31 January 2010

Methodist Social Media Guidelines

OK, I'm going to weigh in on the debate on the "Social Media Paper" going before (British) Methodist Council this coming week.

I'm afraid I've only seen links that jump right to the report and because I don't know how to create links in this situation, I cannot give a link to the report. However, a number of other Methodist bloggers have already provided links. Angela Shier-Jones' comment A place to Confer...? has a link and also one of the best comments on the matter that I've read.

There seems to be a view amongst some bloggers that the paper is an attempt to stifle on-line free speech amongst Methodists or even to discourage the use of blogging and social media altogether. I honestly don't see this.

On the theory that most people probably won't follow the links, I have copied below what I think is the substance of the guidelines. I note that the paper itself says that the guidelines will not be as stringently applied to office holders or ministers as they will be to Connexional Staff. That could be construed as "well, it's OK for Connexional Staff to have their freedom of speech suppressed" except that I don't think this is a paper about suppressing freedom of speech.

Before I became a minister, I worked for a large US company and the guidelines on internet usage and blogging (there was little social media at the time) were far more stringent. It seems to me to be reasonable - indeed, a no-brainer - that I would not want to gratuitously bring the Methodist Church into ill repute for no good reason. (And if I felt it necessary to go after the Church hammer and tongs for a gave injustice, I personally would not want to be part of it.)

I don't understand why this is arousing so much anxiety. I know that Methodists are an ornery lot but it appears that the idea of being team players and treating others the way we'd want to be treated ourselves makes a lot of people nervous.

Anyway, here is the substance of the guidelines:

5.1 Connexional Team staff are bound by ‘Speaking for the Methodist Church’ and
its appendices. Repeated failure to follow these documents can lead to disciplinary
action, and the same will be true of the following guidelines on social media.

Be responsible

i. Engaging in social media for your own purposes should be done in your own
time. Even social media used in your own time and on your own equipment has
the potential to raise disciplinary issues. The easiest way to prevent most
problems is to state that the views being expressed are your own and not the
Church’s, but you still need to avoid making statements that could bring the
Church into disrepute.

ii. Staff may only respond to or participate in social media for Church purposes
either as an explicit part of their job description, or with permission of their line
manager. In the latter case, this might either be a blanket approval or on a case
by case basis. The staff member and line manager should agree roughly how
much time this should take, and review regularly to make sure that this limit is
realistic and being met.

iii. The Church aims to have a single spokesperson on any topic. If that isn’t you,
you should at least find out who that person is and see how they might respond if
you were to speak on the issue, or ask if it would be more useful for them to
respond in their own name.

iv. Don’t share anything inappropriate about yourself, colleagues or any projects
that are not yet ready to be publicised. Treat things you learn at work as
confidential unless explicitly cleared to talk about them publicly.

v. You are ultimately responsible for your online activities; both the content and
the time spent. If either or both of these do not meet acceptable standards, then
your line manager will raise it as a concern. If the unacceptable behaviour
continues, then you could face disciplinary action.
Represent the Church properly

vi. Above all, remember that we are a Christian Church. Whatever your own faith
story, do not do or say anything that damages or undermines our reputation as a
Church, and respond in all ways with Christian love.

vii. Clearly state your name and position with the Church. Do not take part
anonymously, or under an alias (except as noted below in section 9)
viii. Where possible, link to relevant papers, such as Council or Conference
reports, fact sheets, press releases or foundational documents, especially if the
Conference has adopted a statement on a particular topic, therefore making it the
official position of the Church.

ix. Be professional in all your online activities. Check your spelling and grammar,
don’t be offensive or say anything improper. Make your arguments clearly and
truthfully. Even if people disagree with what you say, they should be impressed
with your manner. Don’t do or encourage anything illegal or improper.


x. Respect others and their beliefs and positions, even where you disagree.

xi. Make your cases and arguments constructively, factually, and with respect for
the need for good quality public discourse. Be truthful and honest.

xii. Respect the outcomes of our governance processes, which are based on
democratic and representative principles. You should not undermine a governance
outcome you disagree with. If you feel you must discuss it, then do so
constructively, stating the official position of the Church first and then stating
clearly why you disagree.
Ministers and other office holders of the Church

6.1 As noted above ministers (presbyters and deacons) and other office holders are
in different positions to that of Connexional Team staff. In practice this means that
these groups have more freedom than Connexional Team staff, but the principle
that all are responsible for what they write still applies. The core summary of being
responsible, respectful and good representatives of the Church remains true, but
different people will have different ways of following this in practice. Standing Order
740 clauses (2) and (3) give an outline of what the Church expects of those
admitted into full Connexion or recognised and regarded and of probationers.

