If you play that word association game (you say a word and folks say the first words that come to mind) with a group of young ministers and use “networking” as your word, you will get these responses: “small talk,” “manipulation,” “schmoozing,” “using other people for personal gain,” and “being fake.” A few weeks ago Devita Parnell and I played this game with a gathering of young Baptists, and these were their initial reactions. Networking doesn’t have a very good reputation–especially in ministry circles. After all, ministers strive to be authentic and relational, genuine and transparent, and networking just doesn’t seem like something a minister should be doing.
But as we sat in a circle that afternoon, I made the case (or at least I hope I made the case) that networking is essential to our lives as ministers. And this is what I argued: Ministry cannot be done alone. We need each other. We need wide and deep circles of support if we hope to minister over the course of a life time. We need friends on whom to call when we are hurting. We need mentors and seasoned ministers to seek out when we are in need of advice. We need peers with which to dream and colleagues with which to plan. We need connections when we begin to search for a new position. We need each other. Thus, to survive and thrive in ministry, we must establish healthy networks of support.
Given our dependence on each other, perhaps it is time for us to redefine networking and stop seeing it as distasteful and demeaning. So I offer you this new definition: Networking is bridge building, friendship creating, and relationship maintaining.
And yes, there are certain times in life in which networking is invaluable. Having connections is always helpful when searching for a ministry position. The more people you know, the more people who are willing to provide information, recommend, and be a reference–the more likely you will a position that is a good fit. Having a wide network also will bring leadership opportunities–invitations to serve on a board or a council, speak at an event, share your gifts. Networking will open doors to you that you did not even know existed and offer you chances to broaden your friendship circles and expand your vision of God’s work.
So here are a few of my Durso “rules” about healthy networking:
Healthy networking necessitates mutuality. Networking is a two-way street. You call on your network when you need help, BUT your network also calls on you for help. Giving flows both ways in healthy networks.
Healthy network requires showing up. You need to show up! So attend those meetings, conferences, services–even if going is inconvenient and even if you don’t have the financial ability to travel, do it anyway. Find a way. Learn to travel on the cheap. Be willing to share a ride and a hotel room, pack your own food. And when you attend events, volunteer! Offer your help in passing out programs or assisting with the behind-the-scenes tasks. Leaders always, always remember those who keep showing up–the ones who aren’t part of the program, the ones who are ready to help. Showing up is the foundation of healthy networking.
Healthy networking is built on acts of gratitude. Always remember to say “thank you,” to send emails or texts or handwritten notes to those who took time for a conversation with you or gave you information about a new ministry position or wrote a recommendation letter for you. Saying thank you is especially important if you asked for help. If you requested someone to be your reference or say a good word about you, BE SURE to say thank you. People will remember your expressions of gratitude, and they will be ready and very willing to help again if they know their help was genuinely appreciated.
Healthy networking involves some financial commitment. Discovering a networking community that fits with your vision or passions is life giving, and when you make that discovery and immerse yourself into this new community, be sure to support its work. And yes, I am taking about giving money! If your networking community is truly important to you and is a way to extend your ministry and your reach, GIVE! Make a donation. Sign up to be a donor. The gift does not have to be a large one. Contributions send a signal that you are serious, committed, and invested. Giving is part, a big part, of healthy networking.
Healthy networking demands civility. In the course of establishing networks, you will encounter people whom you don’t much like. You might run into that annoying person who asks inappropriate questions or shows you pictures of her cats. You might also find yourself sitting by that search committee member who once said to you those dreaded words, “Our committee is moving in another direction.” The reality for most all of us, no matter how wide our networks are, is that we will find ourselves in uncomfortable situations and awkward conversations occasionally. Healthy networking practices teach us to not burn bridges. When a position doesn’t work out, when you aren’t the one called by the church, when you aren’t the one asked to chair the committee, work hard, extremely hard to maintain cordial relationships. It is the Christian thing to do! And it is the wise thing to do. Somewhere down the road, that pastor whose church didn’t call you might be the person to recommend you for another position, that annoying seminary classmate may be the one who becomes a trusted colleague, and that pesky professor who gave you a B in her class might be a secondary reference for you. Healthy networking calls us to be on our best behavior with all God’s children.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.