May 16, 2005

The internet, ministry, and witness

Recent and not-so-recent posts among Quaker bloggers and readers have made me think about the growing online community of Friends and its intersection with Quaker practices, such as engaging in spiritual discernment, providing and receiving eldership, bearing witness to our faith, offering ministry, and testing a leading.

This growing phenomenon about online communication through blogs, personal websites, and emails begs the question:

What happens when we cross the electronic world of the internet with the interpersonal, living corporate body of Friends, which has historically depended on seeking the guidance of the Spirit together, face-to-face, and in a covenant community?
Lots of questions; few answers

Are there elements from the tradition of epistles as written by early Friends that can be applied to blogs and how to respond to what we read? Might each Quaker blogger (and regular commenter) write an epistle, to be shared with fellow Quaker bloggers and their readers; or perhaps distributed more widely? Might there be a way to share our responses to one another's epistles, as Conservative Friends still practice? Is there Life to such an idea?

Are there some elements of our collective or individual Quaker witness that are acceptable when borne out online, while other elements of our Quaker practice are not? Are there some elements of our online witness that need to be reigned in? How would we go about discerning such things?

Should there be explicit norms and boundaries around electronic forms of ministry that parallel the implicit norms and boundaries around vocal ministry? Does it matter to define norms and boundaries, or are we discovering and developing such norms as we go, in a more organic manner?

Important questions for Friends who are engaged in the Quaker blogosphere and elsewhere online.

Examples of our musings electronic

Some time ago, Kwakersaur made this comment over on Of the Best Stuff But Plain:
...Last night I spoke with one travelling in the ministry -- she expressed doubts about the internet as a source for spiritual community and Quaker work and witness.
Beppeblog has a post about this sort of thing as well. On his post, he reminds me of a comment I left somewhere in the Quaker blogosphere:
But since there is not much infrastructure to Quaker blogs as far as online testing of leadings, corporate discernment, and nurturing of gifts, I am uncertain how to respond. Just how Quaker are Quaker blogs? Do the principles of Quakerism get left in a cubby on our desks when we log onto the internet and start reading one another's blogs?
Beppe goes on to say:
There always seems to be these struggles within Quakerism regarding just how much of our lives, how much of the details of our lives, is under the authority of God. Traditionally, at least based on my limited understanding of historic Quakerism, part of this submission was to the community: one's leadings always came under the inspecting light of communal insight as well as Biblical understanding.
And the question that Robin raises in her remarks is:
I'm wondering about how to consider eldering on purpose in public. Showing support in public is usually even more welcomed than in private, but how can an online community know what accountability has been asked of or shown by a Friend?
What happens when a portion of an online faith community that is journeying with one another in listening for the Spirit, and is sharing with one another revelations made clear by the Inner Light-what happens when that virtual community is faced with the need to make a decision or have some input into a certain situation? Can the Spirit be discerned miles apart from one another? Can we know one another in that which is Eternal if we don't share the intimacies of our daily lives with one another? And is such intimate sharing necessary in order to discern the movement of the Spirit?

I have expressed my own doubts as well, especially as I was discerning starting up a blog. I went even further in another post:
A local Quaker community helps hold Friends accountable for the right use of their gifts, the right use of their ministry. ...[Knowing one another] "electronically" is not the same as knowing [one another] as part of a Quaker meeting, as knowing [one another] in that which is Eternal...
Experiences with Quaker practices online

I do not have the gift that others do when it comes to surfing the 'net, but there have been a few internet sites I have stumbled across that seem to parallel what is experienced in the life of a Quaker Meeting. In addition, I've had a few experiences online myself that mirror my in-person Quaker life.

Here's the list of online Quaker practices and experiences that I've come up with:

1. Online books of discipline and faith and practice.

2. Online worship opportunities.

3. Online Friendly bible study.

4. Epistles from yearly meetings that are posted on the internet, such as this example, from Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative.

5. Quaker listserves and other forms of electronic bulletin boards, which allow anything from open discussion about a topic to a moderated conversation that may be a form of electronic worship sharing.

6. My own experience with writing and receiving personal epistles, or at least personal letters of spiritual matters, exchanged over email.