08 January 2010

Blame, Shame and Learning

I want to pick up on some thoughts from a sentence that I heard this morning. The sentence is: "I am less interested in placing blame than I am in learning what went wrong so we can fix these problems"* (please see the disclaimer below)

This is a worthwhile sentiment which can also be a tricky one and those who read this blog-post today will likely recognize the very "tricky" context in which it was said. The most obvious objection to this sentiment is does this mean it's perfectly OK to be sloppy, incompetent or uninterested in doing a good job? If you are not pulled up for being sloppy, incompetent or uninterested, how will you learn to do better next time? And what about those individuals who may end up unintentionally victimized by your incompetence? Don't they deserve the satisfaction of seeing you punished?

I acknowledge these objections. I acknowledge the fact that sometimes individuals have responsibilities that, for whatever reason, they are uninterested in fulfilling and which they deliberately shirk. I acknowledge that there should be consequences for irresponsibility and that people who are deliberately and willfully irresponsible should not be constantly let off the hook.

But the thing is that things do go wrong in life. There are many times when failures are systemic and the failure is not really a matter of an individual being uninterested or incompetent. Sometimes there can be systemic failure even with everyone doing their job correctly. And yet we still love to try to single out an individual on whom to place the blame, whether or not they could reasonably be said to have caused the problem or even had the power to stop it.

We are often more interested in finding a scapegoat to punish than we are in learning from our mistakes and fixing the system. I think I might go out on a limb and suggest that more often than not, we are satisfied when we have found someone to punish and we don't even bother trying to learn anything from our mistakes. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense if we put the majority of our efforts into learning from our mistakes?

I've just started a new job and there is a lot of detail involved in the training. Yesterday, a co-worker worked with me for a few hours and she caught many of the mistakes I made. And this is how I really learned: I made a mistake, she caught the mistake, asked me what was wrong, I removed the mistaken item and placed it in the correct place and moved on. I learned from this because *I* physically corrected my own mistakes. I learned from this much more than I would have learned by watching my co-worker do the job.

I think that there is theology here too. Christianity tells us that God is a God of grace, mercy and forgiveness. God is like my co-worker: catching our mistakes, asking us what we did wrong, asking us to correct our own mistakes and then helping us to learn from our mistakes so we can move on into a new future. God is not like many of us; God is not just waiting to blame and punish us with no care or thought about whether or not we have learned anything.

I want to live in a world where I can learn from my mistakes. What about you?


* Disclaimer: I am not trying to comment specifically on today's news item about the failure to catch "the Christmas bomber". I am also not trying to signal blanket or uncritical approval for everything President Obama said, says or will say. I am not interested in a partisan conversation here; I'm interested in the idea and the attitude behind this statement.

07 January 2010

Thoughts on Prayer

OK, here is a subject-area where Angels fear to tread and I'm offering a few preliminary thoughts here on prayer for discussion. By no means do I think that I am an "expert" on prayer or that I have "right answers" about prayer.

My three thoughts for this morning are:

1) Pray as you can, not as you can't
2) Prayer, just do it
3) Prayer is not a vending machine, it's an exercise

Pray as you can, not as you can't.
Anyone who has attended Guy Chester Centre in the past will recognize this saying as taught by the beloved Sister Anne Marie Farrell. In fact, it's a saying that many regular practitioners of traditional Christian prayer disciplines will tell you.

Prayer is not an easy thing and there is no point in making it harder by getting a whole load of "shoulds" into your head about how prayer "should" be done. Some people are familiar with more contemplative prayer and they think that this sort of prayer just doesn't work for them because they hate silence and can't sit still for ten minutes. Others are more familiar with spoken verbal prayer and may think "Well, Fred the Local Preacher in my congregation is fantastic at praying out loud, but I get my tongue all tied up; I can't pray and won't ever be able to."

