In 2004 I became engaged and like a lot of brides, I bought bridal magazines and read online about wedding planning. Even for me, generally a tomboy growing up who never dreamed about her wedding, I got sucked into the multimillion dollar wedding industry in trying to plan every detail. On one of the wedding planning websites I joined an online forum for wedding planning—and unexpectedly made friends that I am close to even now, and I also became their online chaplain.
I never performed anyone’s wedding from this forum—they all had ministers or rabbi’s or JP’s lined up. I never gave any premarital counseling or advice. I was one of them, just trying to plan my wedding and find a photographer.
However, in our wedding planning, and in the first year of marriage, as we vented about how to handle new relationships with in-laws and sharing space with our spouse and couple decisions, at times someone would post about how they were searching for a new job, or having trouble in their relationship, or that a loved one had died—and I offered to pray for them. Eventually, there were so many prayer requests that I started posting a written prayer every now and then for all of us to pray. Without seeking it or recognizing it at first, I became the chaplain for the forum board.
Over the years I’ve helped these women as they have asked questions about religion, faith, the Bible, God, and church. I’ve read posts and private emails of struggles and challenges and have responded, sometimes suggesting counseling (and referrals if they happened to be living close to me). I’ve offered a group prayer whenever it has been requested, at times when there have been major crisis in the world or in individual lives that have been shared.
To this day I have not performed a child dedication or baptism, blessing or marriage for anyone in that group. Nonetheless, I have visited them in the hospital when they have had their children, attended the Hebrew naming ceremony for one and attended baby showers for others, met with them for coffee when some were having a rough time in their marriage, and been available for them if the need to talk in person should arise. As my ministry turned toward retreat leading, I led retreats for the group three times over a year and a half, addressing the questions of seeking deeper meaning in our lives and developing spiritual practice outside of a church community. In turn, they have supported me and offered prayer when I have gone through transitions in my ministry and visited me in the hospital when I had my baby, and attended my husband’s ordination service.
I would not call this a ministry to the unchurched in the typical sense of the term, because most of these women do not and will not go to church. I don’t try to convince them to do so. I always have extended a general invitation to come for Christmas Eve and Easter and other special occasions—a few have come, but most have not. A few of the women go to church on a regular basis. A good number of these women are Jewish, some are Unitarian Universalist, and others would say they are Christian, but the majority fall into the “spiritual but not religious” camp. Some have been burned by the church, some never went to church or synagogue, and many others have just fallen out of believing what much of the church believes, or do not see a necessity in belonging to that particular shape of community . For most of them, church does not fit their needs because they are not seeking a community based primarily on faith. They are seeking friendships, someone to share hobbies with, someone to talk about motherhood or marriage or other aspects of their life with, and faith might be part of that, but not the whole. And when it comes to faith, they want a community of friends where they can ask questions and not be given quick answers.
I’ve been conversing with colleagues over recent years across denomination and religious lines about the need to honor, recognize, bless and support ministers within the community, or Chaplains-At-Large. Some churches are more active in recognizing the call of lay leaders and clergy who minister outside the church walls, but often it is of the hope that someday those people will enter through the church doors. A few churches recognize that the call to this ministry is to be out among the people, and the goal is not church growth in numbers of persons but in vital ministries to the needs of the community.
Online ministry is still relatively new. It goes beyond setting up a Facebook page for the church and tweeting about services. It goes beyond setting up worship services via YouTube for people who won’t walk in your church door. It is about recognizing and honoring the community of friendships being formed online and meeting their needs, but also about creating authentic relationships both on and off line.
Many of us can already be online chaplains, but we may not recognize it. It happens when we join a wedding planning forum, a Facebook fan page, a runners forum or any group page, and are authentically who we are, as called ministers of Christ. For me, all it took was offering prayers and thoughts for people when they shared about their struggles that I was able to step through another door into ministry. My hope is that the church in general and our denominational bodies will not only recognize, but honor, bless, and support ministers who venture into the online world outside of the church doors.