Ministerial Personae and Social Media Management

This is sort of a companion piece to my previous post.

Let me start with this, dearests: We can be kind of martyrs, am I right? We love to talk about how heavy the burden of ministry is, how deep the demands, how many kinds of functions we are expected to fill, and all of them dazzlingly well, and at all hours of every day and night. We delight in our ritual of Saturday night sermon moaning. We cry heavenward about sacrificed holiday and vacations and days off interrupted not by life and death crises, but prosaic concerns, petty feuds or sudden staff resignations.

Remember Dolly Parton’s line in “Steel Magnolias?” “Get off the cross, we need the wood!”

That’s just our deal, and no big deal. There is one thing that I feel compelled to address that is part and parcel of our Ministerial Martyrdom that is connected to the new era social media, and that is clergy tendency to isolate with other clergy when they’re under duress or feel under siege for their use of social media or, in my terms, having gotten caught being themselves.

Listen to your old Auntie PeaceBang who is a parish minister of almost 20 years and a social media pioneer who knows what she’s talking about: When trouble comes, move in closer to your congregation, not farther away! This isn’t a bad general rule for ministry, but it really applies in this particular circumstance, and here’s why. Social media is a new technology that has demolished boundaries of time, space and personae. None of us are experts on what it all ultimately means for relationships and specifically for the Church as we know it (or knew it).

You must guide, lead, be in conversation about social media, remain open and curious about people’s opinions of your social media presence and above all, never live in fear of getting caught being yourself. The fretting is simply a sign that people are confused about change. Help them process what’s going on. Lift the veil on the ancient secret: ERMAGERD, ministers are just people!

In all seriousness, if we had been doing this crucial work with lay pepole all along, how many victims of repressed, compartmentalized religious leaders would have been spared sexual misconduct, addiction, depression, molestation of children? Seize the long overdue moment, colleagues.

For better of for worse, social media allows for a broad sharing of the kind of content that humans have never before had the means to share. We are still figuring out what it all means and what we want to use it for. Griping about people posting pictures of food is useless and shallow. Griping about the evils of “selfies” is ridiculous. Vanity and egocentrism is nothing new under the sun. Technology has simply made our vanity easier to expose and share, and many people post selfies to share the small joys of their day with others. Get over it (As a single woman who has traveled the world by myself for decades, I can tell you that the urge to make a photographic record of oneself in an interesting place to save as a memento and perhaps share with others is NOT a new invention).

Help welcome our communities to reality. Be yourself and be non-defensive. Of course you should set your privacy settings as you like to share content mindfully. Speaking for myself, I knew I could never track pastoral relationships and local ministry issues in one Facebook account with everyone else, so I have two. One is a melee of family members, old high school and college buddies, theatre friends from the nine different states I have lived in, kitty videos, a certain amount of collegial conversation, and stuff I wouldn’t want to inflict on my parishioners — since I tend to share a lot of theatre, party, conference, travel and local social event photos with friends by uploading them to my Page.

I’m not hiding anything, and I would never post anything that I would dread having a church member see, nor should you. My second FB account is just for ministry and just local, so I can pop on there and scan newsfeed for what’s going on with my gang here in eastern MA. I can see events and promote them. It’s neat and lovely and I can follow former parishioners’ news, too, which I love.

So I want to go on record as saying that I think the trend of “unfriending” parishioners from Facebook upon leaving a ministry setting is an insulting disgrace to the office of pastor.

In case that isn’t clear enough, let me say that makes me furious that clergy haven’t thought this through carefully enough to spare our beloved communities this special snowflake baloney that the Great Unfriending perpetuates when we leave a ministry setting. Figure it out. Set privacy settings. Learn how to deal with boundaries. Get over ourselves!

If we and or our predecessors or successors can’t all deal with an occasional Facebook greeting or expression of compassion or happy birthday between humans beings who shared congregational life together, WHAT IS WRONG WITH US!?? This hard-core no-contact territorial nonsense is absolutely neurotic and obviously the overbearing policy born of few offenders. If ministers haven’t learned how to say, “It’s lovely to hear from you and I’m sorry I can’t conduct your husband’s funeral but I loved him well and I know you will be in very good hands with your new pastor,” then they’re remiss in their training.

