Pastoral supervision in a digital age The COVID-19 crisis of early 2020
The initial crisis of the year 2020 was a record Australian bushfire season, making international headlines.' As the last of the fires were extinguished with late February rains, the bushfires were quickly forgotten—except for the victims who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods—as a new crisis gripped the world: the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses and doctors in hospitals replaced volunteer bushfire fighters as the new heroes as the world’s oldest and biggest cities succumbed to exponential infection and death rates. From the Colosseum in Rome to Central Park in New York, the world entered lockdown. At the time of writing, a second wave is emerging with some of the economically poorest nations (Brazil, India) experiencing rapidly rising infection rates and death tolls. It is near-impossible to predict the situation three months from now, with interstate travel for Christmas 2020 improbable. Will this crisis be forgotten as quickly as the devastating bushfires? Or will the health and economic impacts of coronavirus dominate the next decade or more? The question of trust has emerged as paramount in a crisis because it is usually a matter of life and death. Whether you are fleeing the approaching firestorm or sheltering in place, the advice to ‘leave now if it still safe to do so’ or ‘stay at home’ matters immensely. Some people are considered trustworthy for their leadership and expertise, while others falter or fail in a crisis. During the Australian bushfires, Shane Fitzsimmons, the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, became the most trusted person in the nation, while the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, fumbled the crisis and looked like a wounded political leader.2 By Easter, Shane Fitzsimmons had all but disappeared into a new role as the Commissioner of Resilience New South Wales, while Morrison’s leadership recovered from the ashes. Morrison, reborn, rose in confidence and clarity. The fortunes of political leaders varied enormously. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, led her country on the path of eradication with some of the most extreme restrictions outside of Wuhan Province, where the virus originated. Boris Johnson initially bluffed and blustered his response before becoming seriously ill himself with COVID-19. His extreme vulnerability in the intensive care unit, where he later confessed it was ‘touch-and-go’, and his heartfelt gratitude for the (foreign) nurses and National Health Service workers who cared for him around the clock, echoed the chorus of so many, particularly those on the political left, and may be his double recovery. Leaders who admit and learn from their mistakes are trusted. On the other side of the Atlantic, the circus that often passes for American politics shows little sign of abating. President Donald Trump, trusted by few outside his base, is one of the few political leaders not benefiting from the crisis, where the United States of America continues to lead the world in both infection rates and deaths from coronavirus.3
The fluctuating fortunes of political leaders is just one instance of trustworthiness in a crisis. The current crisis has put other features of life in a digital age under close scrutiny. From the mainstream media to the iGods of social media, from organisations with global reach such as the World Health Organisation to the person standing too close to me in the line at the supermarket, this crisis has also created a pandemic of fear.4 Perhaps a new fear is the longer-term impact that enforced lockdowns—with much of life conducted via digital means—is having. Some are asking how to be more present and limit distractions.5 Others are noticing that being busy is killing our ability to think creatively.6 Research documents that the increased time spent on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms is linked to poorer sleep in teens, a growing concern for many parents.7 And spiritual and theological reflection on the paradox of virtual intimacy is just beginning.8
Surveying the promises and pitfalls of the digital age
Two quotes, spanning the 30 years since I entered theological college, capture the promise and the peril of pastoral supervision in the digital age. In 1985,Jacque Ellul insisted that‘the spoken word .. . ushers us into another dimension: relationship with other living beings, with persons’.9 By 2015, Sherry Turkle was sounding a dire warning that ‘we live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection’.10
Since my first full-time ministry appointment in 1989, mentors, then coaches, and now pastoral supervisors have gained prominence in Christian ministry. What explains the emergence of these set of helping professions? A constantly changing ministry context demands fresh reflections which lead ultimately to new perspectives and fuller understanding. Christian ministry, understood as a lifelong calling, inevitably makes Christian ministry workers lifelong learners. With the traditional classroom disappearing or evolving rapidly in most providers of theological education, where do clergy or church workers go to have good conversations about ministry? I have been observing and reflecting on the form and function of conversation for the last 20 years. In 1998, 1 noted how conversations on mobile phones were
Pastoral supervision in a digital age 33 changing the initial greeting from ‘how are you?’ to ‘where are you?’11 Now, in 2020, many aged 40 and under would consider a voice-only conversation over a phone itself a novelty. Text messaging, social media, and emojis have changed conversation patterns even more radically. I turned 50 a few years ago and anticipate another 20 years of active ministry. Given the changes in conversation over the last 20 years, I find it hard to imagine what changes the next 20 years hold.
