In May 2011, 75 clergy and laity interested in how the church is evolving met at Stony Point Conference Center for three days of worship, fellowship and exploration. Then Unconference participants met in smaller groups to discuss how they might be of service to the greater church.
Sixty-seven-year-old grandmother Abbie Watters joined a group that was focused on using social media to “expand and enrich” current programs in the church. “I Facebook and blog regularly and actually have a few older women following me,” said Watters. As a longtime member of Presbyterian Women, she wrote about her experience in Horizons Magazine. “I wanted to open up this possibility of social networking and conversation to a broader section of older people, to connect them with younger people.”
Presbyterian pastors Katie Mulligan (New Covenant) and Karen Sapio (Claremont) were also in the group that included the Horizons Bible Study author the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget. “Dr. Aymer suggested the online group as a way of connecting our sense of call to social justice work with PW, an organization that has been working on these concerns for decades,” said Mulligan. As a younger pastor she knew that some women worked and had children and felt PW was inaccessible to them. “To get connected again in a place that wasn’t necessarily in church was really exciting,” she says. Sapio, who has been a pastor for more than 20 years, also knew of Presbyterian Women groups and wished they had younger members. She says she “saw energy beginning to develop around this idea. Suddenly we were reinventing our DNA online.” Within an hour the women decided they would use their social media contacts “hoping they could find 15 women to do the Horizons Bible Study virtually.”
Mulligan created the “Presbyterian Women Interest Group” on Facebook, adding the social media planning team that had been formed, as initial members. On May 19, 2011, she typed her first Facebook post: “We are interested in forming a Presbyterian Women’s Circle online through a Facebook page or private blog. Most of us know almost nothing about Presbyterian Women, but would like to become connected in this way.”
Within 48-hours the group had 150 members. By the end of the month they were up to 250. Mulligan says they “were startled.” In six months the group has grown to more than 400 members. “Many aren’t members of traditional circles,” said Watters. “They’re interested in Facebook and blog-based Bible study, and also in studies via Skype (videoconferencing) and in the virtual world of Second Life.” The First Presbyterian Church of Second Life provides them cyberspace where they meet, and they also connect in a Facebook group.
Pilot groups are using each of the four social media platforms. Varying in size, each has 10 to 15 active members who are posting conversation, sharing reflections and creating a sense of community. “I really appreciate all of the women in these groups,” said Watters, who is in the blog-based Bible study, which seems to work well for those not so conversant with social media. “For those of us who are older it isn’t quite as fast. We’ve had time for meaningful thoughtful reflection, that has spilled over into conversations on Facebook. This is driving all of us to take a look at who we are as Presbyterian women. It’s opening doors for us to welcome all women, regardless of their faith, and schedules, into our circle.”