June 28, 2010
An Open Dialogue about THE NINES' Poll
Dave Travis and Skye Jethani talk about good and bad ways to use their publishing platforms.
Skye Jethani, managing editor of Leadership Journal, and Dave Travis, managing director of Leadership Network, have been talking about the controversy surrounding THE NINES' poll. Jethani thinks it was a mistake--a poorly communicated idea that has deteriorated into a popularity contest among church leaders. Travis says its been a helpful way to generate new ideas and speakers for THE NINES online video conference. They've decided to have an open dialogue about the issue. Dave Travis has started by asking a few questions about Skye Jethani's objections to the poll. Later this week we'll be posting Travis' response to Jethani's questions.
Dave Travis: Skye – you really didn’t like the list idea at all did you? What was your main issue?
Skye Jethani: Based on the explanation you and Todd gave, I understand the list was intended to build buzz for THE NINES and to do some trolling for new voices. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that motive. It’s the execution that’s worrisome. The open source list has no instruction, no context, no explanation for how to participate, and no details about how you intend to use it. Anyone visiting the page simply sees a list of a few hundred Christian leaders with “like” and “dislike” voting options next to his/her name and photo.
I believe very often “the medium is the message.” The message you intended was one of open participation; you wanted to let the audience have a role in nominating and selecting the speakers for THE NINES. That’s a fine thing. But the medium you chose, this Twitter poll, communicated something very different. It encourages the ranking of church leaders with a simple thumbs up or down. It’s one thing to “like” or “dislike” a person’s book, sermon, or theology. But this site communicated something more, something you did not intend. It asks visitors to “like” or “dislike” a person. In my view that crosses a line and encourages very unchristian values. Again, I know this was not the intention but that is the danger of using a new medium without much reflection. As Todd said, “From the time I saw the application until the page was posted was probably all of three minutes.” Those of us responsible for leading leaders in the church should exhibit more caution when presented with a new medium.
That’s good feedback. I know you have seen some of our thinking now but my guess is that you are still uncomfortable. I get that. Share with the readers some of that queasiness.
Both you and Todd have acknowledged the way the list can be misused and misunderstood. You did not intend for it to be a popularity contest, although that’s how many have seen it. You’ve recognized the problem with the application not allowing you to post instructions, directions, or guidelines for voting. You’ve regretted the “like” and “dislike” language. On your blog and on Out of Ur you’ve listed the numerous shortcomings of the format. So, my only question is--why keep it up? Sure, its generating buzz--and I’ve become an accomplice in that through my objection to the poll--but any positive input it’s provided can be cultivated by other means (which I’ll discuss in a minute). So why not take it down?
One commenter on Out of Ur named Tim made a very good point. He reminded us that pastors face the “like/dislike” judgment every time they seek a new calling, every time they preach a sermon, and whenever a congregation votes them in or out. It often has nothing to do with his/her character, calling, or heart. Tim is absolutely right. Wonderful men and women in ministry face superficial judgments and popularity contests all the time, and over time it can eat away at their souls. As those seeking to equip and encourage these leaders, we owe it to them to not feed the widespread and destructive view that their values is based on such superficial things. Although not your intent, I’m afraid that is what this poll communicates.
We spoke about how Leadership Journal asks for input on writers and interviewees. Explain how that is different.
I know you desire to find new voices for THE NINES, and you want to involve more people in that process. That’s fantastic. No disagreement from me. In fact, that’s what we try to do when pulling together an issue of Leadership Journal as well. We have two primary ways of accomplishing this.
First, we have a group of about 100 contributing editors--pastors from around the country, from a range of denominations, small and large churches, men and women, urban, rural, and suburban, anglo, African-American, Asian-American, Latino-American, some famous, and many not. As we begin working on each issue of the journal, we contact this group about the theme for the issue. We ask them two questions--what issues related to this topic should we cover, and what leaders/churches should we include? We often get referrals that our writers and editors follow up on. If we find a leader with a great story, a helpful bit of wisdom, or an interesting insight we’ll often include them in the journal. This ensures that each issues doesn’t just include the “big names” but also many “ordinary” pastors.
