The Garden Church

Initial key insights & analysis from survey materials

  1. The Garden Church is in its earliest stages locally, but has been in a careful, detailed “cultivation” stage for at least a year. A great deal of thought, vision, research, strategy, prayer and implementation has gone into its creation.
  2. It has terrific widespread (non-local) support (including financially) with its board, through social media, networking, and through word of mouth.
  3. Thus far all of those involved have some personal connection with Anna (friends or relatives), the Swedenborgian denomination, Wayfarer’s Chapel in LA where she preaches once a month, and the seminary community.
  4. The small local worshipping group is on the cusp of emerging into a visible church and community garden, as it moves into “phase 2”—having its own plot of land and a visible identity in downtown San Pedro.  Detailed groundwork and negotiation has gone into this next phase, and all indications are that it will bear beautiful fruit (both literally and metaphorically).
  5. Anna is a gifted, charismatic leader and visionary who also can plan and organize effectively (qualities not often found together!)  She is also disciplined and has strong, healthy boundaries.  But even with a strong supportive network and solid volunteers, it’s lonely and scary to be the “founder” and sole paid leader creating a whole new kind of way to be a church.
  6. The partnership with Green Girl farms for the gardening piece of the community seems to be a key, essential, vital collaboration.  Green Girl Farms provides gardening expertise, resources and support.
  7. The concept of a church focused on the environment, gardening and a food ministry, working together, worshipped informally, and sharing a meal together, has strong appeal to the “spiritual but not religious” types so common among the populace today.  These folks also stated that they are drawn to Anna’s passion and charisma.  They also are interested in practices that are engaged in the world, that feel authentic and that are not so focused on closed systems of doctrine, creed and belief.  They want to work out their own beliefs in the context of caring community.
  8. Planting a non-traditional church in a new community, even for a gifted, skilled and well-prepared leader is not for the faint of heart!  One must be adventurous, creative, confident, adaptable, and hard working, and feel absolutely called to it!
  9. Anna has done extensive and strategic networking in order to connect to the knowledge, resources and energy that will be essential to the realization of the vision.  In addition to denominational, seminary and financial networking, she is in conversation with Nadia Bolz-Webber, Doug Pagitt and Sara Miles – all who have expertise and success with emerging ministries.
  10. If this is a historical period of significant cultural or spiritual change, this period of change and uncertainty will require that we experiment boldly while simultaneously engaging in deliberate and focused efforts of discernment.  That process is unfolding right here – this effort to experiment and then discern is what we are doing here.  This process needs to be supported financially.  Anna has gotten funds from regular members and attenders, from folks pledging from afar, from a couple of large “angel investors” and from some crowdfunding efforts. How can seminaries support this important research, this experimentation and discernment?

Social Media as Ministry

Research results of four unique online ministries
By: Mandy Ford, Scott Wagoner, and Susan Flynn

Over the past decade, social media has become a pervasive and alternative form of communication for the majority of society. Platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and blogging have become a way to share a variety of messages and interact with practically anyone in the world. In the world of ministry, social media is a powerful and easily accessible vehicle for connecting with others spiritually. Often relegated to a building (ie, temple, church, synagogue), spirituality is now an
open-source experience through the use of social media, which has enabled people to connect with one another as well as share their experiences right from their own home or smartphone. Social media has become an avenue to reach out to an audience that often feels disenfranchised or excluded from the traditional church. In this project, we interviewed four individuals and researched the unique online ministries they offer, each covering a variety of religious and spiritual ground.

Victoria Weinstein is a Unitarian Universalist who shares her message through two online blogs, PeaceBang and Beauty Tips for Ministers. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, in addition to her role as a full time pastor. QuakerSpeak, led by Friend Jon Watts, has a mission to share the Quaker faith with all who are curious to learn more about its mission and practices. Through informational and insightful weekly videos, Quakers share the unique qualities and history of their faith. Mary Graham is a non-denominational Christian who shares her faith and other musings on her blog, Trusty Chucks. She describes herself as a “rough around the edges Jesus follower” and her passion and talent for writing are evident in her posts.  And finally, Jim Palmer is an author and “religious deconstructionist” who left his work at a large non-denominational church to find his spiritual journey. He connects with people interested in non-religious spirituality through a variety of social media platforms.