Each individual is going to have approaches to prayer that at different from others. There are a number of good books which give suggestions on various ways to pray to help you try out a few of them. Richard Foster's book called Prayer; Finding the Heart's True Home stands out as one of these. Some people find it easier to pray while walking, some find it easier with music, some with silence. Some pray out loud in their own room, some pray out loud with others, some pray silently with others.

There is no "Right Way" to pray and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I also find I pray differently in different situations. Sometimes I want to pray silently on my own. Sometimes I want to pray out loud with others. Neither way is better than the other.

2) Prayer, just do it
This is kind of a "bridge" point between points one and three.

Don't worry about your prayer technique. Just pray and try to pray regularly. Try various ways of praying until you begin to understand which ways work for you and which way you pray in different circumstances. For example, if I'm really in a crisis situation, I ideally want to be praying with others. That's not always possible, but I now know that this is my preferred way of praying in such a circumstance.

Also, like exercise, praying regularly is helpful but every little bit helps. Personally, I have found saying the Daily Office (there are many versions of this in books as well as on line) to be incredibly helpful in "just doing it". The Daily Office is especially helpful when you are distracted, sad or depressed. Rote prayer, in my view, is far from the vain praying that many more passionate Protestants claim it is. It's a way of showing up to be with God even if you don't feel like it.

Regular prayer, like regular exercise, is helpful and it all "accumulates". Which brings me to my third point:

3) Prayer is not a vending machine, it's an exercise
A lot of people have a lot of things to say about whether or not prayer "works". It seems to me that no matter what side of this argument you take, both sides seem to think of prayer as a vending machine. To be a bit absurd for the sake of making a point: "My friend's heart is failing and a transplant can't be found, so we're praying for a miracle cure for her heart and when it doesn't come we decide that our prayers to God have failed or not been heard."

Now, don't get me wrong, I do believe in miracles. I have personally seen someone delivered from an illness that was diagnosed as fatal; this middle-age person's cure/healing was incomprehensible to doctors, was apparently complete and came a few days before the person was supposed to die. However, I'm not actually expecting to see another miracle like that in my lifetime.

What I do think is that prayer can help us see the everyday miracles more clearly. Prayer helps us see key-hole appendectomies as miracles, new cancer treatments as miracles. But probably more importantly, prayer helps us recognize that the fact that we got up this morning is a miracle. That the fact I have a warm house and a roof over my head is a miracle. Prayer helps us see that the good Samaritan who just happened to have a can of petrol on that isolated road is a miracle and not a coincidence. And I don't think I'm down-playing the word "miracle" here.

Just like exercise helps make our physical muscles stronger, so too does prayer help make our spiritual muscles stronger.

What do you think?

04 January 2010

Wrestling with Doctrine

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Johnny. Johnny's mother and his grandfather before her were respected Elders in the community; they were Community Story-Tellers.

Johnny's mother and grandfather told stories that didn't make a lot of sense to Johnny when he was little. There were stories about how human beings were children of Mother Earth; Johnny had seen his brothers and sisters born and he knew that's not where babies came from. There were stories about how all human beings are brothers and sisters, but Johnny knew that his brothers and sisters had the same parents he did. And there were stories about how, if you hurt another person you would hurt too. But Johnny knew that if he pushed his friend over, the friend would get the skinned knee, not him.

But Johnny grew up and he slowly began to understand that the stories were about the deeper things in life. They were not stories about where babies came from or about how to hurt - or avoid hurting - other people physically. Rather they were stories about the interdependence of human beings and the human relationship to the natural world.

Then one day, when he was 13, Johnny's mother told him that it was time for Johnny to become a Community Story-Teller too. Johnny asked his mother if he could make up his own stories. His mother told him that the role of Community Story-Teller was an important role in the community. While Johnny could make up as many stories as he wanted to for his own family and friends, when a Story-Teller was standing and telling the Community Stories among the Gathered People of The Community, the stories had to be told faithfully. These stories needed to be accurately memorized and repeated. "Why?" Johnny asked. "So they can be passed down faithfully from generation to generation" his mother replied.

