but guiltily) objected, knowing, as I do, some people with truly dissociative issues. But when a friend of mine today made an allusion to forming a 12-step group to help those with a compulsive urge to register domain names, it hit really close to home.

Mine is one more akin to the author trying her hand to many different genres and hoping that one will take off. Nora Roberts is J.D. Robb, for instance. In my case, working as a professional journalist and still very midlevel in my career, I had a byline that was a brand, that of Helen H. Thompson. I was worried that if I started writing prolifically about faith as Helen Thompson, it might compromise my ability to find a job. Now, ideally, someday my vocation will merge with my profession and I'll become a communications officer for the church in some capacity that will still allow me to pay my exorbitant mortgage payment. (I live modestly; honest. Housing prices are so bad in the DC area, even in a cooling real estate market, that I had to move 75 miles west of the Capitol just to get a foot in the door, if you'll pardon the pun.) But in the meantime, being a Good Christian Person (progessive, conservative, whatever the stripe) can be a liability in my world. When I first confessed to my friends that I had come back to the faith, I was challenged on many levels to defend how a reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent young postmodern woman could buy into the hokey nonsense that was religion. And as such, I was shy. I became Gallycat (first here, then here). Gally, the "fallen angel" of a Japanese manga series, and "cat."

Enter Jim Naughton and the Episcopal Café and their Ethic of Transparency. OMG, was I going to have to SIGN MY NAME to a post? Scary. Sticking my neck out and admitting that I'm brazen enough to talk about my faith life when I'm oh so very.... me? Scary. Covering anything above and beyond my diocese or interesting news items about faith in the postmodern world? Scary.

Do you remember the first time you ever addressed a group of people, whether it was your first sermon or your first public speaking class or your first time lay reading? It's sort of like that, at least as I experienced it. Signing my name to a post about faith created anxious tension. Even though I wasn't hiding my identity per se--just not coming out and saying so or undertaking the daunting task of writing a bio about myself in third person (which I can't do without making some kind of smartass comment about myself)--it scared me.

But I signed my name. And once I owned that work, I did something else, too. I updated my resume to reflect the fact that I do volunteer work for the church, by helping blog users get acquainted with the technology, by helping the good folks in Second Life get their Anglican Cathedral up and running, by editing stuff for the RevGals and by coordinating posts for the Lead here at Episcopal Café. Just two months later, I was having a phone conversation with the director of a publication who wants to take advantage of these technologies--blogs, podcasts, wikis, virtual worlds, streaming media, RSS, distributed bookmarking, tags, and so on; this world of new toys we collectively call "social media"--and by September I was one step closer to merging my vocation and profession. They hired me because I had demonstrated familiarity with these tools.

I was, perhaps, the Café's most ardent voice in favor of allowing people to post under pen names. And I was soundly outvoted. But I have come to see the wisdom of the policy. All of us who participate in these forums are part of the future of the church, for better, for worse. I can take responsibility for what I do. But God rewarded me for being brave enough to do so, for being brave enough to open my mind to a new way of thinking—God also let me get credit for what I do.

Helen Thompson directs social media initiatives for an international association in Northern Virginia and is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where she is in her second year of studies in Education for Ministry and plugging away at her first novel. Catch her on the web at Gallycat's Lounge, among others.

What about Generation X?

First of two parts.

The author gratefully acknowledges the input of other participants in Northern Virginia's Mesh Community for ideas she developed in this essay. It doesn't necessarily reflect any individual's opinion other than her own, however.

By Helen Thompson

I was talking to a friend about the challenges we face by virtue of being born after 1970--well, of being gen-xers in general, and being caught between the "Boomers" and the "Millennials," and how this affects us in faith communities. It came up last week on an email group, and I passed it along to several of my friends who are doing their part, in my humble opinion, to attract people like me to the broader church. On Sept. 20, that group met over margaritas to discuss, as my friend put it, "the theological / ecclesiological / missiological / tequiliological implications" of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; indeed, the Harry Potter series as a whole. Where on earth can you find something like this? In our homespun small group, called MESH, which is an acronym for mix, entangle, share, harmonize. What it is, for me, is church. Three friends had the idea to read some books and invite their friends over for munchies and chat. And they're telling their friends. And they're telling their friends. We're not part of any one church, but part of the church.

The more I see things with top-down architectures being applied to us youngish people, the more I realize it doesn't work. I've seen great ideas committee-ed to death all because people older and wiser than me must control every outcome of every plan of every initiative. And the more input I got from friends of mine, the more I realized:

Your invitation to me to participate doesn't mean much if you don't let my input—and leadership—count. And that's what I'm hearing from frustrated 30-something laity who want to take on leadership positions but still get flak for being slackers, which we really are not anymore and we'd like some credit. It's not just the Episcopal Church. I worked at a financial services magazine that refused every pitch I made about Gen-X prospects because we're not buyers. I work for an association that's trying to figure out how to attract people under 40 because we're not joiners. One friend of mine added to the conversation that she'd like to see "'young adult' stricken from the Episcopal vocabulary"--for reasons that resonate with me: mortgage, career, family. Heck, my son is almost 15, and pretty soon I'll be the young adult parent of a young adult.