Mary Graham is an English teacher who has had a love of writing since her middle school days. She began her blog, Trusty Chucks, seven years ago as a home for her writing projects. Over the years it has evolved into a way for her to share her faith and other life stories. She felt led two and a half years ago to start writing about her faith journey on her blog, and said that the growing success and popularity of those posts shows her that she is following the right call.  Her writing is honest and shares her questions and doubts about religion and faith, with a humorous side that is fresh and relatable. She describes her writing as letting people know they “can still love Jesus and not have all the answers.”

Mary spends 2-4 hours per week writing for her blog, and publishes 2-3 posts per week on topics including faith, marriage, motherhood and book reviews. One of her recent blog series was titled “How Jesus Ruined My Life” in which she shared several ways Jesus brought her to a better place in life through difficult and sometimes painful changes.

When asked about what she shares online she said. “I’m not editing what I actually put in the post, but I am editing what posts actually come up. I can’t sensor myself. I don’t know how to do that well. For the most part, I think that’s part of my appeal to people as I don’t edit myself much. I don’t get embarrassed easily, so I could talk to you about anything, and I don’t feel like it’s weird or I don’t regret it.” Her authenticity is what makes her writing so popular and relatable to her readers.

Mary stated in her interview, “The person I am online is the person that you would meet in my living room or at the local watering hole. There’s no pretend Mary Graham.”

Mary’s following has grown over the past two years as she has started sharing her faith online. And as she has gotten bolder and more honest and open with her writing, she has seen a rise in followers as well.  Most of her online followers do not know her in real life, as with the majority of social media followers.  The majority of her readers are females age 24-47, although she has seen a rise recently in an older demographic. Her followers are mostly Christian but not Bible readers, and she thinks most use her writing as a supplement for their faith life.

Because Mary’s writing is long form, she shares her main posts on her blog and then links to them on her social media. Most of her followers read her posts on her blog, but she does see a good deal of interaction on Facebook, which lends itself to easy interaction and sharing of longer bits of writing. Mary shared that her true interaction with her readers and followers comes through blog and facebook comments and good old fashioned email. “My true readers sign up for my emails, and they get those to their inboxes.”  She likes to have true conversations with them, which is easier to do through platforms that allow longer dialogue. “The other social media platforms, not talking about Facebook, but Twitter and Instagram, they are pretty self-contained. I don’t see a lot of traffic coming from those.”

When asked what her followers get from reading her posts, and if they are a replacement for an in person faith community, Mary replied, “I don’t know if it’s a replacement, but maybe in some ways. I think the way I write and the way I present things, my hope is that it is a jumping off point. That you’re not just coming to me for everything, but if you are, I’m going to give you some truth while you’re there. And I’m going to encourage you to go learn some things on your own. Because it’s dangerous when you only listen to one person that tells you everything about Bible, too.”

One of Mary’s followers stated, “I love how real Mary is with her writing. She doesn’t always say things the most eloquently, which I consider a really valuable and good thing.  It’s different and more authentic than other Christian writers.”

There are many ways to market your online presence, both paid and unpaid. Mary was clear when asked about this and shared that she relies almost solely on organic marketing. Most of the traffic that comes to her blog and other social media platforms is through her posts being shared on social media, someone finding her through an online search, reading one of the articles she writes for the Huffington Post or a few other websites, or from meeting her in person.

She gets a good deal of exposure through articles she publishes on several websites including the Huffington Post, although they do not all offer financial compensation. “Huffington Post does not pay. It’s all done for free. You do it for exposure, and that’s a huge platform. It opens a lot of doors.” She does receive payment for other sites she writes for, and does an occasional sponsored post on her blog to cover expenses, but otherwise chooses to not participate in paid advertising on her blog or through social media.

“I think so much of the Christian faith is about relationships. I can only do that to a certain degree on social media. I can tell people my story, but they’re going to need someone in their life that’s speaking truth to them or can be there to listen or talk to because I can’t do that role. My prayer would be that this isn’t the only place that they’re getting an authentic view of how to be a Christian.”