Johnny understood what his mother was saying and so his training as a Community Story Teller began. Johnny put all his effort into faithfully learning and repeating the stories as they were passed down from generation to generation.

As he told the stories over the course of his life, Johnny was amazed at the power of the stories. He started out thinking "this story means this" and "that story means that" and then someone would come along and offer a very different interpretation of the story. Sometimes the other person's interpretation was the opposite of his understanding, but often he was able to see the other person's point of view. Johnny never failed to be surprised at the power of these stories and his wisdom grew and grew over his life as he learned from the stories and from other people who also wanted to learn from them.


I just made up this story and it probably has several levels of meaning. I wouldn't even be surprised if someone came up with a meaning that I hadn't thought when I wrote it.

One of my intentions in writing this story is to give an analogy of how I see doctrine in the Christian Church. In my opinion, doctrine should be passed down faithfully from generation to generation. So, for example, to me this means we don't mess with the words of the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. Individuals don't start changing them to try to fit their own individual understandings or interpretations of the creeds. Rather, we pass them down faithfully from generation to generation.

On the other hand, passing down the stories faithfully doesn't mean that we are not allowed to have our own interpretations of the creeds. I have known individuals who seem to regard their own interpretation of the creeds as litmus tests by which they believe themselves able to judge the orthodoxy of other individuals. So, they will tell us, no one is allowed to question the facticity of the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin and still be judged as an orthodox Christian. And these people seem to think that the Creeds were given in order to judge the faith or salvation of other individuals. I don't agree.

On the other hand, it is equally wrong to say "I find the idea of the virgin conception difficult, so I'm going to remove it from the creed" or "I find it difficult to believe that Jesus' body was resuscitated, so I'm going to remove the statement about resurrection from the creed."

To fiddle around with the creeds because we feel the need to wrestle with some of the text is to confuse our interpretation with what the creeds say. To use the creeds as a tool to judge the eternal salvation of others is to confuse our interpretation with what the creeds say.

I think the Church and her officers are called to pass on the creeds faithfully from generation to generation. And we are also given the grace to wrestle with our own doubts and interpretations and we are asked to be gracious unto others as they wrestle.

Your thoughts?

New Year's Resolution

I don't usually make new year's resolutions but this year, I'm going to try to blog more than I did last year. And I'm going to try to blog on more topics of theology that I hope will be of interest to people and maybe even "relevant" to our lives as Christians.

I think I might end up re-blogging on some subjects that I've blogged about in the past. But one thing I've realized lately - from my experiences blogging and from my experiences in talking to people In Real Life - is that for various reasons we in the Church don't often get a chance to really hash out theological ideas that are important to us. So that's what I'm hoping to do a bit more of this year.

By the way, "theology" is simply "talk about God". It doesn't have to be high-fallutin'. I know that sometimes I use fancy words but I actually try not to do that for the most part. I usually try to translate fancy academic words of theology into "real English". And every person of faith "does theology" whether we think we do or not. When we ask questions like "What would Jesus do?" or "What would be a godly response to this situation?" we are asking theological questions.

I'll also be honest about another motivation. Since I'm not currently preaching, blogging can be a different way to "preach". In an ideal world, I'd rather see "preaching" as a dialogue between people rather than a monologue. And blogging is a much better venue for dialoging with others than most traditional Sunday services (although I frequently led services where discussions replaced sermons when I was leading worship).

So, my question to anyone who is reading is: What questions would you like to discuss here? What "God talk" subjects are of interest to you? I don't claim I'll have answers, but anyone who knows me knows that I can always add another question to the pile!

02 January 2010

Tired of being Undeserving

This was a comment that I made on another blog, but I think it stands alone as a blogpost. And - sorry folks - it's another healthcare rant if you want to skip it.


Speaking as someone who presently can’t afford healthcare, I’m tired (there is a LOT of emotion behind that word “tired” that I can’t properly communicate) of fellow Christians telling me that I don’t deserve healthcare or that “people like me” don’t really want it.

The church has very clearly called upon us to tithe our income which does not currently pay the bills. We do tithe and would have done so anyway, but truth be told, having been told to tithe I now resent doing it. I have gone from feeling good about giving to God sacrificially to feeling that people might be wondering why we are giving so little – surely they must be making more than THAT?

