There was a fire hydrant in front of my childhood home in Valdosta, Ga.
Twice a year, firefighters would drive up in their pumper truck, perform maintenance on the plug, paint the exterior and flush the pipes.
It was amazing to observe the water’s raw power as it quickly flooded the ditches and made a delightful, muddy playground.
Now, several times a week, a faucet opens and I’m flooded – not with water, but with communication, information and expectations.
For instance, as I returned from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia fall general assembly a few weeks ago, waiting for me were two voice mail messages on my work phone plus a half-dozen calls during the day, twice that many on my cell, a mountain of email to return, several Facebook messages in need of reply, various text messages, three letters requesting action, two scheduled appointments, two walk-in appointments and a crucial hospital visit to make.
I doubt my experience is particularly unique.
On any given day, I’m surrounded by two phones, three electronic types of communication and paper correspondence, plus meetings and sudden crises.
I frequently feel like I’ve stepped up to the water fountain for a sip of water and someone opened a fire hydrant.
With our 24/7 world and unlimited opportunities to stay connected and share information, it is easy for clergy to find themselves consumed with the relentless assault of messages and the anticipation of pastoral response.
And it’s only going to become more challenging.
A church member recently asked me to create a Pinterest account so she could share Advent images and ideas with me.
Of course, I said, “What’s Pinterest?”
My teenage children tell me that Facebook is for old people now; they much prefer Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.
I’m bombarded with folks who want to connect with me through Linkedin or share articles via Reddit or Stumbleupon.
The pace of technological innovation and the growing access through portable devices poses a double challenge for clergy.
First, there is the pressure to use an assortment of new communication tools while maintaining proficiency with established skills.
Second, there is the stress of finding the time to answer emails, return calls, respond to texts, schedule appointments and visits and reply to Facebook comments.
Yet we are being given unprecedented opportunities to reach, share, network and cooperate with members of our congregation and to be part of a growing Christian community beyond the walls of our local congregation.
How do we manage these challenges?
- Exercise Sabbath.
The underlying meaning of “Sabbath” is to stop and find rest. Placing boundaries – even daily limits – on phone calls, email and technology allows for the opportunity to accomplish other tasks and to have a reprieve from the constancy of communication.
One colleague, on her days off, records a voice mail message and leaves an automatic email reply stating that she will not be responding to communication.
Another carves out segments of his morning and afternoon schedule for responding, but also has times when he purposefully turns off phone and email. I don’t usually check email, texts or Facebook after 9 p.m.
The disciplines of stopping and organizing are essential skills if we are going to manage productively the information and technology surrounding us.
- Be honest.
It is not always possible to stop, but we can slow down the flood by managing our limitations and dexterity.
After months of handwringing about Twitter, I recently joined. Not only did I create the worst username, I quickly found that I couldn’t keep up. Connecting to Twitter only added to my stress level.
The ministerial temptation to be constantly accessible is greatly abetted by smartphones, tablets and a dozen communication apps.
A candid time audit might reveal that we are spending too much time or stewarding our time poorly with constant attention to electronic and phone communication.
Additionally, the pastoral calling to be authentically present in the lives of our parishioners – not to mention spouses, family and colleagues – might also be diminished by our distraction and information saturation.
- Practice, practice, practice.
We are equipped with unparalleled resources and technology with which to minister to our congregations. The power to communicate, care, teach, reach – even to pray – is astonishing.
But the technology and devices combined with their growing proximity to every corner of life challenges pastors to develop practices that direct this power in Christ-centered paths.
It is only going to get more complicated and overwhelming. So we’re going to have to keep practicing.
Edward Bolen is the pastor of Milledge Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, Ga. A longer version of this article first appeared in the February/March 2014 edition of Visions, a publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.