Led by Friend Jon Watts, QuakerSpeak began two years ago as an interactive way to answer basic questions about Quakerism and further, broaden, and deepen the conversation about Quakerism in the US and around the world. Jon was using YouTube as a place to share his music and decided the platform would be a good venue to share videos about the Quaker faith. The weekly QuakerSpeak videos have now reached over 500,000 viewers.

With a target audience of Quakers and friends of Quakers, the videos are a way to start online and face-to-face dialogue about Quakerism. Jon wants to create a doorway for people to come through into learning more about Quakerism. “I would say maybe one in five of our videos are intentionally created to answer some of the basic questions,” Jon stated. “And to create that doorway for people to come through. The other videos are a combination of partnerships with other organizations that are intended to further and broaden and deepen the conversation that Quakers and their networks are having. “

QuakerSpeak video themes have covered basic Quaker topics and also move into more challenging issues such as gender roles and war tax resistance. Some themes have been: Are Quakers Amish?, Who Is Quaker Meeting For?The Challenge of Sitting in SilenceThe Quaker Practice of DiscernmentHow Modern Quakers Challenge Gender Roles, and Why Quaker Cemeteries are Different. Jon arranges and conducts all of the interviews face-to-face which requires an extensive amount of work and travel to arrange. Jon describes the interview process as a “gift” saying, “It’s a real humbling honest check on my energy towards another person and my judgment of them. And it’s a real opportunity to just totally channel love and belief in someone because that’s when I’m doing my job well.”

One of the challenges Jon said they face when creating the videos is giving an accurate portrayal of the Quaker faith, due to the variety of interpretations across the spectrum. Quaker silence and how it is used, for example, proves to be difficult to explain. “To make a whole minute video about what it is that Quakers are doing in that silence, and what it is that we’re being invited to is actually a real challenge,” Jon stated. “Because we want to include every single possible answer to that, so that people don’t think that they have to be narrowed into this box in order to join us. If we don’t lift up something, we’re lifting up nothing.” A new video is shared weekly, which is another large challenge of the project, creating new content on a weekly basis. Jon also does the editing and online sharing to YouTube and other platforms.

Jon used the term “God called marketing” when asked about how advertising is done for QuakerSpeak, “I believe that God can call us to marketing. I believe that we can feel a leading from the Spirit to insert ourselves into the popular public forums of conversations. The thing that Quakers bring to that is our sense of personal accountability and faithfulness in the most important thing that we hold up.”

The videos and their social media platforms receive a mixture of incidental and intentional traffic. Many find the videos through social sharing and Google searches.
A lot of Quakers not only share the videos amongst themselves, but share them with their social media networks to start the conversation about “I’m a Quaker.” One difference between QuakerSpeak and the others we interviewed is that they have a budget for advertising and do pay for ads on YouTube and Facebook. Jon is also paid for his work as the director of QuakerSpeak.

QuakerSpeak’s close tie to Friends Journal helps tremendously. “My office is here in the Friends Journal Offices, and Quakerspeak videos and Friends Journal articles often have some cross-promotional aspects to them,” stated Jon. “We have a page in the Friends Journal every month, which shows a big thumbnail of a Quakerspeak video. People are getting that in print as well as online.”

Aside from online marketing, there is something to be said for the real life work Jon is doing, traveling and interviewing Friends for the videos. The people who are interviewed are going to share the video with their networks, which casts a larger net for QuakerSpeak’s exposure. “And of course, the face-to-face aspect as you mentioned, is that I interview people,” said Jon. “That’s the format of our videos. It’s a pretty personal one-on-one conversation that gets highly edited and hosted.”

QuakerSpeak has seen steady and consistent growth in online following. From the end of the first season to the second, their video views have risen from 150,000 to over 500,000, with the most watched video having over 20,000 views. Jon mentioned how it would be great to have a video go “viral” but at the same time he would rather have consistently increasing traffic, knowing they are making a broad impact. “We could have spent all the money that we got in that first year on one video easily, on one idea that we hoped and prayed would get 150,000 views. And instead, we methodically, insistently, creatively, released a video every week, and we got 150,000 views.”

