I was once a young pastor in a new church. Some had decided that it was time for the choir to go. They put me in charge of pulling the plug, and told me they’d take the blame.
Of course, it didn’t work. I was left with the blame for the decision.
I remember the night the choir assembled to confront me. I walked in the room and could sense the tension. I knew I would face the heat that evening, and that I could do nothing to prevent the evening from turning ugly.
I’m glad the Internet was in its infancy then.
If these events took place today, I’m sure someone in the room would go home and post their complaints online. Others would join in. Opinions would be expressed, verdicts rendered, judgments executed.
That evening, pre-Internet, strong opinions were voiced. The meeting was painful, but the damage was contained to the people who were actually present, and a few others who heard about it through word of mouth. I had work to do to regain trust.
It wasn’t the last mistake I made in those days, and some of them were stupid. But none of them were magnified by the Internet.
The Internet’s a blessing. Some wrongs merit being reported. Some news deserves to be spread.
But the online world can also make it hard to deal with conflict. Looking back, I would handle the choir situation differently today. I had some growing up to do. But I worry today that some of our leaders don’t have the chance to learn from mistakes or resolve conflict when the conflict goes online.
Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t make excuses for pastoral misbehaviour. We must confront wrong when it happens. We shouldn’t hide scandals or make excuses.
But we must also resist the temptation to normalize posting about our grievances within the church. “It is a sign of a perverse and treacherous disposition to wound the good name of another, when he has no opportunity of defending himself,” wrote John Calvin. Calvin knew nothing of the Internet, but his statement applies to what often happens when we post about our grievances.
I worry in writing this article that it will appear that I’m talking about a particular situation, or that I’m addressing a particular website, group of people, or podcast. I’m not. I’m also not suggesting that there isn’t a time to rebuke wrongdoing publicly (2 Timothy 5:19-20).
I am arguing that we need to be careful about the power of the Internet to make bad problems even worse, and to bring greater harm to everyone involved because of the nature of the medium.
I was a well-intentioned but clumsy pastor who benefited from the mostly analog world of not so long ago. Now, just twenty-some years later, those days have ended. But maybe we can realize those days weren’t all bad. Maybe we can learn to resist the temptation to move all of our conflicts online, and to avoid making the conflict bigger than it needs to be, not just for the sake of clumsy pastors, but for the good of everyone involved.