So, if we're not young adults anymore, and nowhere near middle aged (if 50 is new the 30, we're actually teenagers), what are we? How do you address the wide demographic of a narrow slice of the population that's holding an awful lot of cards and generating absolutely no buzz? Sure, skip us. Move on to the millennials.

Here's my take on things, though. Generation X is the bridge between the Boomers and the Millenials. We were raised with enough technology that we're conversant in the ways that today's teenagers interact on social networks. But we also know how to dial a phone. We're all wired in varying ways, but each succeeding generation is increasingly plugged in. Let me put it another way. Historically, many immigrants have come to America speaking only their native language. Their children, however, speak both languages fluently. But I know many cases where the grandchildren don't speak anything but English, and the middle generation must help the bookending generations understand one another--literally. So what happens if you skip the middle generation?

Here's an example I ran across recently. Blogs are a publishing platform that were adopted quickly by compulsive writers with varying degrees of web-savvy. I've had so many that it's a wonder I can populate them all with random Helen/Gallycat brain noise on a regular basis, so I wax and wane with all of them. They're a great way to distribute content, to self-publish (no, really, I'm more prolific than Stephen King!), to bypass censorious editors, to think aloud, to take the podium, to brainstorm in community. So of course, many organizations, seeing the value of being able to share content with one another, decided to barrel full speed ahead with a blog. Occasionally, some would enlist me to help get the blog off the ground, since I know the technology. One, in particular, was a church that was looking forward to getting some ideas out there.

But they didn't listen to my input on certain key issues that ultimately doomed the blog. Granted, this is a church that has huge outreach on many fronts and I don't fault them at all for determining that this wasn't the vehicle for them, especially since I was constantly moving from place to place and too peripatetic to fully participate in the community. (This is a major reason why "online" was my permanent residence, up til recently.) But the problem was that every post had to be approved by a committee. I felt like Cassandra, trying to explain to them why it would inhibit participation on the blog. It died a few months later. I was sad, but Episcopal Cafe emerged right around then, so I had another place to focus my energies.

So how is this an example of why we, Gen X, are the translators? We are well equipped to understand social media, which is going to be the communications medium of choice for today's young people. How is this changing the face of communications? My connections in the news media say it's as revolutionary as Gutenberg and the moveable type printing press. Ignore this opinion at your peril, unless you think Luther's revolution had nothing to do with Gutenberg's (again, a hat tip to my friend for saying this; I hope he outs himself in the comments). Blogs are just a part of what that next generation is coming online with. We can speak their language. We can speak the Boomers', too, though. Did I mention my teenage son? Yes? What about my aging parents? How's your retirement portfolio?

So anyway, back to the matter at hand. Don't skip Generation X. We've seen it more than once. We've heard you ask how to reach us, and seen you form committees hoping to find the magic pill that will get us back in the pews. To be honest, you might not. My fiancé has stalwartly avoided church services pretty much since he was old enough to say "no" to them. But cookouts, labyrinth walks, drum circles, soup kitchens, river clean-ups? He's so there. How is he going to hear about those activities if he doesn't come to church each Sunday? Through our blogs, our Facebook accounts, our Livejournals, our Myspace pages. I'm on each of these platforms, and on every single one it's plain to see that I'm a Christian, an Episcopalian, a Harry Potter fan and a Diet Pepsi addict. And I have slowly been building my own net community, little pockets of which occasionally gather for margaritas, that is my church.

You don't need a committee to study us and come up with a strategic plan that you'll implement just in time for my grandchildren's confirmation, by which time said strategic plan will be as obsolete and full of cheesy music as 8-track tapes. Try flying by the seat of your pants. Take a hint from my Tequila-loving pals and get a group together over dinner and a movie and see what happens. Take some popular music—U2 is just the beginning—and see what happens when you treat the lyrics as songs to God. Look at how subcultures like emo and goth have spiritual subtexts that tie in beautifully with the poetry of psalms. Take church outside the church, and take advantage of social networking technology to bring more people into the fold. Not the pews, THE FOLD. For we are his flock in the world. In the world! Such is the call to the diaconate, and the call of the deacon at the end of the service. But it's important to everyone; otherwise, such would not be the call of the deacon to us: Go forth into the world to love and serve the lord.

It's not enough to study us. Listen to us, yes, but more importantly—

Join us.

Helen Thompson directs social media initiatives for an international association in Northern Virginia and is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where she is in her second year of studies in Education for Ministry and plugging away at her first novel. Catch her on the web at, among others.