The videos create a large amount of dialogue, both online and face-to-face. YouTube and Facebook offer space for interaction and on Facebook the videos are shared frequently. One good example Jon shared of online interaction was in reaction to their video “The Top Seven Most Quaker Bible Verses.” Jon stated, “Mark Wutka, the Friend who was the subject of that film was very gracious and said this is my list of top seven and I’m interested to hear your list of top seven. So, we did get a lot of comments on the wall mostly very friendly saying, “That’s a great list and here’s what I would add to it.”
I think that it did end up feeling like a very Quaker Bible study.”

Jon enjoys seeing the deep and fruitful conversations that arise in the comment sections after people watch the videos. He said it is exciting when people reply that they weren’t interviewed for this topic, but want to share their feedback or experience. Jon said this really helps to broaden the conversation beyond the person who was interviewed.

For Quakers, Jon hopes the videos help to supplement their faith experience. Meetings have started using their video “What to Expect in Quaker Meeting for Worship” on their websites to introduce visitors to the Quaker faith. They are also showing the videos to their members as a way to start “faithful conversation” on issues facing Friends, as well as supplement adult religious education. QuakerSpeak also released a DVD for Quaker Meetings that might not have access to the internet at their meetinghouse, so they can watch a video and have a discussion group around it.

“For me, personally, I believe that Quakerism is going to grow and be more vital when we‘re talking about it and when we’re more faithful,” Jon said. “What makes us more faithful is to be challenged, to be invigorated, to be excited, to be in connection. I think our videos do all of that. They challenge people. I think that they invigorate people. They connect us. Their primary purpose is to start that interaction and a lot of the conversations that happen on social media that helpfully springboard into real life.”

Jim Palmer lives in Nashville, Tennessee and is an ordained minister, author, activist, speaker, spiritual director, and leading figure in the non-religious spirituality movement. Palmer received his Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Divinity School in Chicago, and served several years as a Christian pastor. In 2000, Palmer left professional ministry and began chronicling his journey of “shedding religion to find God.” After leaving professional Christian ministry, Palmer served as U.S. Director of Education for International Justice Mission (IJM), an international human rights organization in Washington, D.C. He traveled through South Asia with IJM as part of an operation to free children from forced child prostitution and child slave labor. He is currently an adjunct college professor of Ethics, Linguistics, and Comparative Religions in Nashville. In 2012, Palmer founded The Religion-Free Bible Project, an effort to create a paraphrase of the Bible, free from the religious bias that Palmer believes has been imposed on it.

Jim’s book include, “Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you), “Wide Open Space: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity”, “Being Jesus in Nashville: Finding the Courage to Live your Life (Whoever and Wherever You Are), “Notes (from over) The Edge:Unmasking the Truth to End your Suffering” and “Inner Anarchy:Dethroning God and Jesus to Save Yourself and the World”.

Jim describes himself as a “religious deconstructionist”. He often tells folks that he left organized religion so he could discover his spiritual journey. In his own words, Palmer describes his writing as an attempt in offering “…an alternative understanding of the story of Jesus and his message compared to what I think a lot of people have heard through their involvement in traditional Christian church.” Those who follow Jim on his blog and social media postings tend to be folks who are interested in, according to Palmer, “nonreligious spirituality”. He adds, “These might be people who have left organized religion. They might be people who are spiritual but have never necessarily been very interested in affiliating themselves with some sort of official religious organization.” Through Jim’s writings and postings, his followers have found a home and a “sacred space” in which they can work through their own spiritual journey. What is challenging and exciting is how many folks are discovering social media as a “sacred space” in which they can discover community while on their unique spiritual journey. It doesn’t seem to be replacing “bricks and mortar” spirituality – the kind where folks show up at a building, but it certainly is offering an alternative and one in which many people are accessing and implementing.

For Jim, social media has three roles as he implements it to provide community for those that follow him and are seeking to discover their unique spiritual journey. First, social media provides a connecting point for those interested in nonreligious spirituality. Being able to connect with others is key and social media provides individuals a way to connect with others without ever leaving their home or having to attend an event. These connections may be through the blog, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. However it occurs, social media offers a way for folks to link up and connect even if they are geographically miles apart. Second, social offers a safe place for people to ask questions and dialogue about their experience. Social media offers a certain level of anonymity that allows folks to feel safe in expressing their doubts and questioning their faith. Deconstructing one’s faith can be a very emotional and difficult journey and the safety offered through social media allows folks the opportunity to do so without the fear of ridicule or shame. Third, social media is integral in connecting folks seeking a tribe of people where they feel accepted and welcomed. Many of Jim’s followers have experienced some level of non-acceptance or judgment or they fear their ideas would not be accepted or welcomed. Social media offers a community of folks that is inclusive and receptive and offers a level of acceptance that allows folks to feel safe in seeking their own spiritual journey.