What would happen to us in the event that we had a big medical crisis/bill? Well, we’d be left to accept the charity of the hospital or possibly of family. The church will maybe come up with a casserole. But, in the face of such opposition we certainly can’t be real enough with anyone at church to admit that not having healthcare is a worry. And no one would actually help us out with our real needs. I wouldn’t really expect that either, but I really MIND it in the context of being told that we would not deserve to have medical care on account of not being able to afford it at the moment.

Now that I’m finally getting a job and we’ll be able to pay our bills – although we’ll still worry about medical care and won’t really be able to afford preventative dentistry or checkups – am I supposed to: a) Say “Whew! Now I’m part of the mainstream in my church. I’ll join in the view that people in the condition I was in a few months ago don’t deserve healthcare? or b) Remember what it was like to worry? I’m pretty sure it’s going to be option (b). And we’ll still be worrying that we’ll get away with good health until we are able to earn an upper-middle class wage with all the perks.

01 January 2010

New Year New Job

Well, as I alluded to in an earlier post (Pushing on Closed Doors) I've been looking for a job that will help pay the bills since we arrived in the US this past August and such a job has been, unsurprisingly given the economy, quite difficult to find.

Probably like tens of thousands of people, I sent out hundreds of resumes and applications and got very few interviews. But, in a perfect example of all the buses coming at once, I answered two job adverts this past Monday, promptly got two interviews and then two job offers. Both jobs pay the same hourly rate (just above minimum wage) and both were offering 28 to 32 hours/week, but the first job was located about an hour's drive away and would have meant working until 9:45 pm 3 days a week as well as working on Sunday. The second job is in town - about 1 to 2 miles away - and there are no Sunday hours. Even better, I'll be working four 7-hour days instead of a few hours 5 days a week, which was the case with the other job.

I'm not going to give specifics about the job, but it's a locally-owned business providing a service. The owner works on the premises and the atmosphere is in the shop is very good. I've used it myself as a customer and the workers are friendly know many of the clients who come in. The work will be varied; all the employees take turns doing the different functions and I'll be on my feet, which is something that I wanted.

I had a good long chat with the owner (who is a bit older than me) when I was having my interview and he asked me about my job-hunting experience. I told him that I'd sometimes felt there might be some age discrimination going on. I felt this especially with a temporary agency that I signed up with. I did very well on their skills tests and the agency would ring me and say that they had a match of a job for me and they'd just send my resume (CV) over to the client "and then we'll have you out working". Then the client would say that they didn't want me. This happened about 5 or 6 times. Now, I understand someone maybe thinking I'm "over-qualified" for a data-entry or typing job, but I couldn't see why this would matter for temporary jobs. I began to wonder if they really wanted someone young and pretty to look at more than they wanted someone to type.

The owner looked at me with a look of recognition and said "Do you know what I think it was about?" I asked what. He said that many of the middle-aged people he'd hired couldn't deal with the computer. This particular business has a rather complex filing system to deal with clients' orders and it runs on proprietary computer software. He said that many of the people "our age" that he'd hired would get really lost and flustered with the computer and just couldn't cope. Whereas the younger people could intuitively figure their way around the software. He'd stopped worrying about that when I pulled out my iPod Touch to put our appointment in my calendar (diary) and was even more reassured when he had happened to see me in a local coffee shop working on my laptop.

I thought this was a very interesting observation and I think he may have had a point. I'd been trying to figure out possible objections to hiring me and I'd even written on my resume that I am a US citizen and eligible to work in the US without sponsorship, since all my experience for the last 20 years was in the UK. I also wrote in my self-profile that I am "fit and healthy and not taking any medications" since someone mentioned to me that they thought an "older" (hello!) person might be off sick a lot (actually, I suspect that might be a false stereotype, but if the bosses are 30-something and they think that, then I might as well tell them I'm energetic and healthy).

I'd actually thought about "the computer issue" once before when a twenty-something expressed surprise that I knew what a USB-port was. But I never actually took seriously the idea that someone would assume that I couldn't find my way around a computer.

Anyway, I am very relieved to have a job and it's going to make a big difference to our situation.

Here's hoping for good things in 2010.