One of our most pressing research questions when we began this project was about the kinds of skills theological educators should be challenging their students to develop.
It’s obviously a subjective matter. The interviewees’ disciplines often seemed to shape their answers, as did their level and type of involvement with faith communities outside their ministry training institution.
That’s why we interviewed so many respected leaders, to try to build some kind of consensus. After the first couple of interviews we began looking for patterns and themes. Sometimes a later interview introduced a new literacy. More often than not there were repeat answers too.
Because this area of research is new to theological education—and because we hope this work will lead to the establishment of ministry training standards—we wanted to present a manageable number of literacies. Even more importantly, we wanted their names to resonate and to be as self-explanatory as possible.
In June of 2016, we gathered ten study participants and a guest facilitator from the Wabash Center for Teaching & Learning in Theology and Religion. A major portion of our time together was devoted to reviewing and refining the names we’d come up with. Further analysis, conversation, and wordsmithing have led us to include seven in this Toolkit.
Here they are, in no particular order:
- navigating hybrid and digital cultures
- convening hybrid and digital community
- maintaining a posture of experimentation
- cultivating a spiritually wise digital habitus
- presenting authentically and pastorally online
- connecting media theory and theological reflection
- creating and curating faith-based media artifacts
Obviously, these literacies are not mutually exclusive. And we know they won’t include everyone’s priorities. But they represent our best effort to enumerate crucial competencies for ministry at a time when technology is reshaping culture and religion practice—and hopefully vice versa.
Continue scrolling for literacy descriptions, interview excerpts, real-world examples, and resource links to model assignments and classroom practices for developing each literacy.
Literacy Description: Ability to move with confidence through many relevant spaces and communities online, including hybrid spaces that have a strong correlation to a particular face-to-face community. Includes knowing and using the social conventions of a particular online community, making connections between in-person events and online reflection, etc.
“Anybody can put something up on YouTube. That doesn’t mean it’s gonna get any traction.”
“I wonder, too, about ways in which we encourage people to move conversations online or offline. When does a conversation that begins in person, when would it really be helpful to spread that network of connections further? When does it makes sense to help people know how to discern when to come offline? To know the balance between the limits of a particular medium.”
“One student [did] a lot of research into other LGBTQ pastor Tumblrs. He uncovered quite a few of them … Ev’ry Day I’m Pastorin’ hit the nail on the head. It was just an exemplary use of Tumblr. That use of the gif and the humor. He was like, ‘I’m not really a pastor. I don’t really go to church. I don’t know much about it, and yet I feel like I can understand and relate to all this. I would read this Tumblr just because it’s funny and it’s interesting.'”
- Ev’ry Day I’m Pastorin’: A Tumblr blog that uses the verbal and visual style of this network to reflect on the joys and challenges of leading congregational ministry. (Hat tip: research interview subject.)
- @BroderickGreer: An Episcopal priest and writer well-known on Twitter for his active participation, fearless advocacy, and humor.
- Humble Walk Lutheran Church: “A community of folks gathering around about the West 7th Neighborhood of Saint Paul.” Coordinating and growing an embedded, distributed church requires excellent use of popular digital communication tools. (Hat tip: Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral.)
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Literacy Description: Ability to bring together groups online and help them flourish as communities—learning from, supporting, and otherwise engaging with each other. These are “Art of Hosting”-type skills applied online. An example might be forming an online Bible study group where there is broad participation and a sense of momentum and focus.
“I can have students straight out of college who hate technology because their only experience of it is the worst elements … They never learned how to be a part of real conversations. They never learned how to shape relationships … and so they are deeply almost scarred by it, right?”
“When I’ve talked with pastors who’ve taken the lead and tried to do more digital presence with their congregations, it’s almost always positive. A sense of, ‘It really made me feel connected to my parishioners, or my parishioners feel connected to me in a new way,’ or, ‘I watched other parishioners connect with each other.'”
“The age old question [is] how do you get people to engage? Just because it’s easy to engage doesn’t mean that people will and it doesn’t mean that they will consistently. If you’re developing a digital strategy as part of your adult ed program or whatever, the question remains, how do you get people to buy-in? When there’s no real carrot and there’s no real stick, how do you get them to really be engaged?”
Literacy Description: Orientation that will allow ministers to explore new tools, try out strategies, and otherwise innovate (and simply keep up) in a fast-changing digital landscape. Evidence would include a comfort taking up novel practices and a willingness to learn from (and not to assiduously avoid) failure.
“The literacy of the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, to unlearn, and to learn again.”
“A lot of people get so scared about doing all of this stuff: because I just don’t know how, I’m going to make an ass of myself … That’s part of the fun. And you just go with it, and that should be somehow the comic relief part of the training … The biggest failings … are part of the learning process.”
“I’m very, very about making mistakes, giving things a shot, learning from an experimental attitude. It may be a complete disaster, and I’ve told them that multiple times. ‘I’ve never done this. Who knows?’ [Use] the educational experience as an opportunity for wonder and experimentation or to just see what happens.”
- Digital Outreach at St. John’s / San Juan: This presentation at e-Formation 2017 reports on a series of mostly digital experiments led by Lorenzo Lebrija at a struggling congregation in San Bernardino. His takeaway: try everything!
- Hybrid Faith Formation Cohorts: This second of three articles about the CMT@VTS’s experiment in online + in-person learning communities gives a sense of the excitement and messiness of developing new ministry models.