7. My own experience in helping discern the Spirit in preparing an epistle entirely through email for a Quaker organization.

A personal testimony

It's this last item on which I want to expand; its outcome perhaps the most surprising.

In the fall of 2004, I was led to serve on a small ad hoc committee to write an epistle about a sensitive concern that had been brewing for some time. The three of us on the committee, like good Quakers, were extremely busy in our everyday lives. We lived in different parts of the country.

Since I had already experienced grounded worship and spiritual discernment over the phone with other Friends regarding another matter, I felt certain that we would put aside time to be in touch via phone when it came time to discern the way forward, to craft, revise, and eventually submit a finished epistle.

God seemingly had other plans.

When I asked about setting up a time for an initial phone conference and a tentative follow-up conference call, the two other committee members instead put forward the preference for working via email (or such is how I remember it, anyway). I was reluctant, I was skeptical, I was concerned about just how discerning the Spirit might work with miles of distance between us and not even any verbal cues for guidance, to boot.

Often one who prefers the "experiment" as a way to test what is possible, I agreed to give email a chance.

Looking back, I cannot see how doing it any other way could have yielded a better result! As the paragraphs and portions of the developing epistle circulated among us, we each commented to one another, via email, how strongly we experienced the Presence in what we were reading. Each of us, at one time or another, added our own shard of Light as to what worked, what didn't seem to resonate with the Truth, what was the point that we were really called on to put into this epistle. Each of us openly shared via email what we were holding tenderly, what we were wrestling with, where we felt called in terms of continuing the crafting process.

Even when we had what we felt was a completed epistle, one of us felt the nudge to share the draft with another Friend who had been present at the discussion that led to approving the formation of an epistle committee. The other Friends agreed.

Again, I feel as though we were well led, despite the cyber-discernment in which we were engaging. The additional Friend's input proved significant. First, she affirmed the right order of what we had crafted up to that point. Second, the suggestion she made ultimately impacted only two words: the removal of one and its substitution with another.

We made that change and submitted the epistle to the Friends who were responsible for adding signatures, putting it on letterhead, and distributing it.

From books to blogs

How can I say that the internet should not be used "as a source for spiritual community and Quaker work and witness," as Kwakersaur's acquaintance had suggested, when my experience tells me otherwise? How can this small but cybernetically bonded group of Quaker bloggers, and our faithful readers, testify otherwise when so many of us have found a deepening, a quickening of the Spirit, as a result of our sharing?

Should printing presses be dismantled and epistles be shredded, should I stop ordering books from QuakerBooks of FGC because books and epistles cannot be a substitute or source for direct Quaker work and witness? Or am I simply carrying on the experiment of sharing the measure of Light I have been given, through methods of information-sharing that are evolving, from ministers to epistles; epistles to journals; journals to books; books to blogs? One has not replaced the other; they co-exist with one another. Might they all be part of the source—part of the capital-S Source for community, work, and witness?

Maintaining a weblog can indeed be a solo proposition in which my ego or my own will can leak out in unintended ways. So there remains a question that I revisit, in some shape or form, from time to time. I should check with my blog-elders about this question, too:
Am I tending to the roots of the Spirit at home so that this electronic ministry is clear of my own ego-trappings and remains in service to the Spirit?
I hope so.


UPDATE: Alice from Public Quaker has a related post, Plainer thinking - how does the internet really fit in?

UPDATE, Oct. 2005: Martin at Quaker Ranter has some reflections on his two years of blogging about Quakers and where he finds himself as a result.

UPDATE, April 2006: Lorcan at Plain in the City has offered the possibility of creating an online Faith & Practice for Quaker bloggers. Already there are a number of responses to that concept. Additional ideas might be found at a separate site, Blogging Faith & Practice.


Anonymous said...

Tending to the home fires is important. I, for one, not for the first time, just burned our dinner because I was composing a stupidly long comment on the Quaker Ranter.


More on-topic response soon.

Claire said...

In reading this post a number of thoughts came to me.

The Quaker blogs I have encountered thus far have been of Quakers from various parts of the country (or world) and from various Quaker backrounds. There is no physical boundary to and online community, which could lead to profound insights and ministry that may be lost in a local setting.

