I was pastoring several churches when social media became prominent. It changed the job for me in a number of ways; some good, some not so good. As an introvert, for me, the same rules apply to social media as to crowds. I enjoy being around people, but it drains me, and I recharge by being alone. I find myself relating to social media in much the same way. I am tempted to cancel all my social media accounts and seclude myself in my own world. And it would be remarkably easy to do so because, at least currently, it is fashionable to take vacations from social media. I say bravo to everyone who flees the temptation to allow social media to dominate life. But I have a different problem. My temptation is to hide from social media altogether. When I consider doing that, though, a voice in my mind tells me that I need to be where the people are because I have been called to be a minister of the gospel. So, I stay on social media because I feel I must.
All of that said, I recognize that we all face different temptations. Social media can be a friend or a foe, depending on how one uses it or is used by it.
The time ditches
For a pastor, there are two ditches—one on each side of the social media road—in terms of time: the too-much-time ditch and the not-enough-time ditch. The too-much-time ditch gets a fair amount of attention in both secular and religious settings, so I will make only one point. While it is true that a pastor may waste too much time watching television or doing something else just as easily as spending too much time on social media, social media carries the added “benefit” that your parishioners know about it if you are actively posting and reacting. Therefore, perhaps your members will point out your problem and give you the opportunity to cut back.Others, like me, tend toward the not-enough-time ditch. The reality is that whether we like it or not, people’s lives are happening online. On our phones, we receive a steady stream of up close and personal glimpses into the lives of our people at any time of day or night. What is more, the information is often unfiltered because they forget that the pastor exists among their online friends. Often, I wish I did not know some things about people. But this kind of information can help a pastor make all sorts of decisions, from what to preach to whom to visit to things to say and avoid saying. And your parishioners, by putting the information out in public, have given you permission to bring it up! “Hey, I saw your post . . .”
If, like me, you are a pastor who would be happy to ignore social media, I think we do so to the detriment of our congregations. Besides, there are certain parishioners whom I interact with in no other way than through social media. That alone is incredibly valuable.
Listening on social media
One not only speaks to others on social media but also listens, although listening has a different dynamic when the other person cannot be sure that we are listening. As in personal communications, pastors on social media probably ought to do more listening than talking, mostly for the reasons I shared above. Therefore, listening more than speaking is required.
Of course, pastoral care does involve speaking, including on social media. But just as we can talk too much in face-to-face interaction, so the same danger exists in social media. The pastor who comments on everything, “likes” everything, is constantly sharing stuff, and so on runs the risk of a number of pitfalls, not the least of which is that people get tired of seeing so much of you online and learn to ignore your posts.
On the other hand, if you have not turned people away by overexposure, carefully chosen “likes,” responses, and posts are likely to gain special attention just because you are a pastor. So, I do not want to distract from the value of communicating on social media. It can and should be done. But for me, listening is where it’s at. Some people call it social media stalking, but that is hardly fair when people are throwing their lives out there for all to see and comment on.
By quickly scrolling through your feed from time to time, you get much of the value that you normally get only from an in-home visit. The other person does not get the benefit of your personal presence, so social media cannot become a substitute for visiting, but it can certainly enhance visiting and guide you in a plethora of important ways. Besides, listening is always safer than speaking—in any context.
Social media is only revealing and spotlighting what is and has been lurking in the human heart since Satan began corrupting it. Therefore, pastors are needed on social media now more than ever.
Posting: It all depends
Speaking of safety, a pastor of all people must consider carefully what he or she posts online. In spite of the constant stream of warnings to be careful what you post, the ease of posting has trapped many a pastor into posting ill-advised material. And that is just on the surface. There is another level of caution a pastor must pay attention to because what constitutes ill-advised material varies from pastor to pastor. Of course, some material is always ill-advised for any pastor, but some pastors are able to post things that others cannot, based on their relationship with their congregation. For instance, it is a given that a pastor will post spiritual material. But what about personal information, like what I am eating for dinner, doing on vacation, or doing after work?
