Pastors and Social Media – Where to Draw the Lines

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (March 19, 2012) – The use of social media by pastors offers great possibilities for ministry, but also is fraught with dangers that no one in a congregation may have considered.

A paper recently released by the Board of Ordered Ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church offers possible guidelines and is meant to as a discussion starter for churches and ministers.

The paper, Covenant Clergy and Social Media, suggests clergy consider their use of social media by reflecting on pastoral identity, friendships with congregation members, boundaries, the role of pastors, and pastoral transitions.

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Sections include personal reflections by the three members of the writing team, possible guidelines and discussion questions, and further resources for pastors and churches.

Sean Curtis, who served Great Exchange Covenant Church in Santa Clara, California, before starting a second site in San Francisco, writes that he had to learn not to comingle his role as pastor with being a friend of congregation members. It is something that is easy to say, but not always easy to do and requires intentionality.

“The more this calling was defined and solidified in my heart and mind, the more I understood whether I was speaking and relating as Pastor Sean, or Sean,” he writes. “The distinction is crucial in our formation as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. If we don’t understand where this office begins and ends in us, and how that interacts with our larger call to be daughters and sons of our Heavenly Father, it becomes very confusing to the people God has called us to lead and serve.”

Social media makes discerning the difference more complicated, especially as pastors use their Facebook sites to communicate with family and other friends, Curtis says.

“We must understand the power, privilege, and influence of spiritual authority,” adds Efrem Smith, superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference. “Technology can blur the lines of the boundaries that ensure health in relationships.”

Rebekah Eklund, an ordained Covenant minister who is a member at Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a Th.D. candidate at Duke University, says she tries to abide by an overarching guide that is fitting for all types of conversation: “Does it build one another up in faith, hope, and love? Will it hurt, or will it heal? Will it divide, or will it bring together?”

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Pastors should discuss with lay leaders how to best use social media as ministers and as a congregation. Together they can create guidelines. Youth ministry poses special questions about the use of social media since it often is a primary mode of communication. Discussions with parents, youth, and others in the church can lead to developing workable and appropriate guidelines.

The writers all say it is important for ministers to question whether they are using social media connections to congregants for their own personal fulfillment and emotional needs. This is true even after a pastor has left a particular church.

Smith writes that he has had to be intentional not to address pastoral needs of people in his former congregation, Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. If they approach him through social media for ministerial guidance, he refers them to the current church leadership.

“My calling is now that of the superintendent of the PSWC,” he writes. “Out of calling as well as collegiality, I should make sure that healthy closure takes place in the area of social media as a ministry tool.”

During a discussion on the topic during this year’s Midwinter Conference, participants said other issues included the question of what would be their responsibility if they saw inappropriate material on a congregant’s site, especially a member of the youth group. One related the story of how a student posted something that was public – and bigoted. The leader watched the conversation, “and the community took care of it.”

Another participant advised that ministers never seek to be online friends with a church member. “Who wants to be stalked by their pastor,” he asked. Ministers also should remember that other churches will look at the Facebook pages of people seeking a call.

The document was “tested” during a series of open discussions about the early drafts with pastors in various contexts, including several conference ministerial association fall retreats. It can be downloaded here.

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