In the Spring issue of LJ, there was an interview with Francis Chan. We included him because he’s having a significant influence on may leaders in the church. But there were also fantastic articles by Doug Tegner, Brian Hofmeister, and Adele Calhoun--not exactly marquee names in the celebrity Christian world. We found these wise leaders by networking and seeking referrals. One of my greatest joys as managing editor of Leadership Journal has been getting to know pastors throughout the country--extraordinary women and men with hearts for God and devoted to his work. Most are names you’d never recognize, but they’ve encouraged and educated me in many ways.
But there’s a second way we find great contributors--unsolicited manuscripts and queries. Every month we receive dozens, even hundreds, of queries and manuscripts from pastors around the world...and we read every one of them. Sure, many are passed on, but at least once a week we find one that really grabs us. An amazing story. A bold perspective. A fantastic idea. Not long ago we got a manuscript from Lieutenant Commander Bruce Crouterfield, a Navy chaplain in Iraq about what it means to bring the presence of God into the worst places. It blew us away! We published it. (You can read it here.) If we simply relied on buzz and popularity or even an open-source Twitter poll, Lieutenant Commander Crouterfield would never have been published.
In 1991 we received an unsolicited manuscript from a young, unknown pastor with a BGC church background called “One-Minute Maturity.” It was well-written, and Marshall Shelley, Leadership’s editor, saw potential. He published the piece and began cultivating the young pastor as a writer. Years later John Ortberg was hired by Willow Creek and has since published a few books.
Here’s my point. If Leadership Network and THE NINES want to find new, fresh, wise voices, there are far better ways than a thumbs up/down Twitter poll. Even if the poll produces some new names with a lot of “like” votes, there’s still no way to know whether the person has something meaningful to say. I’d suggest a more substantive process. Try inviting pastors to actually submit a short 3-minute video. Watch them. Have others you trust watch them. Find the best, most insightful, best communicators, and then invite those leaders to participate in THE NINES. Yes, it’s more time consuming than a web poll. No, it probably won’t get as much buzz. But I guarantee you’ll find some amazing, unknown, and brilliant people. And you’ll make THE NINES into a far more helpful online conference for the thousands who participate. And you’ll also avoid the pitfalls of the poll that you’re currently using.
Any surprises in the feedback to your original post?
No, not really. The feedback is a mixed bag. Some agree with me. Some think I overreacted. After blogging on Ur and other sites for a few years I’ve learned that people who disagree are more likely to submit comments then those who agree. You learn to take it with a grain of salt.
One thing we hear repeatedly on our sites and from our readers is that it’s wrong to publicly critique or disagree with the work of other Christians as in the manner I critiqued THE NINES Twitter poll you guys published. However, being in the publishing world means quickly understanding that writing books, articles, or even websites and polls is a form of public discourse. Last year I released a book. I’ve had some positive reviews, I’ve also had some very negative reviews. I don’t expect those who disagree with my book to do so only privately and one-on-one. Nor do I expect them to give me a heads up before publicly disagreeing with something I published. I wrote a book--that’s public dialogue and it means I open myself to public critique and disagreement. (Those in academia learn this well.) Leadership Network published a public poll, and the poll is open to public critique.
From time to time Leadership Journal or Christianity Today will publish a negative book review. The angry letters and blog comments flood in. We’ve often seen Matthew 18 tossed around in such cases. “How could you publicly criticize another Christian like that?” they say. “What about Matthew 18?” But that text is about rebuking a brother/sister for sin, not disagreeing with a brother/sister about an idea. For some reason people have come to think that agreement should be public but disagreement private. In the world of publishing, including online publishing, that’s just not the case.
That’s one reason I’m grateful for this dialogue. We obviously disagree about the poll. It’s not personal. It’s not ugly. It’s not about sin. Yes, opinions are strong, but they don’t have to be kept behind closed doors. It’s about what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And talking about the pros and cons of THE NINES poll can help us all learn and grow more. That’s what public dialogue, and public disagreements, are all about.
Just to make sure, you liked THE NINES last year, you just didn’t like the perceptions of the list. Right?
Absolutely! I was delighted to be a part of THE NINES. Given the tight budgets so many are facing, the idea of a free online conference is a wonderful service to many in ministry. And if invited to participate this year, I will without hesitation. I say keep THE NINES, just lose the poll.