A Proverb for bloggers

By Marshall Scott

So there I was, today, looking in at one of the Episcopal blogs -- one of THOSE blogs. You know the type: issues are raised by blog owners and moderators, who do have a clear position, but who are themselves relatively orderly and polite. Then, extensive comments are posted, most by folks who agree with the owners and moderators; some by folks who agree intemperately; and a few by folks who are, well, virulent. I do visit such sites, of more than one position, and some more than others; but they exist across the spectrum of our current Episcopal and Anglican disagreements.

And for each of those sites there are a few respondents who don’t fit the mold. They may hold the “other” position, or they may simply want to play [angel’s or devil’s] advocate. And among them there are gadflies. Gadflies are usually civil (and uncivil gadflies usually get moderated out), but are always both consistent and persistent. They are convicted of the rightness of their respective causes, principles, and authorities. They assert much more than they reason, however reasonable they perceive themselves to be. They are happy, or at least determined, to stand as Daniel in the lions’ den in order to proclaim their positions. They delight in taking on all comers. They find moral satisfaction in being challenged, and even more in being attacked; for blessed are they indeed if they “suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”

And, predictably enough, it does indeed become a den, although whether of lions, foxes, or adders is not always clear. A gadfly is inevitably successful in generating not simply challenge and discussion, but also an attack. Shortly some few of the regulars on the site fall into intemperate and uncivil posts, largely of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) ad hominem attacks. There are those, of course, who seek to discuss and to argue logically and civilly; but they can be drowned out by the volume if not the number of the more personal, less temperate responses. And those less temperate responses are less likely to be moderated away, because the moderator is so conscious of the suffering that has led the responder to speak truth, however intemperately.

So, there I was today, looking at one of those Episcopal blogs, and I was struck suddenly by my favorite verses from Proverbs:

[4] Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
[5] Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, RSV)

I looked at how the discussion had descended into diatribe and distraction, and I suddenly wondered what I was to do. Should I put my two cents in, trying to reason against the assertions of the gadfly? If I did, would I be associating myself with the intemperance of the intemperate responders? Should I refrain, and allow both the assertions of the gadfly and the virulence of the intemperate to stand unchallenged for both had gone beyond reason? What to do?

I spent Saturday of Labor Day Weekend in the midst of a cultural experience. Specifically, I attended my first feis, my first Irish dancing competition. My niece made her first parent-less trip to come and compete. Family members outnumbered dancers in the room, but they faded from view, overwhelmed by the colorful riot of dancing dresses. They showed every color in the crayon box (although there is surprisingly little green and, less surprisingly, even less orange), decorated as they were with shapes and patterns that once showed family and tribe and allegiance.

In a way, the current Episcopal and Anglican discussions have all the ordered chaos of a feis: within the parameters of the larger event there is the dull mutter of the crowded room, the mingling of hundreds of conversations, until someone calls a tune. Then, for a period there is great focused interest, as most in the room watch the competitors doing their very best to outdo one another in optimizing the balance of authentic choreography, competent performance, and that little bit of added presentation that might hold the attention of the judge. After that there is applause for all, or at least for one’s own; and impatient waiting to see who has outdone whom; and a return to the dull mutter. There will, of course, be some ranking at the end, and some competitors will be thrilled and some disappointed, and their respective families with them. But most present simply want to have danced well, and to have heard their efforts appreciated.

In parallel, we who want to take our own places in this discussion, have opportunities in the blogosphere (and elsewhere, certainly) to share our reflections and to see the reflections of others. At our best, we’re also trying to optimize a balance of authenticity, competence, and that little bit of added presentation that we hope will allow us to stand out a bit. Most of the time as a common enterprise I think we manage relatively well; but sometimes it isn’t any prettier for us than for the poor, unprepared dancer. And in all those situations, there are the colors and patterns of opinion that claim family and tribe and allegiance. It is in just those circumstances that we need to think about the passage from Proverbs: whether our participation will challenge foolishness, or simply contribute to it.

It’s September; and there are those who have seen events of this September, and of the Autumn to follow, as critical, literally as moments of crisis. There is much talk of deadlines and decisions, of imposition and resistance, of the standing and falling of many in Zion. Because I continue to think these are struggles for identity (and I do think it’s about identity, with such issues as sexual morality and Biblical authority and historical precedent being discriminators within the identities at issue), they’re all the more liable to be personal, ad hominem responses. I think Episcopal Café is one place that has worked hard to maintain discourse instead of dissonance; and while most of us who write here would be considered “progressive,” we have all sought to offer our best, and to offer the best of the Episcopal Church as we see it.

But out there in the rest of the blogosphere, on our own blogs and in responding to the blogs of others, I think we need to reflect on Proverbs. We believe the voices of the Net are meaningful and in some sense representative in Episcopal and Anglican discussions. We believe them part of the conversation, along with sermons and official statements and press releases. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting our own view out, and we wouldn’t be reading and responding to the voices of others. As we do so, let’s think carefully, and respond appropriately. The lessons from Proverbs should give us all pause; and if they don’t, there is always that other proverb: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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