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Parish fights spreading online

Parish fights spreading online

The Internet give us extraordinary tools to communicate a message to a large group of people. In recent months this ability has started to cause the fall of governments and given new life to populist movements. But there’s a downside. The anonymity of the Internet can allow people to take the every day squabbles of life and magnify their effects so that the community is seriously and quickly threaded.

Case in point is the story of the parish level conflict that has broken out at Christ Episcopal Church in Bethany Connecticut.

“Fabian Ortiz had been the music director at Christ Church for four and a half years. Over the past month, through a series of miscommunications, and in some cases, too much communication, Ortiz decided to resign his position, leaving many parishioners feeling bereft having lost their pastor and now their music director. With little familiar to cling to, things began to unwind.

Round one began when parishioners were asked to attend a rally to demand Ortiz be reinstated as music director. When that failed, an anonymous email blast asked parishioners to attend a meeting demanding that the vestry be removed.

And then it grew incrementally worse. Another volley of emails went out asking people to attend a meeting on Sunday, Oct. 9. The invitation, titled “Fabian Ortiz Must be Punished,” said the parish would be asked to vote on filing a class action suit against Ortiz, “seeking damages for insubordination, theft, reimbursement of salary he made to be paid back to the church for poor job performance and for leaving the church in disarray.””

More here.

The article goes on to detail the way the conflict escalated – to the point where an email in support of the Vestry was sent with the subject line: ‘“Angry Parishioners in Support of the Vestry” [which] invited people to “Stop Fabian Ortiz Dead in His Tracks.” It was illustrated with a picture of Ortiz with a crosshair on his face.’

The church congregation has responded admirably, with much prayer, and it appears that for the moment the conflict is ebbing.

But what can congregations do to limit these sorts of conflicts spreading out of control, fanned by strong cyber-winds? Is it a matter of being clear about the community’s norms? Is it hiring cyber-detectives? Is it in finding a way to slow down the speed of the responses?

Have you seen things like this? What did you do?


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Stacey Wadey

It was quite a mess, but now that we have our Interim Rector in place things are really quieting down. Now we can get back to being the loving faith community we once were. We know where the emails originated from and we pray they find peace and their way back to God.



Folks — the problem here is the conflict, not the medium. If people want to throw bombs at each other, they’ll find a way. These days, a common way is email lists. Churches cannot expect to be immune.

We don’t avert these things by withholding a particular technical means of escalation. We deal with them by addressing the conflict and helping people to learn how to disagree respectfully, even lovingly.

Jan Adams

Kyle Matthew Oliver

I think it’s important that both congregational and lay leaders engage in teaching (and maybe even preaching) of basic online communication skills, practices, and norms. It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of these kinds of conflict if we don’t have a vocabulary for the proper self-reflection.

More importantly, I think we need to continue the theological conversation about, as it were, how to be Christians online. How can we offer, to God and to each other, “our selves, our souls and bodies” via these sometimes-disembodied media? It seems possible with a little energy, discipline, and love.

Kyle Oliver

Virginia Theological Seminary

Paul Davison

JC Fisher:

I always send e-mails to my parish list as blind copies, although that reason hadn’t occurred to me. I simply feel that the people haven’t authorized me to share their addresses with anyone, so I don’t.

Paul Davison

Andrew Gerns

I know this parish and both the immediate past rector and their interim. This is a fine, creative, and prayerful parish led by wise laypeople and clergy. This sounds like one crank intent on watching destruction, like a cyber-firebug. Or perhaps one instigator and another acting in reaction? Still, the interims approach of keeping the facts the facts, encouraging prayer, teaching appropriate feedback and practicing healthy communication will make sure this parish navigates this period successfully. They also seem to be talking to the police, so while they might not catch this person, this will help re-establish the parish as a safe place.

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