Social media offers Jim and his online ministry three opportunities. First, it provides an avenue for Jim to publish his content and share his journey. In previous years and generations, people spread their ideas and message through the printed page. This printed page could have been pamphlets, books, or even magazines and newsletters. Today, social media and the Internet provide an immediate way for individuals to publish their content and make it available on a wide basis. Much of Jim’s ministry to date has been augmented by the presence of social media and the Internet. Second, it has offered a direct way for folks to connect with Jim’s online journey. Social media and the internet provides a type of intimacy that offers folks a view into one another’s spiritual journey. This enables Jim’s followers to connect with him in a deeper way as well as bond with other “spiritual explorers” who are on a quest for a more authentic spiritual experience. Third, a cyber-community is formed in which followers are able to support and encourage one another each other as well as engage in honest dialogue with one another. Community is a longing for everyone and is basic to the human condition. In order for community to be formed, there needs to be a level of acceptance and welcome as well as a feeling that this is a safe place. The dynamics of social media offer a way for individuals to feel accepted, welcomed, and safe in their spiritual search and questions. For some, the community they find through social media while exploring their spiritual journey may be their most important and primary community.

Jim doesn’t use just one form of social media. He tries to employ as many forms as he can in order to be accessible. Jim’s primary form and medium is Facebook. This has been the most fruitful for him. Through Facebook, Jim is able to post quotes, thoughts, or even portions of his book. He is even able to engage in video chats. Through Facebook, followers are able to read Jim’s post and then respond with their own thoughts and questions as well as read the thoughts and questions of others. A dialogue is often created that serves to offer a deeper exploration of spirituality. Jim does use Twitter but he considers Twitter to be more one-way communication then two-way communication. He feels it’s helpful for the sharing of information but not as useful in creating a dialogue or conversation. One of Jim’s favorite social media platforms is Instagram. He likes the way Instagram uses pictures to communicate visually what a person is feeling, thinking, or wanting to express. He also feels Instagram is a great vehicle for self-expression. To that end, Jim often uses Instagram to capture moments of him in daily life. He feels it’s a very helpful way for him to express his humanity and his presence in everyday living. He may post pictures of himself after a long run or a picture of his dogs. Either way, his followers get a chance to see the real Jim. Skype is another medium that Jim uses for such experiences as online coaching, webinars, and interviews. He also hosts online meditation events as well as dialogues and conversations. His next step is to develop online courses that package his content in a more digestible format.

How do some of Jim’s followers respond to his online presence? One follower offered this view: “Jim’s perspective helps keep me open to seeing and understanding God in a whole different way…and being open to God in a new way.” Another follower describes their experience in this manner: “Jim is very honest, authentic, and real. And he has a perspective of faith life that is very un-cluttered and de-churched.”

Victoria Weinstein, a Unitarian Universalist parish minister since 1997 does many of the things we traditionally associate with usual clergy roles; preaching, pastoral care, and church management within the walls of a church in Lynn Massachusetts. Where Weinstein strays from the stereotypical ministry role is found in her active online presence, she has two blogs, and is an avid Tweeter, Facebooker and has begun exploring Tumblr and Instagram. She has been featured in the Boston Globe (2007), been on NPR, featured on Nightline, appeared on Sunday mornings with Liz Walker and has done many workshops and speaking events as a minister.

When Weinstein went to college she was writing on a typewriter, and upon entering seminary at Harvard Divinity computers were just beginning to be used with some regularity. Now as a minister who is almost 50 she can carry a mobile phone with her wherever she goes which is essentially a portable computer. Times have changed technologically. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are woven into almost every aspect of American life connecting people to information and resources faster than ever experienced previously in history. When Weinstein first began blogging she wanted to explore theological and ministry topics that excited her and were not being addressed formally. Her intention was not originally to create another avenue for ministry. As her blogs became well followed they evolved into Reverend Dr. Victoria Weinstein’s “Independent On-line Ministry”.

