I first started using Facebook while I was a youth director. It was a wonderful way to keep up with what my students were up to. I could learn about the joys and sorrows of their lives and dispense advice like, “You probably shouldn’t post pictures of you chugging a handle of vodka where everyone can see it. Also, you probably shouldn’t be chugging a handle of vodka. Let’s talk.” I knew when break-ups happened, who had events coming up, and could organize and disseminate information in an easy to use platform. Then it became a great way to keep up with the friends I have all over the country, sharing our joys and sorrows and keeping up on one another’s lives. Now everyone seems to be on it, at least everyone my age and older (younger folk are moving away from it because everyone else is doing it). Over the past few years, I have watched as colleagues embrace social media, using it for support and important conversations, as well as to communicate with congregations, do education and even find ways to worship on-line. So many things that are happening on social media (and the internet) are enhancing how we care for and communicate with our congregations and the church at large.
There is, however, a dark side to the ways in which clergy use social media (as for all who use it). Where social media can join people together, it can also tear them apart. Where it can be a wonderful place for people to ask questions and hold meaningful conversations, there are too many incidents where conversations turn into attacks or one-upmanship. As much as social media can be used to care for people, it can also be used in ways that are wholly inappropriate. Some of this is a difference between being more of a social media native and someone who is still learning the technology, some of it is a result of people being lonely/frustrated/depressed, and some of it is bad manners getting worse over social media. I would like to offer some thoughts using social media as clergy (though I suspect most of this is applicable to everyone), based on what I have seen and what I have studied (I have done social media strategy for some non-profits and spent a fair amount of time studying it just because).
This may not all be correct, they are just my thoughts. But I hope these thoughts are useful and/or encourage more intentional use of social media platforms. It’s all ministry.
1) Don’t put anything on the internet you wouldn’t put on a billboard — or your church sign
This is advice I have given to my students for years. Even in “private” groups/pages, nothing is really private. Someone in the group can grab a screenshot of what you wrote and place it somewhere totally public, someone can get let in your group who isn’t your intended audience, etc. Social media is really, really helpful for us to figure out how to deal with situations in our congregations, for sure. But be careful. Be kind. Be loving. If what you want to ask about isn’t something you want put in the local newspaper, don’t put it on the internet. Ask friends and colleagues what you should do on the phone or in a clergy group. If you don’t have that kind of support locally, find some or find a way to create some. Create a group of other clergy who are way away from others — offline. I have seen conversations in clergy groups that are horribly insulting to congregants and to other clergy. If you really feel you will get the best advice on an online page, be as careful and as grace-filled as possible. Think about what would happen if someone from your congregation called you out on what you wrote — would you be able to talk about it? Would they be able to see that the post had grace in it?
2) Vent as little as possible
We all need to vent. Being a pastor is hard. We face really hard situations and decisions, it is our job to work with really broken people, situations and systems. Venting on social media feels good. We get support, validation, and sometimes helpful suggestions. However, venting on social media can actually be really harmful to our state of mind. Recently on an Invisibilia podcast, they talked to a researcher who said that initially, venting on social media can feel really good. But that leads us to vent more because we are receiving positive affirmation for our venting. Then we vent more and start looking for things about which we can vent. Venting on social media can actually increase our general anger and lead us to become angrier people. Again, vent to friends and family and if you don’t have that where you are, find ways to make that happen. Create a support network so you don’t fall into a trap of anger feeding more anger.
3) Check yourself before you wreck yourself (or someone else).
Ask yourself, “Am I being graceful? Is this loving?” or if you feel like you need to lay the truth smack down on someone, ask if that person is in the place to hear your words or if you have the social capital/ authority to be a messenger of truth.
