Julian Assange & the church

Technology has always affected the church. The printing press may have contributed to the Reformation, the telephone changed the speed with which a member could summon their pastor. The automobile multiplied the number of choices laity had for attending church. The Internet is in the process of influencing the church too—how the church communicates with its people, how pastors lead, and how information gets released. This column is especially about the latter—how information gets released.

Just 25 years ago the release of information was controlled by the insiders. Back then the General Board of my denomination would hold an important election, then the denomination’s leaders would orchestrate a ripple-release of the information. The following day an official would mail a first-class letter to all the District Superintendents and College Presidents announcing the decision or vote. These insiders where then to “pass it on” to ordinary folk. Denominational officials could control what got circulated by how they drafted the letter—what they put in…and what they left out. Sometimes decisions and elections occurred that were suspenseful nail biters yet the announcement merely calmly reported the outcome. Some leaders were elected on the 17th ballot yet the release confidently reported only the final victory as if it was a forgone conclusion. Of course there were insiders who knew the details and the actual vote numbers. In those days if you were in with one of the elite you could find out the real story—why a person “really” resigned, or how close a vote really was, but the ordinary people never got the messy details.

The Internet doomed the ripple release system. Then smart phones drove the final nail in the coffin. Now board committee members text out to their friends blow by blow descriptions of insider dramas. By the time the “official release” is sent an hour later 50 people in Florida have already passed on the news to the rest of their denomination. Even when board members are chided to confidentiality, the bucket still seems to leak—at least if you let board members keep their smart phones and they have bathroom breaks.

The younger generation has complicated the problem. Many feel that inside information should not be proprietary and limited to the elites. These folk were raised in the Internet age living the “documented life.” They think nothing should be kept secret and they think it’s a moral issue. They don’t just think they have a right to information—they believe it is wrong to withhold it. So when a pastor is quietly removed and the DS announces “we felt a change needed to be made” younger people want to know exactly what happened—including all the details. Older folk think tell-all reports are damaging to the people involved and blabbering sordid details is not the loving thing to do—for anyone involved. Younger folk are legalistic and judgmental, accusing the powerful elite of self-protection and being inauthentic.

Actually our culture in working through this. The discussion of who has the right to know things and who has the right to tell them surrounds Julian Assange recently. And, each institution, denomination and local church has its own Julian Assanges who like to spread messy reports. Of course, we have always had muckraking and yellow journalism. What is new today are blogs and Facebook. Any single person with Internet access can now report the sordid details of insider shenanigans. Any board member who has a gripe can feed inside information to someone who will publish the whole story for all to see on their blog or Facebook page that evening. That person may only have 500 Face book “friends” yet within 24 hours 5,000 people will have read the story, copied it into hundreds of emails and forwarded it like dandelion seeds. This single report is the only story circulating so people believe it until they hear differently. They seldom do. In the messiest situations leaders seldom give an official release, so the amateur reporter’s story gets believed since it is the only edition out there. Leaders imagine they are “trusted” and feel no need of correcting false information. Politicians have learned otherwise—“an unanswered story become true in people’s eyes unless specifically answered.” Can this be true in the church too?

That’s what I’m thinking about this week. Not wheather Julian Assange is a bad person or doing good in “democratizing information.” Not wheather some lay leader or denominational board member is bad or good in secretly texting their spouse the latest vote tally. Instead, I’m interested in how leaders should deal with this change in the world. Some are proposing a new kind of leadership called “authentic Leadership.” It is a style of leadership that hides nothing from followers, figuring they’re going to find out anyway. Is this a valid approach for the church too? Other strategies emerging are instituting a crack down with forced confidentiality agreements and removing people who ever leak inside information. A third strategy is pulling back important discussions away from leaky boards to have these discussions in smaller more elite groups where no minutes are kept and the leaders ask board members to “just trust u.”

So what do church leader do in this changed world? Should a pastor report everything that happens in a board meeting to the whole church—even non-members? What about a district board or a college board? Should denominational boards report everything to their pastors or keep some things secret? And… are your standards for those “above” you different than the standards for yourself? So what do you think…. how has the Internet and smart phones changed the way we release information in the church?

So, what do you think?

The discussion of this column is on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/profile.php?id=161502633

Keith Drury March 22, 2011

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