Social Media & the Church: Multiple Personalities

There is an epidemic among church leaders! As social media (facebook, twitter, google+, linkedin, etc) has grown in use, an ever increasing number of clergy and other leaders have developed multiple personalities. But wait, don't call in the American Psychological Association just yet. let me back up. As I pointed out in a previous post, the social media use of ministry leaders can be divided into five general groups:

  1. Only for personal use, only connecting with friends and family
  2. Only for professional use, everything they post related to their ministry, congregation, etc.
  3. Separating personal from professional, with a personal account for friends and family, and a professional account for congregational members.
  4. Integrating the personal & professional with one account
  5. Not at all (more clergy than you might expect, or perhaps not, given the church’s record for adopting new things)
I am interesting in talking about those of us who use social media for ministry - groups 2-4. There are some very good arguments why ministries should engage social media, already addressed by many folks in many places. But for now, I am going to stick to those of us who agree that we should be using social media for ministry purposes. Let me be up front: I fall into group #4. I think there are some very compelling reasons to have an integrated online persona, and I will get into that a little bit later.

Those who fall into groups 2 and 3 can be lumped together - their social media use is more less identical from a ministry perspective. Group #3 may post cute pictures of their kids, or complain about their day, but it is separate from their ministry account, so people following their ministry will not see it.

There are some very good, and some less good, reasons for pastors and others in ministry to use social media this way. Most importantly, it provides very clear and well defined boundaries. Not everyone who follows the ministry of the congregation wants to see pictures of the Pastor's vacation (especially not pasty Lutheran pastors on the beach!). Sometimes pastors need space to be honest about the congregations they serve - to vent a little bit - and it may not be a good thing for the whole congregation to see that private venting. Occasionally, a pastor may worry that what is said or implied on facebook - even if it is entirely unrelated to ministry - will be used as a weapon in next week's Council meeting (certainly no one in your congregation would ever do that, but in some of those other congregations). In general, this social media practice allows for a bit of differentiation between the pastoral office and the ministry on one hand, and the person who holds that office on the other.

Let me be clear: Although it is not how I use social media, I respect this position. I have colleagues who have been burned by not having clear boundaries, and they now try to avoid those pitfalls. I get it. But I do think there are some very good reasons to use social media in a more integrated way. First, a story.

A couple of weeks ago, my satellite receiver started acting a little strange. As a hopeless TV addict, this was unacceptable, so I put a call in to DirectTV. After walking through all the automated steps, I was on the phone with Lisa. Lisa was exceptionally friendly - we talked about my TV problems, and also about her family that lives in Texas and what shows she watches with her toddler. Lisa was not just helpful, she was friendly and personable. She scheduled a maintenance call for me, and in a couple of days James stopped by my house. James and I commiserated about driving in and around Houston, and about this horrible summer we're having. After those experiences, DirectTV is not just some brand name to me - it is Lisa and James. People do not relate to brands; people relate to people.

And social media is ultimately about relating to people - it is about community. If your whole facebook feed is updates about your congregation's worship services, people will begin to tune it out. If all of your tweets are links to to the ministry website or blog, other users are not going to engage your twitter account. People relate to real people, who live real lives.

In addition to opening  up your social media following to a larger community, being personal also opens up a pastor's life so that parishioners can see him or her as more than just the person in the pulpit. As we share on social media sites, those who are involved in our ministries get to know us more and better -- and that draws us into more effective ministries in their lives.

Finally, I believe that it all eventually comes out. In the age of digital communication, there are no assurances that information will not get out. An email sent just to the congregational council can easily be forwarded on to someone outside the group. A status update posted to a private facebook account may be copied and pasted to someone else's profile. A protected tweet may be retweeted by someone else. It all comes out.

I live in a small town and if I am having lunch with someone downtown, there is a very good chance that anything I say may be overheard by an unintended audience. I treat social media like I do living here. Don't say things you wouldn't want everyone in your congregation or in the rest of your life to hear. Of course, this has been a great for my spirit as well -- If I wouldn't want someone to hear it, maybe I don't need to be saying it in the first place.

Ultimately, to quote someone much smarter than myself, I am who I am. I am the same person on Sunday morning as I am in downtown Brenham as I am on social media as I am in a small group Bible study. Pastor David is not a different person than just David.