On the one hand, posting personal activities can serve to connect the pastor to the congregation in positive ways, provided the congregation is more or less satisfied with the pastor’s work. On the other hand, if the relationship between the pastor and some parishioners is tense, posting personal activities can backfire spectacularly. The pastor may post something completely innocent, like the fact that she just returned from an exhilarating bike ride. For the pastor fortunate enough to have a good relationship with her church, this post causes her people to smile and appreciate that their pastor is getting exercise. But for the pastor with a tense relationship with his church, his members may see the post and think to themselves, Does he ever work? Shouldn’t he be writing his sermon? How can he afford such a nice bicycle? His outfit looks ridiculous. Naturally, they share their discontent with someone else, and we all know what happens in that cycle
.I realize that pastoral life is fraught with opportunities for this sort of criticism, and often it is unavoidable—no matter how careful one is. But still, a pastor must consider the wisdom of posting certain items based on the current dynamics in his or her church. What one cannot post today may be posted tomorrow without any problem.
COVID game changer
I wrote the first draft of this article before COVID-19. And while COVID has not changed what I wrote above, it certainly has increased the necessity of pastoral social media presence. Social media has become even more of a lifeline for many people in their isolation, which likely means they depend on it less for entertainment and more for dealing with their loneliness, fears, and stress. By its nature, though, social media seems to bring out the worst in people, which in turn increases people’s loneliness, fears, and stress. Therefore, a calming, encouraging pastoral presence is even more crucial than before to counteract the negative influence of social media.However, one relatively new development that is a game changer is the social responsibility, or lack of it, on the part of social media gatekeepers. COVID itself has not brought about this sensitive and difficult problem, but it certainly has exacerbated the issue. Some of the biggest social media platforms are capitalizing on the misinformation spread through their networks. Misinformation causes users to become emotionally engaged in a divisive topic. That engagement drives up social media advertising leverage, and the money pours in. The unfortunate long-term effects of this business model on the general population are only beginning to manifest themselves. And the questions are not easy to answer. When do censorship and free speech cross the line into soul-destroying damage? What is the social media platform’s responsibility? Who gets to decide what is misinformation? For the pastor, these emotionally charged issues make it even more critical to maintain a certain detachment (or a great deal of good judgment and self-control) from social media, even while engaging with it. A one-word post or a single emoji can instantly alienate half of your congregation. Lean one way on an emotional hot topic, and you lose one group. Lean the other way, and you lose the other group. It is a no-win situation for any church leader, paid or unpaid. The only way to avoid alienating people is not to commit yourself to one side or the other on any issue that is not salvific.
The reality is that social media has become dangerous. Just how dangerous is still being discovered. But it is not the fault of social media in and of itself. Social media is only revealing and spotlighting what is and has been lurking in the human heart since Satan began corrupting it. Therefore, pastors are needed on social media now more than ever. But only pastors who can rise above the fray and avoid contributing to its negative aspects will be effective in ministry on that battlefield.
A few suggestions
Despite the inherent negative social media realities, social media is where the people are. It is not a new idea to pastoral ministry that the people most in need of pastoral influence are usually found in less-than-ideal places. Despite that (and because of it), the pastor has always needed to find ways to meet people in their native environments. We would be foolish to believe that, as pastors, we can ignore social media and be just as effective in our work. For the sake of ministry, we have been sent online just as much as offline; therefore, we must work in that context also.Consequently, I offer a few suggestions for helping mitigate negative factors and increase positive factors in a pastor’s social media presence.
1. If there is someone in your congregation whom you trust enough, ask them to monitor the pulse of your church in regard to your social media activity. Give them permission to relay their or others’ impressions concerning your online activity. Trustworthy people who can monitor the gossip grapevine can be valuable. Just be sure that you are prepared to appropriately handle negative feedback when they deliver it.
If you relate to social media as your personal “off-duty” community, stop already. Relate to it instead as “on-duty” pastoral time, weighing every interaction in that light—and with the knowledge that everything you ever write online will probably live forever, no matter how much you might wish it would disappear.
If, like me, you are a reluctant social media user, consider posting something daily from your personal devotional study time. I created a special public page specifically for this kind of posting. That way people can follow or subscribe who want to be notified of these posts specifically.
2. Consider making an informal social media strategy with a few trusted others in your congregation to focus on specific people who need special attention. “It is Sarah’s birthday this week, and I know she has been discouraged lately. Let’s take the opportunity not just to post ‘Happy Birthday’ but to write thoughtful and encouraging notes on her wall.”
3. Even though it is not an official position listed in the Church Manual, consider creating a social media ministry team of people who seem gifted in that area—both for internal church ministry and community ministry.
Pray through your feed!