The first immediate blessing of my sabbatical was the setting aside of my cell phone. Pastoring in the 21st century means almost immediate access to one another via the blessing of cell phone technology. I know for most of us, we can hardly remember a phone with a cord in our home, an answering machine, or a world in which we could not text someone and expect an immediate response. The side effect of such a useful tool is abuse of said tool to where it becomes an appendage instead of a tool. Meaning, once you’ve reached a certain point of connection with the rest of the world via the cacophony of apps and sites, you actually can experience nervousness and paranoia when you do not have your device on you. It’s like you are suddenly missing a vital organ or limb when you do not have your phone and it is not fully connected to the rest of the world.
The trickle down of this addiction is that you are never fully in the moment. You may be partially there; somewhat enjoying the hike, kind of engaged in the dinner conversation, following most of the play you are watching, but there is a sense of nervousness that you are either missing something, or at any moment whatever you are engaged in might be interrupted by a notification of someone who wants or needs your attention. Worse yet, a non-essential app notification might ding and take your attention away from the present world and into the virtual one.
In my opinion, there seems to be two types of connectivity: Instantaneous personal communication, and accessible impersonal monitoring. The first type of connectivity does not have to be negative. It is a wonderful gift to be able to instantly communicate with my family living a thousand miles away, or be able to respond to an emergency for a member of our church family. The downside comes when, as a part of your career, you have to be “on” all the time. Personally, instantaneous accessibility to the various challenges of ministry meant my mind was never shutting off. I was always thinking about church. While it may be good to pray without ceasing, and to consistently ponder scripture, it is not healthy for a mind to be in constant problem solving/project planning mode. It is exhausting. So upon leaving my office the Thursday prior to my last sermon before sabbatical, I “disconnected” my cell phone from most of Newberg and try to settle into a new normal of not being on constant call for ministry. This move was a necessity to truly “sabbatical”
The second thing I did was disable my Facebook account. Disconnecting from being able to be monitored and socially monitor other people was also going to be a necessity in order to truly rest over the summer. I call it “monitoring” as what people often do is scroll their friends and watch what they are doing. If they agree with their post, they may post a “like” or a thumbs up, or offer a pithy compliment. If they do not approve of a post they can quickly make their feelings known immediately, and impersonally, via the comments section with little thought to tone. It feels like “social media”, which I originally joined to share pictures of my kids for their out-of-state grandparents, became a “monitoring” site through which we have been given access to sit back and impersonally watch others live their lives. Through social media tools we seem to do our best to monitor the behavior and opinions of our “friends” and police those opinions and behaviors via comments or direct messages. I decided that in order to truly rest, I didn’t want to know everyone’s opinions or activities in real time, nor did I want to be watched throughout the sabbatical.
What was the affect of slaying the connectivity monster? After a couple weeks of twitchiness, I settled into being fully in the moment. I could read my Bible and pray without wondering what will be on my phone when I return, I could hike and camp with my family and not worry about responding to communications, I had longer conversations with people, was able to concentrate on projects better, I even slept better – probably for a variety of reasons I’ll get to in future blogs – but overall, I felt refreshed. Relationally, I came to the realization that social media sites make us lazy friends. What I mean is, we post things online and assume all of our friends are watching our activities (which is a bit narcissistic if you think about it) and then if we bump into someone at the store and they are not aware of what we posted, we are offended. Instead of calling someone and letting them know I am struggling and asking for prayer, I publicly post my problem and hope people notice. Or, as the friend, I am expected to know what is going on in peoples lives due to my observations of their media feed. Social media has created impersonal relationships built upon the flimsy foundation of screen time instead of heart to heart conversations over meals and shared activities, prayer with those who are desperate for it, or just a friendly chat about what is happening in our lives instead of reading about it.
So the big questions became, as I transitioned back from sabbatical, how would I handle reconnecting. As with everything in life, having the appropriate boundaries and employing moderation has been key. Several apps I had before are no longer on my phone, I have “Do Not Disturb” hours set on my phone (which can also be programmed to allow certain numbers to pass through in case of emergency), I leave my phone out of the room with notifications off when we are playing a game as a family, I keep the phone in another room at night when I go to bed so I can’t screen scroll before going to sleep and so I can’t grab it as I get up and check for texts, news, and weather before my feet hit the floor. Additionally, wife has permission to take my phone at any time if it seems it is causing me to be distracted from the moment. Finally, I have tried to discipline myself to know that I do not have to respond immediately to all communications that I receive, unless its an emergency. I trust people know me well enough to know that I am not rudely ignoring them, but instead, something else must be going on if I am not responding immediately to a text.
The other “big step” was turning my social media account into a family affair. To cut down on my consistent interaction with Facebook, I now only follow family and friends who live far away. The friends I have in Newberg I can talk to at church, have lunch with, text with, and have human face-to-face interactions with. Those with whom I am separated by miles and mountain ranges are the ones for whom my social media is reserved. I do not follow news sites or blogs on my Facebook account, but it is solely to follow family news and the life developments with whom I am geographically separated.
What lesson do I hope to pass on to you through these rantings regarding the connectivity monster? My hope is you’ll take a moment and reflect on your social media intake and technology use. Be honest with yourself. I already had boundaries on my phone and social media use prior to sabbatical and I still struggled at first to disconnect. None of these media tools are bad in and amongst itself, but like many useful tools, it has become an addiction and preventative to healthy personal relationships. Consider what boundaries you may need to place in your life regarding your phone, your social media use, or other areas that have been an obstacle to healthy human interaction. Reducing your screen time will be more painful than you think, but I can attest to my experience over the summer, it is more than worth it!
***Side note: I highly recommend the documentary The Social Dilemma currently on Netflix. It is an eye opening expose’ on the negative effects of social media on our society as a whole.