She has two blogs PeaceBang and Beauty Tips for Ministers. On these sites, she covers a vast array of subjects ranging from prayers, sermons and liturgy to movie reviews, political commentary, and fashion advice for clergy. Weinstein stated she wanted to give people another place to think and engage theologically. When she writes for PeaceBang she has committed to” write about church in a way that might make somebody fall in love with it or the idea.”, focusing on providing more ways for people to expand their concept of what it means to be spiritual and faithful. Alongside theological discussions, she also shares video clips regarding current events or ways to professionally conduct oneself such as how to be successful in a skype interview.

Weinstein’s Beauty Tips for Ministers has 6-7 thousand views daily. Mostly non-Unitarian Universalist followers, (her U.U. followers mostly visit her via Facebook), and many are un-churched or unaffiliated with a church. The tagline for this Beauty Tips for Ministers is “Because you are in the public eye and God knows you need to look good”. She gives advice on proper attire for ministers (both men and women), and gives make-up and fashion advice that promotes a professional clerical image. Weinstein addresses that people (ministers included) need to be attentive to their mind, bodies and souls on the blog; “In this space, we are free to remember that although we work from our hearts and our souls, we are also incarnate beings and that our appearance does matter.”

Weinstein is very committed to her church in Lynn and has been transparent with them about how her online ministry is different from her congregational ministry; they have been supportive of her fulfilling both. She is intelligent, confident and bold and is not willing to apologize for her views even if they push the tradition edges of ministry.

The Internet provides a space that is inclusive to those that are geographically or physically challenged. “[Online ministry] provides a conversation about religion in places accessible to everyone at all hours of the day and night, that is not denominationally organized by age, faith traditions, expectations or institutions. So it’s comforting to people”.

Weinstein has met many people online and developed friendships and colleagues in 11 different countries through this work; believing that it is entirely possible to have meaningful and spiritual nourishment online, and find thriving communities. Weinstein’s goal is not to replace the in-person church experience with the online ministry, but as leader and minister she wants to stay faithful to where people are gathering and what their needs are. She quotes Willimon saying “God has left the building and is not interested in real estate.” Weinstein is passionate about her on-line ministry and warns that if you go online you must be fearless, ready for both good and bad feedback, trolls and stalkers. She used the analogy of the Internet being a bit like the “Wild West”, people can do very damaging things online and we are still learning how to address things like cyber-bullying, and character assassination. The Internet can also be a force for good and has demonstrated that it can provide an innovative sacred space for community and spiritual seekers all across the globe.

The people who follow her online stretch across faith traditions and secular crowds listing that she has; Jewish, Buddhist, U.U.’s, Atheists, Muslims, Protestants, “Spiritual but not Religious”, and ex-religious followers. Her Twitter following had regularly 6-7,000 followers that decreased when she started tweeting about racial justice issue to 2-3,000, but then it rose again with followers due to that same issue. When she started her online ministry, the online community had more of an attention span to read an entire blog post and comment. She is finding the amount of time people commit has lessened online, so videos and short, engaging tweets seem to hold people’s attention currently. Weinstein often asks herself “how is Holy Spirit working through your ministry” in all of the work she does.

Weinstein appreciates how immediate and dynamic the online community is, stating that “Most people have a high B.S. detector and they will lose interest if you are intentionally trying to get their attention”. She has worked to make sure her posts are authentic, relevant and worthy of engagement; she has never tried to write for a particular audience or make money through this ministry. Weinstein has used the online community to organize social action, get a sense of a diversity of opinions regarding many issues, and collaborates with ministers around how to deal with trauma regarding any national crisis.

Marketing has been mostly accomplished organically through people sharing Weinstein’s work online. The workshops, shows, and interviews she has contributed to created specific marketing for those events, but she did not generate them. Weinstein said the best advertising she ever experienced was being featured on the front page of the Boston Globe (2/18/07).

