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A Social Media Chaplain? Sure, Why Not?

Occasionally I like to bring to our readers attention something very different that will create some thought or reaction. Since it’s a Sunday, what better way than to bring you an interview with Jon Swanson who takes as one of his titles, Social Media Chaplain.

Now most people have heard of hospital chaplains, fire department chaplains, police department chaplains, army chaplains etc but this is truly a unique claim in the world of chaplains. That works well because Jon is a unique guy and has been kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his calling in the social media space.

So you know, Jon hangs out with the A-listers in the social realm. I was introduced to him by Chris Brogan (not personally but Chris and I are ‘friends’ on a ‘one of 160,000’ kind of level) and Jon spoke at the #140 Conference in Detroit. Honestly, he has been so nice to me and has been so responsive to questions I have that are well beyond this interview’s scope that I thought it only fair to introduce him to the rest of you. Oh, and in case you are wondering, I am pretty sure the social media chaplain post is an unpaid position so Jon works his day job as Executive Pastor at Grabill Missionary Church in Grabill, Indiana.

Frank: How did you get your start in social media? Was it for your church or was it something you did on a personal level?

Jon: Nope. This one was just me. I started blogging for myself, taking some essay kinds of writing I had done for years and pulling it online. Out of that I started building relationships, moving to twitter, facebook, myspace and some other stuff no one remembers.

For most of the run of a podcast that Becky McCray and Chris Brogan created called “The Great Big Small Business Show” I contributed as the guy who wasn’t at all an entrepreneur, but shopped from them. I did a stint as a contributor at GNMparents.com, and now I write occasionally for Smallbizsurvival.com thanks to Becky.

At Levite Chronicles, I’ve been pretty much an essayist.

In 2007, I did an advent blog, kind of a digital advent calendar. The next spring, I did a group blog as a lenten series.

And then 2009 I started 300wordsaday.com, a daily devotional kind of blog. I write 300 word posts 5 days a week on following Jesus. The first year was walking through the book of Matthew. The second year has been more scattered.

During the end of 2008, I was looking at changing jobs. I couldn’t talk to anyone locally. So I had a small group of friends online that were my sounding board. I even listed a couple of them as references. In fact, at the time I listed one of my friends, we had never talked face-to-face and yet I listed him as the reference for a job as pastor. I figured that the committee ought to care about how well I could talk with people as people, in unusual settings.

Frank: When did you start calling yourself the social media chaplain?

Jon: I’ve gone to SOBcon for the past three years. It’s a great intimate conference for bloggers. Before my second year, I was trying to decide what it was I do in relation to social media and faith. I had talked about social media pastor, but somehow, it didn’t feel right. I thought about the chaplain idea, search the phrase “social media chaplain”, discovered there wasn’t one, and was settled.

What I’ve discovered is that it is a title that people understand. There are hospital chaplains and military chaplains and police and fire department chaplains and many people are familiar with the idea. In fact, it makes more sense than pastor for what I do in this space.

Frank: Have there been any real negative responses to your title?

Jon: Nope.

Frank: Is your social media activity pastoral in nature or would you say it is more about providing caring? How willing are people to “let you in”? Have you developed relationships as a chaplain or as a pastor on Twitter? Is there a difference? (Note: I know I ask too many questions at once but please remember I am a blogger :-) )

Jon: Hmm. I’m not sure how to answer that, since I’m just me. I am a pastor, a shepherd. And I care.

I would love to believe that I have formed relationships as Jon, a guy who knows something about God and something about life and something about pain and something about video and something about church and something about being a dad.

I think that a huge part of social media at its best is the social component (as opposed to broadcast media or print media). And the only way people “let you in” is as a person who shows up.

I often feel pretty ineffective in how I engage. I’m not good at facebook. I only follow about an eighth of the people who follow me on twitter. But, the people I follow are people I care about, people that I want to know better and stay in touch with.

So, I don’t know what question that answers, but it’s a start. :)

Frank: How did you get hooked up with some of the social media “big boys” like Chris Brogan and Jeff Pulver?

Jon: Chris and I met online back in 2006 I had seen some of his guest posting and linked to a couple of posts on time management. He commented on the link and we started conversing. It has been a great friendship, on and off line. Through Chris I met Jeff. (Actually, to be honest, through Chris I met almost everyone I know in this space. But that’s true for lots of us.) Jeff is a great “first thing in the morning on twitter” friend. He’s usually there between 6 and 7 ET and we often exchange a morning hello.

Frank: How were you received at the #140 conference?

Jon: The conference in Detroit was a great time. In these conferences that Jeff pulls together, there is a cross-section of people who use social media talking about how it fit into what they do. I asked Michael Buckingham (@holycowcreative) to be part of the conversation. People listened, laughed, and have followed up. (View their presentation here).

What was fun for me is that often when I’m talking at church, I have to explain social media AND an ordinary language approach to following Jesus. At the #140 Conference, everyone already understood the social media part.

Frank: How has social media impacted how you do church? Has it at all?

It’s a really funny thing. I started all my social media work before I came to the group of people I work with now. So when I came, I gave the names of a couple of my SM friends as references and the staff looked me up on Facebook. But it took awhile before people started to read anything I was writing.

Now, I will write stuff and then have people in a small group start talking about what I wrote, and then I will write about that conversation. My two worlds are slowly blurring. This summer, a handful of online friends met in our building here for a writing retreat.

But that’s normal social media convergence stuff.

The biggest impact probably is that I have worked very hard to not sound churchy in my online writing. I try to use ordinary language, and that has crept into my teaching and preaching and conversation.

And, I’m way more aware of relationship in both worlds.

Frank: What’s next for you on the social media front? How involved are you with 501 Mission Place? What can we look forward to from the Social Media Chaplain?

Jon: 501MissionPlace.com is a wonderful community for non-profit executive directors. I was part of the early conversations that led to it, and now try to participate in the conversations there. Having grown up with a dad that worked in this world and then having spent my adult life in higher education for 15 years and now in church stuff for a decade, I have a few insights about what works and doesn’t.

And I’m planning to keep hanging out in the social media space, having conversations, being available.

Thanks to Jon for taking the time to answer my questions. I selfishly hope that Jon is available for a long time because he is a real breath of fresh air in a space where things can get strange to say the least.

Here are the many ways you can connect with Jon in the social space. I hope you do whether you are Christian or not. I know I have learned plenty since getting to know him and I feel confident that you could too.

@jnswanson
300 Words A Day
Levite Chronicles

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    social media is a tough one

  • Aussiewebmaster

    Can he do marriages on Twitter?