Status Update on Social Networks & Councils of Churches

National Association of Ecumenical and Interreligious Staff Meeting 2012

Pendle Hill Quaker Retreat Center, Wallingford PA- Monday March 18, 2012

[I was asked to speak briefly about “Sharing Successes, Challenges and Promising Responses to Challenges,” on a panel with Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches; Mr. Stan Kimer, President of the North Carolina Council of Churches; Ms. Alice Woldt, Co-Director of the Faith Action Network of Washington State. These are my notes and links, but not a full speech or clean-up post. I’m still thinking through some of these ideas, so feel free to comment and help refine these thoughts]

My name is Rev. Laura Everett and in November I became the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches– a statewide Christian network of 17 Orthodox and Protestant denominations in 351 cities and towns in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  I give thanks for the clergywomen who mentored me – Rev. Diane Kessler, Rev. Lydia Veliko, Rev. Deborah DeWinter. You can’t play jazz until you know your scales. These women taught me my scales.  Rather than throwing me onto some committee simply to fill a young adult slot, they taught me how to dress, how to greet a Bishop, how to build relationships stronger than our disagreements.  And then they put me on ecumenical committees and trusted me to represent our work together. That’s the obligation of mentorship in every movement: to teach one another the common history, but not prescribe our future together. I am grateful.

Three status updates from our ministry as a state council of churches:

  1. A time to reap and a time to sow: Rev. Scott Anderson asked if this was what Cardinal Walter Kasper called the “ecumenical fall,” a time to harvest and a time when plants die back. If this is so, we are indeed harvesting some strange fruit, perhaps even some fruit that we don’t recognize as fruit of the ecumenical movement. When I visit a congregation or get to bring greetings to a judicatory gathering, I ask people to raise their hand if they’ve ever been formed by another religious community.  The majority of hands raised tell a story of movement and multiple identities. When I asked this of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, 80% of hands went up, including the Bishop who had been raised United Methodist! We’ve all heard it before, but the era of cradle-to-grave anything is mostly over. Christian reconciliation matters because the divisions of the church are now in every local congregation.  As the Pew Forum’s US Religious Landscapes Survey  notes, 44% of Americans “now profess a religious rather affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised” and they think that number is low because it doesn’t account for movement within a tradition, i
    Kansas Ecumenical Ministries is being reborn, with a new structure, a new board and a very wise 19 year old President. We will not all die, but we will be changed. Pray for KEM and donate here:

    .e.: from Southern Baptists to American Baptist. Is this mobility something we can see as a fruit of the ecumenical movement rather than something to grieve?  Yet, amidst all this flux, I sense a doubling-down on denominational identity and an anxiety that has not prompted interdenominational cooperation. What a strange season when it seems that in congregations denominational identity means less and less, but denominational bodies are focusing on particular, singular identities more and more.  I inherited a trusted, faithful 110 year-old ecumenical organization with a $53 thousand dollar budget shortfall. I’m the one that cut the Associate Director position because we can’t afford it any more. I grieve this loss and admit my own fear about what comes next. I say again, and say to myself, I am a Christian and we believe in resurrection. You heard it in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity text this year from St. Paul (with my sermon here) “we will not die but we will all be changed.” Yet, if part of the work of this season is harvesting, another task is to be chaplain to changing, withering, dying parts of our institutional life. I believe that part of my pastoral role as a state council of churches executive is to be chaplain to a grieving generation that held out the hope of Vatican II, full communion agreements, and reconciliations of divided ministries who now see retrenchment and loss.  I am a chaplain to a generation that grieves the Church’s loss of status and power in culture, a Church that I never knew. I don’t fully understand that grief because I never knew that Church. Yet if we are to be an inter-generational expression of unity in the Body of Christ, the younger generations need to attend to the grief and pain of those who are mourning a death.