Weinstein has been blogging now for over 10 years, been a parish minister since 1997, been on T.V., the radio, in the pulpit, and doing social action in the community. “I’ve advised ministers all around the world or a lot of the world – about 11 different countries. I’ve written thousands of posts. I’ve answered thousands of thousands of emails. I’ve consulted with hundreds of ministers. I’m done it overall, but I won’t stop because no one is doing it. And I can’t retire until I have made enough progress to say my work is done. My work is not done.” Weinstein is interested in passing down what she has learned over the course of being in ministry online and in the pulpit. She really enjoys consulting and teaching and has been thinking about writing a book.

Weinstein has been faithful to her online ministry attending to it daily and has been amazed at the people she has had the opportunity to meet and work with from it. Her independent online ministry has proven that there are many people excited about connected in faithful ways through the many avenues of the Internet. We are missing something as ministers and future church leaders if we neglect the possibilities that are available to us online to engage with people in a meaningful and faithful way. Victoria Weinstein has a head start on most of us, online ministry it is a pathway that is worthy of more faithful travelers. It is up to us if we answer the call to new forms of community, sacred space, and ministry. As Reverend Dr. Victoria Weinstein affirms in her question and position; “Where are the people covenanting, that we can reach, talk to, and create community with? Right now? Online. That’s one thing we know, so I plan to be there.”

In addition to interviewing Victoria, Jon, Jim and Mary, we also conducted a survey of those who follow them online. This group was compiled both through asking them for names of their most involved followers, and researching their online presence to see who was interacting on a consistent basis. We emailed three or more followers of each of them a survey asking questions about why and how they interact with them on social media, and how they see this person’s online presence as a part of their faith or spiritual life.

Out of all of the responses, the majority of people said they check in at least once a week, with many saying once a day or a few times per week, to read and interact with new posts. And the overwhelming majority of these responders said that they do this either through the person’s blog or Facebook page. This speaks to the nature of blogs and Facebook, allowing the most interaction and conversation, versus other platforms like Twitter and Instagram. One follower of Victoria Weinstein’s blog said she appreciates “a social space to talk about one aspect of my vocation with folks who have similar interests.” One QuakerSpeak follower said they appreciate the “quality and execution” of content, and another shared they are “encouraged to see Quakers using the media in an effective format.”

While each of these ministers offers content across a wide variety of social media platforms, it is obvious through the research that their followers each have different reasons for the platforms they choose. Those who read blog posts or interact on Facebook are looking for deeper content, want to read longer posts, and the majority also wants to enter into conversation. On Twitter and Instagram, followers are looking for quick doses of inspiration, humor, or insight. And in many cases there is a division between these two distinct groups of followers.

Another area the survey focused on was asking followers if they currently are a part of an in person faith community, and whether online ministry supplements their faith life. Of those we surveyed, 66% were currently a part of an in person faith community, and an even higher percentage had been part of one at some point in their life. 66% of respondents, regardless of affiliation with a face-to-face faith community, said that being part of an online faith community does supplement their spiritual life.

Respondents were given a list of areas in which their in-person or online faith communities might impact their spiritual life. Respondents from all but one of our four groups said following online ministry helps give their life meaning, explore their spirituality, and probe deeper with their religious beliefs in a larger way than a typical church service. One surprising finding was that Mary Graham’s followers answered positively to her posts giving them a sense of community. This probably stems from the fact that she does a very good job of interacting with her followers by replying to their comments and continuing conversations with them. None of the followers from the other three responded positively to receiving the same feeling of community.

One of Mary’s followers left this feedback, “At 70 years old I have seen a lot of changes in how our nation has expressed faith. I have seen a lot of people/clergy/churches try a lot of things. Mary is an example of what our changing society needs to attract her generation to become more like Christ. She is honest and practical. And she is sincere.”

Another surprising finding from the survey results was that at least one respondent from three of the four said their traditional church doesn’t provide meaning for their life. We didn’t pursue that issue on a deeper level but it is certainly a topic worth exploring further.

Overall, it is overwhelmingly apparent that social media plays a valuable role in the faith and spiritual life of many people, regardless of affiliation with a denomination or in person faith community. It is hard to tell from the small sample we interviewed and researched for this project how far and deep it reaches, but based purely on the amount of ministers who have added social media to their outreach, we know that it is gaining momentum and cannot be ignored as society moves further into blending online community with face-to-face interaction.