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Christians discuss challenges of ministry through email

ERLANGER, Ky. (BP)–Like 90 percent of the ministers in America, David Wallace uses electronic mail in his professional and personal life. But for the new associate pastor at Montgomery Community Baptist church in neighboring Cincinnati, Ohio, this efficient method of communication will never replace face to face conversations.

“One of the frustrations I have with e-mail is if I have something sensitive to discuss with a church member, I’m afraid the printed word will not convey personal feelings,” said Wallace, who recently concluded 17 years as a staff member at Erlanger Baptist Church.

“So I will call someone or have lunch with them,” he said. “In personal conversation you can have all the color and depth that e-mail doesn’t. Being an authentic person requires human touch and being with other people. Jesus ministered through human touch and conversation. He did miracles by touch.”

Wallace’s comments reflect one side of an ongoing discussion within religious and professional circles over how e-mail and other Internet-based communication affects people socially and spiritually.

Part of the problem in assessing the situation is a lack of studies about it, according to a past president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

But James Wyrtzen of New York believes that e-mail fosters more human interaction, not less.

He recalled how a 15-member e-mail group helped him wade through some personal difficulties two years ago. By using e-mail to exchange reports in advance, members of a professional association can spend more time in periodic, face-to-face meetings discussing personal issues, he said.

“I think I get closer to people,” the counselor said. “I don’t think it replaces human contact but it allows me to connect with them more often. I can talk with a friend in Oregon and see how his cancer is; I don’t think I would have done that as often by phone. I think part of spirituality is being connected.”

However, Suzanne Coyle, director of Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children’s Cornerstone Counseling, believes there should be a balance between electronic and human conversation.

Noting that many in the mental health field are debating the ethics of counseling via the Internet — something she opposes — Coyle said the main question is how e-mail is used.

“It depends on what kind of relationship you want it to be,” she said. “If you just want information, e-mail is fine. If you want more, it’s better to have more alternatives for communicating.”

The desire for more human contact led the vice president of one Kentucky company to place limits on e-mail usage, which he said has improved the office climate.

“We send e-mails back and forth and take 20 minutes when five minutes of talking could have solved the problem,” said David Dearie of Brown-Forman.

Along with casual dress, last summer Dearie declared Fridays an e-mail-less day for 26 employees. Offenders are fined $10.

The executive said when he introduced the idea at a corporate conference, he received a standing ovation. A newspaper article in late December about the practice has generated more than a dozen calls and letters.

“It struck a nerve,” Dearie said. “The idea of coming in and having a morning cup of coffee has been lost. Everyone heads for their computer terminals. It’s like we’ve all become e-mail junkies.”

Even supporters of e-mail’s efficiency and its ability to establish far-reaching contacts admit e-mail can go too far. But many Christians think its advantages outweigh its disadvantages.

Vicki Hollon of the Wayne Oates Institute in Louisville, Ky., uses the Net to circulate institute publications, continuing education courses and other attempts to foster dialogue between the religious, medical and social communities.

Hollon observed that letters were once considered a very personal way of communicating, with electronic writing a new form of an old practice. Her worldwide interchanges include talks with her daughter, who is studying for a master’s degree in Scotland.

E-mail users tend to eliminate judgments based on race, income, weight and facial features, she added.

“E-mail is very much high touch,” Hollon said. “There’s nothing inherently personal about being face to face. If we’re not sharing out of our heart, we can have very poor interpersonal communication.”

Steve Ayers of Hillvue Heights Church in Bowling Green, Ky., saw how e-mail can foster closer human contact when he did doctoral studies several years ago at Drew University in New Jersey.

His study group met solely online, while another attended traditional classroom sessions. When everyone gathered on campus for a two-week summer session, the electronic group interacted more often than classroom students, he said.

Web-based video conferencing also enables him to conduct staff meetings when he is traveling. Even when everyone is in town, Ayers commonly sees young staffers checking hand-held computing devices for messages.

He admits to using e-mail more than the telephone, but warned that ministry can’t be done solely through the Internet.

“It doesn’t replace human interaction,” said Ayers, whose church has grown from a few dozen to more than 4,000 in the past decade. “The church should say, ‘We are the place where you can come for human contact.’ We use technology to enhance the ministry, not drive it.”

In addition, the question of losing touch in the Internet age ought to prompt Christians to ask themselves what they are doing to create more interaction with the world, Ayers said.

“Maybe (we) need to have a church-less Sunday every once in awhile and go see what people are doing,” he suggested. “The church was isolated from the world before e-mail existed.”

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  • Ken Walker