Speaking of boundaries, it is hard to tell just exactly what this online community is, who is in it, or if there are multiple online communities (which I highly suspect there are). Perhaps what is needed is an intentional online community where there are those who are clearly "members". Members not necessarily in the same sense as a member of a monthly meeting, but those who are active in posting or commenting, and/or also in some form of eldering (if that is to happen online), and who can be held to a certain amount of accountability. The way the internet is these days leaves everything wide open; anyone can post anything and make any claim, and there isn't necessarily anyone to dispute it or discuss it. Perhaps if there is an intentional blogging community it would be easier and more appropriate to hold Friends accountable for their words and ministry.

Also, I don't feel that any sort of online community or blogging can be compared to in-person interactions; perhaps there are different standards to consider. In-person communities and relationships are very important and very necessary to the life and spirit of a Friend and a Quaker meeting; however, this does not mean that Friends cannot also interact with other Friends over the internet. It should be clear that an online community is not a substitute for other in-person relationships. (This is something that has propelled me into becoming more actively involved in my local meeting; there is no substitute.)

I feel that ministry can, and has through books countless times, be in the form of writing. Blogging, like books, pamphlets, and other mediums of written word, is yet another way of communicating ministry and discussion.

There is much to be discerned about the internet; we mustn't forget to wait upon the spirit for guidance in these matters. (It is easy (at least for me) to overanalyze issues such as these intellectually without allowing the spirit to provide guidance.)

Anonymous said...

One of the things that is important to me is the lack of anonymity among the Quaker bloggers. There is a certain amount of protection of one's personal information which seems reasonable, but by and large, I feel like you are not hiding yourselves. I have found that I know people who know you (several of my local Friends know several of the bloggers I read, mostly because they have been more involved in FLGBTQC or FGC gatherings). I have confidence that I could and probably will meet many of you one day. This is important to me to see this communication as part of building the wider Quaker community, not just random individuals in a global arrangement.

The same experience of having a Friend speak my mind that sometimes happens in a Quaker meeting has happened online.

I gave basically the same speech (that became the abovementioned long comment on the QR) at the debriefing meeting of clerks of my Quarterly Meeting the day before Martin wrote to ask for input on the question of mentoring and gifts. Here I was all riled up about something and then out popped an opportunity to express it, in what I hope is a helpful fashion. I hope it was helpful to Martin. I know it was helpful to me to sit down and write and edit my thoughts in a way I couldn't do when extemporizing at the end of a rich and busy weekend.

One of the differences for me between oldtime Quaker journals is that (I think) they were only published by people at the end of a long and well-favored career in ministry. Whereas anybody can start a blog. But then, nobody has to read a blog that isn't well-favored with spiritual depth and good writing. My husband pointed out to me that the quality of writing is awfully high among the blogs that we read. And the charity of the discussions is also remarkable among other online groups that I have observed.

I am still skeptical of online discernment, other than as a means of sharing text for reading and editing. It is certainly quicker than putting paper in an envelope in the mail and waiting for the other person to receive it, write on it and send it back.

I can't imagine conducting a clearness process solely online. For membership? For marriage? I shudder.

Anonymous said...


There are several things the net
can do and several it cannot.
Discernment and sense of meeting
are things it is rather horrible
at fostering, for instance.

Can the net have any help for us
in dealing with the *tenderness*
of our concerns (or does it just
help feed its own bloggity culture
of victimology)?

Can the net help us with clarity
of our outreach (or is it just more

Can the net help provide forums
for threshing (or is it just a
place to wax moronic with our
unrequieted overtenderized

Does the net make it
very easy to reinforce
clique-ism and jargon?

Does the net really help us
be better listeners, or just
better able to not have to
listen to what troubles us?

Is there light breaking forth
because of the connections of
the net, or is it just amplifying
unwashed concepts that feed

Is there real fellowship?

Are we able to tell the truth
or stopped by formalities of the

Are we injecting sterility in
our homefires because there is
a shift of our time resource
away from something else?

