Wine and wineskins
When I was still working for the National Church Institutions, I decided one day to get myself in with the digital Jones’ and set up a blog. As I’ve mentioned before, I was a few posts in when the kindly Dave Walker dropped me an email and suggested I might like to check out whether I was okay to be blogging and whether the NCI’s had any rules about staff blogging about church related matters.
The staff handbook was silent on the matter. So I cc’d an email to certain overseers who I thought might be best to ask. They responded by asking me ‘what’s a blog?’. So I explained blogging to them and then it all went silent for a week or two until an announcement was made via the internal weekly ‘All Staff’ web page. The announcement made it clear that any member of staff who blogged about their work or the Church would be considered to be in breach of contract in just the same way as if they had spoken without authorization to a member of the press. The announcement went on to say that there were some staff members who blogged as part of their job (like national youth officers and the like) which was fine, but if that wasn’t you… keep your grubby little fingers off your keyboards (I’m paraphrasing at this point of course).
I can understand why they came down as heavy as they did, but as term ends here at Ridley and the numbers of ordinands blogging here at Ridley and around the country in other colleges creeps up and up and up, I have been led to think about how institutions sometimes react to new things and how they might react to the rising numbers of bloggers in college life.
I guess there is always the danger that the powers-that-be decide to nip things in the bud and come down heavy on us bloggers. We do have a tendency to sound off a little (some of us more than others) and criticism can creep into our posts from time to time. Let’s face it – we have a fair list of ‘powers-that-be’ to choose from; any of whom could decide to make life difficult. Between the Ministry Division, our respective diocesan bishops and our colleges, we are not short of authority figures to rail against or under whom we might find ourselves being sat on.
For example, I can understand why a theological college that is under pressure each year to attract students from a limited intake of ordinands might want to put its best public foot forward and might not look kindly on any blog that is less than complimentary when potential students might be reading. However, I would suggest that sitting on such comment actually makes that institution look worse than it might look if it let it slide and allowed the student’s critique. I personally think that any organisation that cannot handle a bit of criticism looks very insecure. Surely, a mature organisation confident in its mission is not going to be waylaid by a few negative words?
As the philosopher Epictetus is rumoured to have said (and yes, I can’t believe that I just typed that phrase on my blog either):
“If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.”
Instead of worrying about potential negatives, I’d encourage the powers-that-be to recognise the positives. As one of my fellow bloggers and I discussed the other day; if nothing else, keeping such a journal helps us to sharpen up our reflective skills – something we are always being encouraged to do at college. It also encourages dialogue and conversation and from a potentially much wider audience with a far broader churchmanship than we might find in any non-digital environment. What great educational opportunities!
At the same time, I would say that all of us ordinand types who blog have a duty to be careful in what we say. If we are to critique, we had better make damn sure we have good reason and at the very least be tempering any negative comment by looking for the positive as well. Once it’s out here on the web, it’s beyond our control. Even if you delete it, it gets caught in Google caches and sites like archive.org and that, if nothing else, should give us pause.
What follows are a few golden rules that I humbly offer to both ordinand types and institutions feeling threatened for the good of all as we continue in this brave new world. If commenters want to add their own suggestions, please feel free – I’d love to hear them and will be glad to update this article as we go with your suggestions.
Golden rules for the ordinand
- If you say it’s a fact, make flippin’ sure that it is a fact.
- If you get it wrong, be big enough to correct your mistakes and acknowledge those mistakes publicly.
- But don’t delete a post; preserve the original and use notations to show where changes were made.
- If you are referencing something or someone else and the material exists online, link to it so that people can go read and make up their own mind.
- Be honest about your own biases and interests. If you have a vested interest, say so.
- Don’t disclose confidential information… ever. (It should go without saying for people training to be Ministers that we can keep a confidence).
- Don’t blog about issues and topics that, even if not confidential, could jeopardize personal and work relationships.
- ** update ** Might be wisest to keep family as a no-go area. It’s not fair on the family to hear stuff back about themselves from other people who’ve read the blog. (Same sort of issue as whether it’s okay to preach about family). ** end update **
- Keep a fair balance of positive and negative if you do find yourselves critiquing… try the situation in their shoes and see how it looks.
- If you really go for it and sound off in a big way, or if you are not in the best frame of mind that day, just save it as draft and sleep on it before you go ahead and publish.
Golden rules for the powers-that-be
- Encourage blogging and best practice in blogging amongst your students. It could really help them to reflect and discuss what they are learning in powerful new ways. In essence, blogging is an open dialogue and an exchange of ideas – what is more educational than that?
- Take time to understand the technology and the culture that goes with it. Engage! Consider harnessing such technology yourself to run official blogs that might even feed into and from the unofficial blogs of students.
- Take time to think about how priestly ministry could be enhanced by keeping a blog and encourage your ordinands to think on the same lines for the benefit of their future ministry.
- Participate! Get yourself an RSS reader and both read your ordinands’ blogs and, every now and then, comment and be part of the discussion.
- If you get a bit of criticism, maybe you’d look better to outsiders looking in and more mature by allowing the criticism rather than trying to eradicate it.
- If you get a bit of criticism, why not honestly consider whether it’s deserved and what you could do about it.
- Feel free to exercise discipline when it is needed… whether it be in regard to confidentiality, proprietary or third party information. You are still the powers-that-be!
*** update ***
Golden rules for blog readers
- Don’t believe all you read in the newspapers or in a blog. Reader beware.
- Read with a hermeneutic of suspicion! In other words, ask ‘Why has this blogger written this? Who benefits?’
- Receive the blog in the spirit that it is offered; an urge to amuse, a rant of frustration, a dollop of self-indulgence, and a touch of therapy.
- A blog is not meant to be evenhanded and impartial. It is someone’s opinion, like an editorial.
- A blog is deliberately published, the author wants you to see it. If it was a secret diary you wouldn’t know that it existed (duh).
- If you want to understand blogs, have a go yourself. And improve your reflective skills at least.
*** end update ***
p.s. this post was slept on (and considerably edited) before it was published
p.p.s The image is of a laptop which had its casing removed and replaced with solid wood recovered from old wine cases. I kid you not!