Social networks are new kinds of connection, altering the way we connect and conduct conversation and develop and deepen formation (as well as make and mature friendships and engage and enliven fellowship). In the digital world, a combination of search engines, home pages, newsfeeds, and links regulate what publicly available information appears on our personal screens. This process is hidden beneath a complex combination of preferences, trends, and mathematic algorithms invisible to most people except the technologically curious. While ‘fake news’ has gained attention during the U.S. presidency of Trump, the research on how digital interactions are shaping conversation and formation is fairly limited.
While conversation has varied through time and across space such as writing letters, telephone conversations, and emails, the practice of conversation envisaged has been face-to-face. Contemporary life in the digital age has challenged conversation in radical ways: mobility, busyness, professionalism (people enlist the support of paid professionals such as therapists and life coaches for conversation rather than the friends who have a storehouse of wisdom, pray for you, and are always available), and compartmental-ism (life existing in different spheres or networks comprising work, sport, church, etc.). There are both possibilities and pitfalls for supervision in the digital age. In his recent encyclical Ladauto Si, Pope Francis named the contemporary pitfalls for many:
When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches.12
While online dialogue shares many of the characteristics of traditional conversations, it has changed its contours in significant ways. First, personal conversations have become more public and that cultivates boasting. Personal preferences (including food and friends), private details of a more intimate nature, and achievements, milestones, and celebrations are shared with a range of people. Some or all of this will be liked, loved, commented upon, shared, or retweeted. The ever-present dangers to conversation of selfishness, utilitarianism, and individualism have evolved, adapted, and flourishedin the digital age. French sociologist Jacques Ellul warned against the devaluing of language for propaganda and its diminution of relationships more than a generation ago: ‘language is a call, an exchange. It is not true that language exists only to communicate information ... if we spoke only to convey information our relationships would be greatly impoverished’.13 I have witnessed a growing trend recently among my circle where people are abandoning Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms for this precise reason: impoverished relationships. A second shadow of digital conversation is the destructive potential of online conflict whose mood is constant bickering. Many conversations escalate quickly into arguments online where flaming, trolling, bullying, and even cyber-stalking are ever-present dangers. Those of us responsible for moderating online education forums and discussion boards are all too aware of how quickly this can happen and how damaging it can be. The third—and related—destructive potential of conversations online is bullying, which is finally getting the attention it deserves. James K. A. Smith has likened the impact on his adolescent children to Foucault’s idealised prison where ‘the space of the home has been punctured by the intrusion of social media such that the competitive world of self-display and self-consciousness is always with us. The universe of social media is a ubiquitous panopticon’.14 A common complaint made against graduates of theological education is they are arrogant, argumentative, and aggressive. Clergy and ministry workers, it seems, are not immune to these cultural forces of boasting, bickering, and bullying.
Some wider social forces have also been at work during the last couple of generations that have widened the gap between Plato’s ancient style of Socratic dialogue and digital dialogue.15 First, capitalism has made us greedy and devalued relationships as another commodity to be bought and sold. Second, an increasing number of office, leisure, and home environments are designed around the digital age (such as communication devices, computers) rather than embodied human interactions. Machines produce until they break, when they are repaired or replaced. Humans need spaces to think and reflect for life and relationships to be meaningful. Yet too often friends are treated like another piece of equipment. Third, reliance on technology produces another equally sinister effect on our lives. Competency and efficiency (what computers and other machines are good at) is more highly valued in a digital age than compassion and relationships (what humans are good at). The hallmarks of friendship (reciprocity, equality, proximity, and preference) are expected to deliver digital-like competency and efficiency at the expense of core human values: compassion, integrity, love, and justice. The cultural forces of capitalism, mechanisation, and advances in technology make it more difficult for us to host good conversations in the digital age.
The pitfalls of life in the digital age are too numerous to list and become simply overwhelming. It is hardly surprising that a new phrase has emerged when people seek to escape its ever-present demands and distractions. Less than a generation ago the phrase ‘going off-grid’ suggested someone retreating to a wilderness location without running water or an electricity supply
Pastoral supervision in a digital age 35 from the grid. Now it commonly means someone who is disconnecting from digital life for a period of time, while not accessing the internet, email, social media, SMS, and even voice calls. This chapter, aware of the many pitfalls, will survey some principles for supervision in the digital age. How do we proceed from principles of education to practical transformation? Are educative conversations enough to sustain pastoral supervision or can we be enabling collaboration and wider communities? Most controversially, I suggest that an over-reliance on transforming practices in supervision obscures the teleological promises that sustain and hold the pastoral supervisee. For these to occur, pastoral supervision must evolve from the analysis of critical reflection to be animated by Christological praxis.