Becoming Smart about Smartphones

Diana Carroll

Two months ago, I took the plunge. I finally got a smartphone.
I resisted making this technological leap for a long time, despite pressure from friends, colleagues, and, of course, my phone company. My resistance partly had to do with setting good boundaries and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. After all, if I could get church email on my phone any time of day or night, would I really be able to resist checking it when I was supposed to be “off duty”?

A much deeper reason, however, was my fear of what kind of person a smartphone would make me. I had spent a good deal of time around other people who used smartphones, and it bothered me deeply the way they always seemed to be checking their phones while we were talking or sharing a meal. They would frequently interrupt our time together to read a text message that apparently could not wait. More often than not, they would then take the time to write a reply. Whole conversations were being carried on with someone who wasn’t in the room, while I simply looked on and waited for the person’s attention to turn back to me.

I did not want to be one of those people.

This is the great irony of our many new communications technologies: they enable us to reach many more people much more often, but they can have the effect of making us less present to the people physically within reach. What I fear most is that some of these technologies will erode our very capacity for being present at all. The ability to be fully present – to God, to others, and to ourselves – is absolutely essential to the spiritual life.

I know first-hand that electronic communication can be an amazing vehicle for building community across distances. I belong to the Young Clergy Women Project, which has members across the country and the globe. We keep in touch through a blog, e-zine, and email newsletter. Especially for those serving in rural or isolated areas, where they may be the only woman minister under forty for miles around, the support and wisdom provided by this web-based community is invaluable. Some

members even go to great lengths to meet up with each other in person.
No matter how much we become connected by email, Facebook, texting, video calls, and whatever new

digital breakthroughs emerge in the coming years (or next week), none of it can replace the physical presence of another human being. This is true in the life of the church as well as everywhere else. We may post sermons online, offer pastoral care via email, and provide webcasts of worship services, but sacraments still cannot take place virtually or at a distance. By their very nature, they require contact between one human being and another – the pouring of water, the laying on of hands, the sharing of bread and wine.

According to the gospels, Jesus very rarely healed anyone from a distance, though he clearly had that power. His earthly ministry, right up to the end, was almost exclusively carried out in person, face to face. 

This is the same kind of ministry that followers of Christ are still called to offer to the world. The world needs it more than ever. The church’s ability to be truly present and to teach us presence will only become more valuable and relevant, not less.

Since becoming a smartphone user, I would like to be able to say I have wholly resisted the temptation to respond to messages while I am spending time with someone. That would, however, be untrue. Still, it helps immensely to approach this new technology with an awareness of the potential pitfalls involved. Slowly but steadily, I am learning to master my smartphone, email inboxes, and Facebook account, making them work for me instead of me working for them. It has become a kind of spiritual discipline – one that I will need to keep practicing, I have no doubt, for years to come. 

The Rev. Diana Carroll is an Episcopal priest currently serving as Assistant to the Rector at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, PA.