In the past couple of years, the Web log, or "blog," has arisen as a new tool for communication. Sometimes, blogs and their writers, called "bloggers," utilize this online diary to record the mundane details of life share thoughts, or simply have an outlet for opinion.
Blogs represent a rising interest group within society, attracting the attention of the politically savvy. Howard Dean's recent presidential campaign was among the first to embrace blogs as a way of communicating a core message to a constituency beyond the more traditional forums of stump speeches and mainstream media interaction.
Indeed, blogging may be the new "word of mouth." And hence the problem arises. As a country entrenched with the freedom of speech, Americans love fostering opinions on anything under the sun. Nonetheless, is there an ethic to blogging so that some modicum of integrity is maintained?
For the past three months, I have watched a few blogs principally written by and for American Baptists.
Generally, longtime ABC clergypersons write these blogs. Sometimes, the blog acts like a sneak peek into one's discernment process of how to respond to the matters of the day. At other points, it is an exercise in off-the-cuff commentary. Like reading the op-ed in the local paper, the onus is upon the reader to distinguish whether or not these bloggers are worth reading.
However, given that the bloggers in question are clergy, one would hope that the same pastoral integrity honed by years of preaching, teaching and leading would govern the blogs that they maintain.
Whether they do this is almost on a case-by-case basis. Blogs are just as potentially troublesome as e-mail. Something written in haste and then sent out can be an occasion for great regret or sheepish recantation. Indeed, blogging can be an opportunity "to get it off your chest" or fall into the same traps of gossip or near-slander of one's ideological opponents.
Perhaps an ethics of blogging is in order. Here are a few suggested guidelines that I would like to offer:
1. If something pressing happens, be pastoral and prophetic, but also let your thoughts simmer for a while.
Bloggers can fly to their computers when news hits and yet fly off the handle needlessly. I have read a few blog entries that have been prone to this. It is better known as "pastoral blather."
It is similar to that dislike of many congregants when a pastor commits "pulpit rage" (the homiletical equivalent to "road rage") on a Sunday morning. Also, it can be similar to that queasy feeling one has when trapped at a pastor's meeting with that one colleague who never knows decorum. This can easily happen in blogging!
Fact checking also seems to be a lost virtue among some bloggers. Suppositions and hearsay are inexcusable and unethical in the pulpit--why not also at the computer keyboard? Bully pulpits feel great when one is behind one. On the other side, though, no one really listens after a spell.
2. The wiser bloggers that I read are ones who pride themselves in having thoughts on the day without placing so much pride in their opinions.
Blogs can be seductive for the ego. Like theology, blogging should be provisional and humble. Perhaps the Rule of Benedict should be a governing tool for bloggers. Benedict wisely advises that we speak only when refining the silence.
3. Remember your ethical necessity to be collegial. Some bloggers just want to take cheap shots. I would challenge these bloggers to try their best to avoid caricaturing those who differ.
Indeed, after some recent denominational developments, I have been appalled at how poorly national ABC/USA staff have been represented in these blogs. One ought to consider one's clergy collegiality with these national staff.
Despite being in a local, regional, or national staff position, we are ultimately all colleagues in ministry. Making your regional or national staff (or in turn, local church clergy) the "other" or the faceless "them" ultimately does no one, even the blogger, any favors.
One key area of respect that I have for national staff has been the sense that we are colleagues in ministry. Thus, when I read the caricatures of folks that I know to be decent people, I wonder less about the negative image being portrayed of national staff and worry more about the implicit collegiality issue that my blogger-colleague has in his/her writing.
Jerrod H. Hugenot of Kansas City, Kan., is president of the Roger Williams Fellowship, an American Baptist grassroots group advocating for Baptist principles since 1935. This column appeared previously on the group's Web site.