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Literacy Description: Ability to apply the insights of spiritual traditions to the daily practice of digitally mediated social participation. This might include establishing clear boundaries with parishioners, using technology for prayer in appropriate ways, and taking a regular “tech sabbath.”
“[Students need] first and foremost, the ability to listen carefully.”
“I just think we’re swirling right now. We’re in a context [of a] fire hose of data, which isn’t even information, and little opportunity to learn the practices of deep community. I think religious communities have more to say about … silence in community. In other words, there’s a certain kind of unplugging from devices and being in silence, but just doing it in isolation … Even monks are always in community. “
“When a student in ministry leaves an appointment, then do you unfriend every Facebook friend that you have from the previous congregation? … Which is the standard of practice for the time—the ancient time prior to digital media. You didn’t keep in touch with people from congregations. [It] actually raise[s] a broader set of categories, I think. Boundary questions as a whole, not just transition boundary questions.”
- Sabbath Manifesto: It should surprise no one that Jewish communities have led the way in applying sabbath thinking to the challenges of digitally cluttered lives. “Avoid technology” is the first of Reboot‘s ten sabbath principles. Don’t miss their National Day of Unplugging—and adorable “cell phone sleeping bag.”
- Pray-as-you-go: Jesuit Media Initiatives produces this scripture-centered daily Ignatian meditation. In about twelve minutes, listeners experience bells, music, a repeated Bible reading, reflection questions, and a prayer prompt. It’s an inspiring example of a very old practice finding new life via new media.
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Literacy Description: Ability to explore, claim, and present in online spaces appropriate traits of religious leadership, paying particular attention to continuities and discontinuities with one’s in-person identities. This literacy involves questions of authenticity, authority, vulnerability, and intentional ethical conduct.
“They may already be on social media for their own selves. They have to think about it differently when it’s their church or their pastoral presence. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.”
“[We should be] empowering students to have some agency in how they use technology to get across their values, and their culture, and their message rather than imitating somebody else. Even though that person is set up as though they’re hugely successful and aren’t they wonderful?”
“I would say some of the case studies that were most compelling were pastors or leaders that had a very authentic video presence. It became really clear to me, as a frontier of digital literacy, learning to be comfortable with the short, pithy video format is hugely important. “
- @JesKast: Reformed pastor who brings her whole self to her online presence, and in the process challenges her followers to bring their whole selves to their lives of faith.
- David Gortner: We realize it’s not hugely helpful sharing Facebook examples, since most content on this network isn’t fully public. But the author of Transforming Evangelism has a real knack for reflecting on the spiritual aspects of his and his family’s life in a way that is accessible, inviting, and appropriately intimate.
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Literacy Description: Ability to critically reflect on new media theory and practice from a theological point of view and on religious belief and practice from a media studies point of view. A “synthetic” literacy of interdisciplinary connection and application.
“They haven’t had the opportunity nor have they been pushed necessarily to think about some of the theology behind what they’re doing.”
“I go through the media studies with them and say, now if you have just taken their primary communication tool away from them [youth], even if that’s the right thing to do, what is happening here? … I think for me I want to get students into the complexity of these issues both from the lived experience of the people showing up in their ministries as well as them as leaders making choices about how they will engage them.”
“We are aware that social media is influencing theological discussion. The big change is that more people feel empowered to be doing theological reflection. As I tell the students, every believer does theological reflection. You may not call it that, but you’re doing it. You’re asking yourself, ‘How do I believe this or what does this mean?’ Some people are professionally trained at that. The difficulty with that is they become almost too narrow.”
- Networked Theology: Media studies scholar Heidi Campbell teams up with theologian Stephen Garner for a book-length reflection on “negotiating faith in digital culture.”
- The Digital Cathedral: Keith Anderson establishes and illustrates the metaphor of the medieval cathedral as a model of networked ministry.
- New Media Project Theological Essays: A group of scholars, journalists, and pastors studied how digital media were shaping six faith communities and offered these reflections to supplement their more descriptive case study work.
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Literacy Description: Operational fluency with tools and methods for both constructing and critically collecting new media genres and objects. Using Mozilla’s Web Literacy categories, this is the ability to “write” the Web. Creating a simple, short, first-person video with an intentional audience on YouTube or Facebook Live is a paradigmatic example.
“The best project … has been a project will allows them to make a film, really primarily so they learn more about the process, what happens to experience when it gets translated into video form.”
“[For class] they had to create stuff. They had to blog and they did digital storytelling … I would say it was a way to [ask] how to engage the public voice and formation. How do you do ministry in that public sphere?”
“The way that faith and spirituality seeps into everyday life … It’d be interesting to see a congregation take that up and really curate whole digital spaces around expressing that and capturing that and documenting it … listening to people tell the stories about, ‘Well, why did you take this photo? Why is it this Bible verse that sits on your desk at work? What is that about?'”
- #gifbible: In March 2017, Lutheran pastor and serial media maker David Hansen began telling the (entire!) story of scripture on Twitter via animated GIFs. Hilarity (and often poignancy) ensued.
- This Everyday Holy: Mihee Kim-Kort is a writer and Presbyterian campus minister. While no longer active, her lectionary reflection podcast is beautifully produced, incorporating audio elements beyond the simple interview. This Advent episode features another media creator extraordinaire, Jim Keat.
- Father Matthew Presents: Less than a year after Salman Khan founded Kahn Academy, an Episcopal priest in New York began creating short teaching videos. Nine years later his YouTube channel has nearly 3,500 subscribers and 400,000 total views. Our favorite? Biblical Inerrancy.
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