Going Beyond Walls with Fellow Clergy at the Kenyon Institute

This summer I went back to college. To be honest, it felt nothing like being on my own college campus — Michigan State University, which is a large Big Ten university on 5,200 sprawling acres with over 50,000 students. I spent a week at Kenyon College in rural Ohio; a 1,000-acre campus where less than 1,700 students study each year. Walking around Kenyon, I felt like I was on the campus of one of those fictional colleges in the movies, which makes sense since Kenyon alum Josh Radnor actually returned to his alma mater to film “Liberal Arts.”

The reason for my one-week sojourn at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio was to serve as a faculty member of a new institute for clergy called Beyond Walls. The concept of this program, part of the Kenyon Institute, is that religious leaders are writing every day to their congregants in sermons, newsletters, legal decisions, and on social networks. Much of their writing is internal — within their synagogue or church — yet clergy of all faiths recognize that it is increasingly important to write outside of their institution’s walls to reach those who aren’t there for services, but are reading, thinking and caring about living a moral and spiritual life.

The goal of the one-week writing intensive program was to teach dozens of rabbis, priests, ministers and other clergy members to be more expressive and authentic while writing skillfully in media as diverse as op-eds, blogs, personal essays and social media. When the director of the Kenyon Institute was looking for a religious leader who could teach clergy to be better writers when it comes to social media and blogs, Clal’s Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an adviser to the institute, recommended me for that role. I was honored to be part of the Beyond Walls faculty along with Rabbi Hirschfield and fellow Rabbis Without Borders alum Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt. Other faculty members included authors Rodger Kamenetz and Amy Frykholm, Rabbi Stephen Pearce, and Professor Richard Rosengarten. This coming summer, fellow Rabbis Without Borders alum Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr will join me on faculty.

I spent my days at the institute lecturing spiritual leaders on the best practices for reaching a wider audience through social media and was intrigued by the vast range of experience. Some clergy were already using social networks and blogs to inspire thousands on a daily basis, while others were hesitant to use Facebook or Twitter to share their wisdom. Many of the participants were talented writers who desperately wanted to start blogs to grow their reach, but the technology was a hindrance for them.

In teaching colleagues across the religious spectrum about the vital tools of social media and blogging, we all discovered new opportunities to engage our audience and impact more people within our own respective faith traditions and beyond with our religious insights. Personally, I also learned a great deal about other faiths, the modern challenges of their leadership, and new ways for these religious leaders to exploit 21st-century communication models to teach, preach and inspire a new generation.

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