Questions Not Answers: Pastoral Ministry in the Digital Communications Age Part 1

by Sr. Susan Wolf, SND on September 19, 2017

in ministry, social media

In June, I wrote a book review of “Friending God: Social Media, Spirituality and Community” by Antonio Spadaro, SJ. I promised to follow up with a discussion of some of the insights offered in the book. That discussion starts today with this blog.  Please engage in this discussion with your own thoughts and ideas by posting in the comment area at the end of this post.

Spadaro summarizes “Friending God” with “six important challenges that the age of digital communications poses to the pastoral ministry of the Church.” (pg.65) He explains that

“These challenges would require a change in perspective, a movement forward into the future while maintaining a respect for the past and the present.”

First Challenge

Digital communications tell us that pastoral ministry “is [or needs to be] a ministry that asks questions, rather than a ministry that provides answers.”

My Reflection

Today, people are being bombarded through the various digital media with answers to questions they may or may not be asking. How often do we just “Google it”? Spadaro suggests that one of the challenges we face in pastoral ministry is helping people “decode” the answers they are getting from the world around them.

As we live, study, pray and minister, we accumulate information and experiences that enrich our ministry, but can also hinder it. We can fall into the trap of thinking that we “have the answers” that people need, when what they really need is not our answers, but a way to discern those answers for themselves in the context of their own lives. We can help them by listening deeply and with care and then asking a question or questions that help them look at their lives and concerns with a clearer spiritual perspective.

Isn’t that what Jesus did? It is amazing how many questions Jesus asked. We have heard the gospel stories so many times that we may gloss over how he used questions to “minister” to his followers and his enemies. Here are a few:

  • To Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” Mark 8:29
  • To the disciples of John the Baptist: “What do you seek?” John 1:38
  • After the washing of the feet: “Do you know what I have done to you?” John 13:12
  • To Pilate: “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” John 18:34
  • To Peter: “Do you love me?” John 21:16

Questions to Ask Ourselves about Digital Communications and Pastoral Ministry

  • How do our ministries bring people closer to Christ?
  • Are we stuck in the “giving answers” mode or are we listening and discerning with those we serve?
  • What are the significant questions for today and how and when can we ask them either online or in person?

Note:  We are speaking about Pastoral Ministry in the context of social media, spirituality and community.  We are talking about accompanying people on their faith journey.  We are not talking about doctrine or theology or catechetics.

Your comments are welcome!



Sr. Angela Ann September 19, 2017 at 6:09 am

Always a delight to see your comments and read your insights! Thank you!

Pat Wolf September 19, 2017 at 7:09 am

Asking questions to stimulate discussion is an outstanding ministry approach. Identifying the needs of others and introducing them to Jesus should always be the first step. Doctrine, theology and catechetics will all come into focus as the journey continues and they continue to ask questions.

Marika Donders September 19, 2017 at 8:44 am

The other thing I am finding is that we need to learn to LISTEN to the questions that people are actually asking and then, rather than coming up with the answer, ask them to grapple with the question themselves.
We can ask them “What do you think?” Or “how do you see the situation?”
We can guide their search with resources or by suggesting another way to look at the question: “what if you looked at the situation from the other perspective?”

Diane Vella September 19, 2017 at 9:32 am

After 36 years of Pastoral Ministry, I am struck how there is a growing divide among pastoral leaders between those who use the “question approach” and those who use the “answer approach.” Unfortunately, it seems most of those who use the “answer approach” are those who are in charge of the direction of our worship experiences and our pastoral programs, so it’s been hard – harder than it once was – for us “question” people to make headway. And, as you say Sister Susan, this approach is more needed than it ever was.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn September 19, 2017 at 11:58 am

Great post Sr Susan, thanks for this. Like Diane above, I am struck by the same divide. I am also struck by how places with leaders who are good with questions, still look to the digital world to provide many answers. To that I say, what of the pastoral encounter? Evangelizing?

Example: put every last detail of how to sign up for baptism class or Faith Formation in order to reduce phone calls. As the person who answers the majority of calls, they don’t go to a recording first, at least if we are here, I say no. Grace comes with what happens. If everything from joining the parish to sign up for everything because every “detail” is out there happens online, where is the encounter with Christ?

Just some thoughts on my mind.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND September 19, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Thank you, Angela.

Well said, Pat.

Thank you. Marika, you make a very good point. We all need to listen better.

Sometimes, Diane, the best thing for those who want to listen and engage people is to practice that at every opportunity, perhaps through the opening or closing prayer experience or in small group discussions and always one on one. Truth be told, some people only want “answers” to information questions. With them, we need to address those first, before we can ever go deeper. As you note there are plenty of people ready to do that.

Fran, in my next blog, I will be talking about People vs. Content. But in response to your specific comment I will say this. While some staff want all the information on the website to eliminate phone calls, many people who are not able to call during office hours or just don’t feel comfortable calling the parish office expect and are grateful when they can find the “information” they need on the website 24/7. The important thing is that the information is provided in a hospitable, user-friendly way. People who come to a website and find the specific information they seek, may also find other aspects of parish life interesting and appealing. And when they need to talk to someone, they may feel more comfortable doing it, because they can already tell from the parish website that the staff wants to help them in very way possible.

Thank you all for your comments.

Pat Wolf September 19, 2017 at 4:27 pm

Pope Francis tells us people reach out to us in pain or emptiness and we need to bring them into our family and only after they begin to see and feel God’s love and mercy do we talk about doctrine, theology and catechetics. While they are still in pain those things won’t fill the emptiness or heal the pain.

Diane Lampitt September 23, 2017 at 9:28 am

Thank you for your thoughtful review, comments, and insights! Accompanying people on their faith journey is at the heart of our ministry.

Mary Gannon Kaufmann December 21, 2017 at 5:16 pm

This post is consistent with my own thoughts. My hope has been to stir people up during spiritual direction, blog posts/spiritual writing and in both face to face retreats and online interactive retreats. Following this, we can walk with them as they explore their reactions, thoughts, feelings in order for them to come to truth. This is a very different perspective than inserting the answers from our own processing or even from Church teaching as such. The truth has to become personal and bear fruit in one’s life. Seems to me that God leads us through the loving radiance of truth in the context of our lives.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND December 22, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Thank you for your comments, Mary. I agree totally with your approach and appreciate how well you articulate it.