  2. Networks rather than Hubs:  For 110 years, the Massachusetts Council of Churches has been organized with middle-level judicatories as the primary unit of membership- 17 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. Appropriate for a season, we thought of the council as the center of the wheel with each spoke radiating out to those 17 judicatories. When I first came to the MCC 7 ½ yrs ago, I was told that we couldn’t have the email list for local congregations because all information had to flow through the judicatories. The MCC was the hub.  Expect that’s not how information flows now and we are in a very different season of Christian institutions.  I’m not sure what structure our common life will have, but it must have a means of accountability between the churches. I hope the Massachusetts Council  of Churches is the network that draws churches closer together, not the institutional center that everything go must through. Previously, when we spoke of state councils working with “the churches,” the conversation quickly moved to talking about the church leaders, specifically Bishops. No doubt there is a uniting, episcopal role for heads of judicatories and good Church leaders can model hopeful, non-anxious, and creative Christian reconciliation. But we sell the ecumenical movement short when we think that Church leaders are the only nodes in this network.  And it’s bad theology. I’m deeply grateful for the reminder of my friend Dr. Brian Flanagan, a lay Roman Catholic theologian and ecumenist at Marymount University, about the dangers of the creeping “clericalization of the ecumenical movement.”  If we take seriously that the work for Christian unity is the work of all the baptized, then this means the whole Church, not just the ordained, not just the leadership. The advantage of a network is that there are many lines of connection and many possible nodes. But networks are a bit scary, because networks are harder to control and contain than a discreet structure of 17 denominations.  For unity stronger than simply intra-Christian strategic cooperation or temporary agreement on a given advocacy, our networks absolutely must have some means of accountability between the various parts of the body of Christ.  Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon has pointed to our “faulty ecclesiology,” where  “councils are often regarded as organizations alongside churches, but this misses the point. Councils are not organizations the churches join, but covenants they make with one another to express something of our unity in Christ.” Again, whatever structure our common life will take must have some means of covenental accountability to one another.
  3. Social Media and Unity of the Body of Christ:  As I suspect you can hear from my second observation, I’m thinking a lot about social networks. I think there is something for the Church to learn from social media about the nature of the unity we seek.  Let me be clear, I am not saying that social media will save the Church or the ecumenical movement. That is Christ’s role. But it’s adapt or die. If we choose to avoid social media, we concede space and a conversation about the nature and mission of the Church will go on without us.  This is also not just a technical fix about how to create your church/organization/council’s Facebook page (which you still need to do, given that Pew’s research on the Internet finds: “the number of those using social networking sites has nearly doubled since 2008 and the population of Social Network Site users has gotten older. In this Pew Internet sample, 79% of American adults said they used the internet and nearly half of adults (47%), or 59% of internet users, say they use at least one of social network site.”) It is an adaptive challenge to take our established ecumenical relationships and open ourselves up to the new and somewhat unclear expression of the Church in social media. What could the chaotic, conversational, boundary-crossing networks of social media teach us about what Christian unity might looks like in ways unlike what we have imagined? For example, I’ve been listening in via Facebook and Twitter ( to a conversation that Episcopalians are having among themselves about the budget proposals that will be debated at General Convention.  I’m watching Presbyterians debate and grieve the new divisions in their community.  Is it denominational eavesdropping or an awareness that the decisions Episcopalians and Presbyterians make actually affect us all?  And if you are unconvinced theologically, let me add a pragmatic motivator for all who spoke about cultivating direct relationships with local churches- I’ve had much better two-way relationships with members of congregations and pastors since being intentional about our digital ministry.  Through social media I can hear more clearly what a local congregation cares about and they can track more clearly how they can participate in our ecumenical ministry. If you want to know what the “person in the pew” cares about, watch their Facebook updates.

Like Rev. Scott Anderson said earlier, I too find myself as a denominational party-crasher, showing up at other peoples’ sacred events as a sign of the wider Church. I’ve come to believe that our ecumenical and interfaith ministry requires a spiritual disciple of ecumenical awkwardness, the practice of being out of sorts and never quite conversant in the local language. Ecumenical awkwardness is the practice of going to a new place not knowing the customs but trusting that God has something new to

teach you there and with those people. Adapting to social media will require the same sort of spiritual discipline of ecumenical awkwardness: showing up, trying something new, failing, asking for grace, reaching out to others to explain what’s going on. I could tell you about the time on Twitter that I retweeted a message from a reporter that I shouldn’t have. I am learning this new language too and messing up.  Perhaps like the ecumenical women who mentored me, we have the opportunity here for cross-generational  shepherding.  As I have said previously, guilt is theologically poor motivation for stepping out in faith to a land perceived to be as strange as social media. But I am convinced that we can step out together and discover something new about the unity that Christ givesfor his Church.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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