Some people have a tendency to be their worst selves online. Something about the internet, even without anonymity, brings out the anger and frustration people hold inside that they can’t express to their congregations. There are places where clergy gather on the internet and, in those spaces, I have seen some amazing conversations and watched really cool theology happen. But the same page that birthed the #usemeinstead idea has also had some pretty awful toxicity. In that same space I have seen some of the least graceful, least loving, angry, shaming behavior ever (truth be told, I do not frequent my denominations main clergy page after getting so flamed a pastor in NJ I have never met messaged me to apologize for how I was being treated. There are far too many people with a similar story). There are, it would seem, trolls in clerical collars. There is much hubris, one-upmanship and mansplaining in the places where we, in theory, would like to go for support and advice. It is to the point where there are clergy groups that have broken off because the initial group people belonged to has become too toxic and feel unsafe. We need to support each other. Our jobs are hard. Let’s not make them harder by harshing on one another. Even critique can be done in a way that is kind and loving. Use that stuff you (theoretically) learned in pastoral care, chaplaincy, or through years of actively providing pastoral care. We can, in fact, use our social media pages to learn how to talk to people with whom we vehemently disagree. We can use these spaces to engage in conversations and ask genuine questions based out of a desire to understand the other person’s point of view. It can be an amazing exercise. But if what is happening is everyone trying to prove s/he is right, no one will learn anything and everyone will walk away annoyed.
4) Do not use social media for deep pastoral care.
Social media is a jumping off point to see that someone might need pastoral care. It is not the place to provide it. Yes, you can use messenger to check in on someone. Yes, you can make comments of support under someone’s status message. But don’t use someone’s Facebook page to schedule a pastoral care appointment (yes, I have seen this done) or to try to actually provide deep pastoral care. Give a call or a text/message (I work with young adults and they don’t do calls — I have adjusted to providing pastoral care via text or messenger on occasion).
5) Be intentional about how you use social media
Think before you post. All the time. If you are friends with parishioners on Facebook, if they follow you on Twitter, Instagram, etc, think about if you want them to know these things. Are you showing your wounds or your scars? How are you presenting things to people? It is a careful dance to be real with your congregants without allowing them to see everything about you. Are you struggling with your call? Call counsel to clergy, talk to colleagues, your bishop, don’t put it on the Facebooks. This leads me to the next
6) Who are you on social media?
I know a lot of clergy who have two social media accounts — one for their personal life and one for their professional life. I am not a huge fan of this approach (see #1). As pastors, we should be behaving that way no matter what online and off. If you don’t want to be friends with your congregants, create a policy about that and maintain your church FB page with updates you want people to know. It also seems like a lot of energy to me — curating two different Facebook accounts shaping them to two different aspects of who you are/what you want to show people. Social media platforms are excellent evangelism tools and whatever you do online can and should be you representing yourself as not only a Christian, but a Christian leader. By no means am I saying you must have a sparkly clean image on social media — the Lord knows I don’t. Show your brokenness and humanity, be real, be approachable, be YOU. Just remember to be intentional, and that whatever we do, wherever we are, we are public representatives of the church and of Christ. Whether is it under your Pastor Awesome Person profile or your regular Awesome Just me Person profile. You know that moment when you flip off a driver or lose your temper in public then realize you are wearing your collar and get all weird/embarrassed? That x 1000. Everyone online knows we are pastors. Remember that.
In light of some of the things I have seen clergy do/say on Facebook, I think that a lot of us are lonely, stressed out and depressed. If your primary interaction with people is online, this is a problem. If you are posting all the time, you might be lonely. I know this is really, really easy for me to say as a clergy person living in a rather large city, but it is imperative that we take care of ourselves offline, in real life. It is important we have people we can physically talk with about the stresses of ministry and life in general. I have never lived in rural anywhere, so I genuinely have no idea how to do this and admit that I have no idea how hard it is.
Some of these things might hit you as way off base. That’s fine. What I am hoping is that we will all think more about our words online and how we use social media to further Christ’s commission to us as Christians and leaders. Is our online behavior furthering Christ’s mission in the world? Is it loving? Is it kind? Are we remembering that we are not called to judge? Is there humility (she writes as she advises others on how to use social media)?
If you are interested in learning more about social media in churches, check out Keith Anderson & Elizabeth Drescher’s excellent book Click 2 Save, follow them on social media, and check out the work of the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.
Did I get something wrong? Forget something? Do you have other words of wisdom? Share in the comments :-)