Do we bring what is precious of
our home communities to the net
or is that even possible?


Yeah, I have questions.

Not so much doubts or caveats,
but queries about what would
even constitute internet Quaker
process. It is hard to see it, yet,
as more than a sum of individual
parts. As much as I'd like it
to be more, I think the net highly
reinforces self because we are
often deluded into believing we
control some aspect of the media.

I am happy to be convinced

ElizabethLynn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ElizabethLynn said...

Hello Friends:
This is my first post. Thanks, Liz, for reminding me of this blog. I did not see how to edit my post, so I had to delete and repost.

The matter of community was raised up in a recent Meeting for Business regarding our dual affiliation with two FGC Yearly Meetings. The corporate spiritual relationship which a meeting might have with a yearly is different from the individual spiritual nurture a Friend might receive by attending or participating in a yearly or attending the FGC Gathering. Part of the meetings' relationship involves the discerning of the way in community with others in the yearly, providing peoplepower and financial support for the work of the yearly, and sharing in the nurture of children. The spiritual blessing of the work of the yearly meeting community (and the monthly meeting community) is different from the personal enrichment which can come through attendance and participation. If I were to attend FCG Gathering, it would be for a spiritual retreat and communion with others, but I would not be there for "work." Some, for example those active in FLGTQ,(forgive me if I have the letters wrong) might be doing work in much the same way that work is required at the monthly or yearly level in engaging in the community at Gathering and elsewhere (especially this coming year).

I suggest this dichotomy as a metaphor for the work of the face-to-face community vs. the online community. The online community would seem to be for personal enrichment rather than the engagement in the hard work that an inperson relationship brings (warts and all), including the working through of tensions, losses, hopes. It seems that a marriage would not work if it were purely online - because we have high expectations of the growth (i.e. the level of truth the parties are supposed to face) that would occur in a marriage. There may be too much of a tendency to withdraw when challenges are met online, vs. the hoped for willingness to continue to work it through at the meeting or yearly level.

Thus, the query:
What is the work of the online community that will create a communal (vs individual) spiritual deepening?

Friend from the Midwest

Anonymous said...

The dinstinction of a "Quaker blog", if taken literally, imbues the blog with no more meaning or intension than calling it a "Jewish blog" or a "Pagan blog". What we generally mean, of course, is that a blog contains content of general interest to Quakers, Jews or pagans.

Certainly there are Friendly norms that Friends participanting in virtual community might choose to follow, such as practicing nonviolent language and communication, active listening, etc. Sadly, I have witnessed many instances of this not being the case.

Just as we claim "explicit norms and boundaries around vocal ministry", this hardly makes vocal ministry meet them.

Virtual ministry seems unacceptable to some and perfecty natural to others, just as beliefs themselves to. I'm not sure that claiming online content as ministry accomplishes much, nor is necessary. Let your lives, online or offline, speak for themselves.

Liz Opp said...

Christine writes, The dinstinction of a "Quaker blog", if taken literally, imbues the blog with no more meaning or intension than calling it a "Jewish blog" or a "Pagan blog". What we generally mean, of course, is that a blog contains content of general interest to Quakers, Jews or pagans.

I would say that that which makes a Quaker blog Quaker goes beyond the content. I have expectations around the Quaker readers and how they will lift up concerns they have around what I post, hold me accountable, tease out of me a bit more of hwo the Spirit is speaking to me.

Inherent within a Quaker blog, then, is an underlying shared experience of Quaker process and listening carefully for the Spirit through the words.

I will concede, though, that ultimately, the content of a Quaker blog is Quaker; and that simply "claiming online content as ministry" may not count for much. I believe this post was written, though, at a time when several Quaker bloggers were wrestling with the question of "What is going on here, what are we doing with these Quaker blogs...?!?

And my answer is: Perhaps we are ministering to one another, but in a new form. Perhaps we are bearing witness to the Truth and to how God is speaking to us, but in a new form.

Maybe this blog is going nowhere. But if I am being faithful to the calling of the Spirit, that is all that matters.

Christine, please continue to share and raise questions, as you are led. I find that this electronic form of exchanges grows me in my Quakerism in unexpected ways...