Social Media & the Church: Who are Your Friends?

Over the last few months, I have been a part of numerous discussions about how the church generally and clergy specifically use social media – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. It has been a great discussion, and I have learned a great deal from my colleagues. There, however, one question where I find some disagreement (What?! Pastors disagree with one another?). I will come to that in a moment.

Generally, ministry leaders use social media in one of five ways.

  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)

For what I think are very good reasons, my social media usage follows model 4 more than anything else (more about that at another time). But, if pastors and other church leaders are going to use social media in any way as an extension of their church or their ministry (models 2-4 above), one question comes up fairly quickly: Should you initiate contact with members on social media? That is, should you friend them first on Facebook, or wait for them to friend you? Should you follow them on Twitter before they have followed you? Should you add them to a circle on Google+ if they have not circled you?

To be clear: this is a new issue in ministry. These are not questions that anyone could have imagined asking ten years ago; we are treading new ground here. The “accepted wisdom” – insofar as there is any – is that it is unwise for pastors or other church leaders to initiate contact on social media. I am not sure that I agree.

I get the reasoning. There is a power imbalance between pastor and parishioner. Members of the congregation may feel uncomfortable declining a friend request from their pastor, even if they do not want “the pastor” to see what is said on their wall. Church leaders (pastors, other rostered leaders, deacons, youth ministers, etc), should maintain healthy boundaries, and not insert themselves into the online lives of their members.


I wonder why this line is being drawn at social media. If you join the congregation that I serve, I will ask for your email address, your home phone number, and your cell phone number – and I will give you mine. You are welcome to decline to give me that information, but I am going to ask for it. I hope you know that you can trust me – as your pastor – to use such information responsibly and as is appropriate to our shared ministry and my call.

As a pastor, if I hear that a member is sick or in the hospital – whether that member tells me or I hear it from someone else – I am going to invite myself into that members home or hospital room. If it is at home I will probably call before I come over (not always), but I am going to initiate the contact and invite myself (the member is welcome to say no, but I would hope that they would trust me – as their pastor – to know that the visit is a part of my ministry and my call).

As pastor of the congregation, I may invite members into my home. Often for an open house or another congregation-wide, but sometimes (less often now that I am a single pastor) to share a meal. Those members are welcome to decline the invitation, and some do, but I am going to initiate the contact because it is a part of my ministry and my call to the congregation.

As pastors, most of us would see no problem “initiating contact” in these ways. We would view it as a part of our ministry, a part of our call to the congregation.

These illustrations, while imperfect (all illustrations are), get at the issue for me. Pastors are called to care for the members of the congregation that they serve (and other ministry leaders as well, in other ways). We are called to be a part of their lives – to help them to see the Gospel in their lives and to “care for their souls.” By calling me as their pastor, the congregation has initiated the engagement that we will then live out together. By calling me their pastor, members of the congregation have initiated our engagement together.

Our call to serve the congregation is our friend request. Our call to serve the congregation is our follow request. Our call serve the congregation is our invitation to be a part of the lives of the congregation.

Ministry leaders should be involved in the social media lives of their members. But we should do so with the same sense of responsibility that we use with every other aspect of our members lives. Mindful that we are being trusted not to abuse that relationship, and to only use it insofar as it is appropriate to our ministry. What that looks like is different in various settings and ministries, and we should be wary of one-size-fits-all solutions to using social media.

What do you think? Should pastors friend members (or otherwise initiate social media engagement)?