From transparency to enlightenment

Second of two parts. (Part one is here.)

By Helen Thompson

Regular readers of this column may recall that earlier this year, I turned down a job offer. What I wasn’t able to talk about in that essay was that part of the reason I turned it down was that there were still unknown doors waiting to open, and in late July I accepted a different job offer that allows me to continue to build my understanding of social media and how it can help organizations grow. It’s a lovely parallel to the thing I was writing about in my last essay, that social media may be the door to reaching the hundreds of thousands of people who are unchurched yet spiritual. If that point wasn’t clear in the last part of the essay, I’m underscoring it now, but that’s not what I want to talk about this time around. Rather, I want to talk about how the Café’s Ethic of Transparency opened the door to this new world.

I think I was invited to participate in the Café because my RevGalBlogPals “Ask the Matriarch” column (which I edited for the first year of its existence and recently resumed doing) had caught the attention of several Episcopalian priests. Truth be told, I have no formal training in theology, ecclesiology, homiletics, or any other of those ten-dollar Latin cognates that compose the Divinity curriculum. I’m barely even a good layperson–I’m not in the choir, not a lay reader, not a Daughter of the King, not on the Altar Guild, not working in the shelter, not.. not.. not.. I’m not even a good tither. Shame on me!

Part of the reason for this, despite the nifty blogroll I have over at Gallycat’s Lounge about the churches I attend and have attended, is that I haven’t been a regular churchgoer. I’ve moved a lot. I travel a lot on weekends. I have joint custody of my son, whom I didn’t raise as a Christian, and so we find other ways of exploring the sacred on Sunday mornings. Sometimes it involves church, but not always, and not even often.

Yet. I am in my second year of Education for Ministry, and I’m very active in several online communities that are based around faith, spirituality and/or the Episcopal Church. But for a long time, people didn’t know that I was me. I’m gun-shy about openly tying my name, Helen Thompson, to my various online handles. I have several. I compartmentalize myself in some ways, packaging the faithy bits at Gallycat, the irreverent bits at Deviathan, the work-related stuff to Exurbanista, the deeply personal journal to Zen Pooky, the reproductive clock angst to Kersplunkity, the Second Life persona to Vahnia, the knitster knots at Knitster, the life-in-the-valley explorations at and so on. One person recently told me that my collection of Web 2.0 presences might be a manifestation of Multiple Personality Disorder, to which I strenuously (but guiltily) objected, knowing, as I do, some people with truly dissociative issues. But when a friend of mine today made an allusion to forming a 12-step group to help those with a compulsive urge to register domain names, it hit really close to home.

Mine is one more akin to the author trying her hand to many different genres and hoping that one will take off. Nora Roberts is J.D. Robb, for instance. In my case, working as a professional journalist and still very midlevel in my career, I had a byline that was a brand, that of Helen H. Thompson. I was worried that if I started writing prolifically about faith as Helen Thompson, it might compromise my ability to find a job. Now, ideally, someday my vocation will merge with my profession and I’ll become a communications officer for the church in some capacity that will still allow me to pay my exorbitant mortgage payment. (I live modestly; honest. Housing prices are so bad in the DC area, even in a cooling real estate market, that I had to move 75 miles west of the Capitol just to get a foot in the door, if you’ll pardon the pun.) But in the meantime, being a Good Christian Person (progessive, conservative, whatever the stripe) can be a liability in my world. When I first confessed to my friends that I had come back to the faith, I was challenged on many levels to defend how a reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent young postmodern woman could buy into the hokey nonsense that was religion. And as such, I was shy. I became Gallycat (first here, then here). Gally, the “fallen angel” of a Japanese manga series, and “cat.”

Enter Jim Naughton and the Episcopal Café and their Ethic of Transparency. OMG, was I going to have to SIGN MY NAME to a post? Scary. Sticking my neck out and admitting that I’m brazen enough to talk about my faith life when I’m oh so very…. me? Scary. Covering anything above and beyond my diocese or interesting news items about faith in the postmodern world? Scary.

Do you remember the first time you ever addressed a group of people, whether it was your first sermon or your first public speaking class or your first time lay reading? It’s sort of like that, at least as I experienced it. Signing my name to a post about faith created anxious tension. Even though I wasn’t hiding my identity per se–just not coming out and saying so or undertaking the daunting task of writing a bio about myself in third person (which I can’t do without making some kind of smartass comment about myself)–it scared me.

But I signed my name. And once I owned that work, I did something else, too. I updated my resume to reflect the fact that I do volunteer work for the church, by helping blog users get acquainted with the technology, by helping the good folks in Second Life get their Anglican Cathedral up and running, by editing stuff for the RevGals and by coordinating posts for the Lead here at Episcopal Café. Just two months later, I was having a phone conversation with the director of a publication who wants to take advantage of these technologies–blogs, podcasts, wikis, virtual worlds, streaming media, RSS, distributed bookmarking, tags, and so on; this world of new toys we collectively call “social media”–and by September I was one step closer to merging my vocation and profession. They hired me because I had demonstrated familiarity with these tools.

I was, perhaps, the Café’s most ardent voice in favor of allowing people to post under pen names. And I was soundly outvoted. But I have come to see the wisdom of the policy. All of us who participate in these forums are part of the future of the church, for better, for worse. I can take responsibility for what I do. But God rewarded me for being brave enough to do so, for being brave enough to open my mind to a new way of thinking—God also let me get credit for what I do.

Helen Thompson directs social media initiatives for an international association in Northern Virginia and is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where she is in her second year of studies in Education for Ministry and plugging away at her first novel. Catch her on the web at Gallycat’s Lounge, among others.

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