In my experience, unprofessional hacks won’t be stopped from interfering with ministries and violating boundaries no matter how many safeties and guidelines their colleagues put into place. They’re narcissists and don’t think the rules apply to them.

Ministers who defend their unfriending by claiming that they don’t have time to respond to everyone who wants to keep in touch with them, here’s my word of advice: DON’T.

Do you change your e-mail, phone number and identity each time you move to a new ministry setting? Do you make your new address a well-guarded secret? Of course not. People who want to get in touch with you will find a way to do that. Unfriending people on Facebook is a slap in the face and a mean, rejecting practice we should stop encouraging.

Learn how the platforms work. Here’s a FB tip: Click people’s names and add them to a Restricted List. Then, when you want everyone to see what you post, set that specific post to “Public.”
I shouldn’t have to explain this to you this far into the Facebook phenomenon, so forgive me for being a bit snotty.

Since we’re talking about snottiness, let’s also talk about snarkiness and anger and political views and questionable outfits and photos of you holding a cocktail and laughing uproariously. If those things are part of who you are — and they probably are if you’re reading this blog — this should not in any way reflect poorly on your faithfulness and dedication to ministry. Here, I’m circling back around to the original point I made in my post from earlier today about ministerial personae.

Why do people still think, in 2015, that God only calls angelic people to the ministry? Have they not heard what Jesus was really like, having been fed a steady diet of the Prince of Peace? Well pastor, that’s your job. Acquaint them.

Have they not heard of the prophets? If not, why not?

Have they not been acquainted yet with the complexities human nature, including yours? Do they not know yet about how their own socio-economic, ethnic, racial, geographical and age demographic influence and inform their internal clergy archetype? If not, enlighten them. You’re all in this together. If they’re totally unaware of the basics of anti-racism, anti-oppression work, intersectionality and categorical thinking, well, it’s high time you all looked at that together. Those are the tools we all need as we move into the future of a dying/transforming institutional church and rising geo-political strife. This cannot be about you and your swearing on Facebook. Put it all in context with your people, not out of their earshot. That’s not fair and it’s not responsible. This is an extremely intimate work, among other things. We have to be willing to engage with those to whom we minister who may not have ever been asked to be aware of their own projections or archetypes. Trust and respect folks enough to do that with them. If you have a social media strategy that involves being intentionally edgy and charismatic so as to attract more people to the broader religious conversation, share that exciting news with them. How are they supposed to know if you don’t tell them?

Also, do not forget to trust the health of the congregation and know that your leaders and more self-aware members will also engage with critics. It has happened for me again and again. Mature faith requires self-differentiation and mature people know that. Let them minister to each other and know that they will do so beautifully much of the time.

The dismantling of repressive, limiting, unrealistic, conformist clergy archetypes has been a long time coming and will not happen without clergy leadership and honesty.

Just don’t wear leggings as pants and post that on your Facebook page. My heart can’t take it.

10 Replies to “Ministerial Personae and Social Media Management”

  1. Thank you for writing this.

    The whole social media / ministry interface thing is such a hot conversation, especially for those of us in process. I get so much well-intentioned advice to just never put anything on the internet… but for me, that train left the station at least half a lifetime ago. So any attempt on my part to sanitize (or sanctify) my online presence would be, hm, both futile and ludicrous.

    I was a human being long before I heard the call to ministry. I am learning that my call to ministry is, in part, a call to be that human being, only full throttle and out in public — complete with politics, wild hair, moderate flab, cat pictures, and the limited application of both profanity and alcohol. And art and theology and the rest of it. It’s a package deal. Sorry-not-sorry, y’all: this is what I’ve got.

    But I have no standing – as a student in formation – to say that in public without getting heaps of criticism about developing my professional image and trying to appear sleek and polished and generic – not just in a physical sense – for the scary credentialing interview that is, for me, still some years ahead. (Some of my peer colleagues are going there this year; I’m taking the slow road in the hopes of not being half-baked when I come out of the oven.) I’m told I polish up okay, and I have a reasonably good idea of how and when to do it, but the difference between polishing up one’s best self for the public eye and plastering over every crevice of one’s humanity is… hm… evidently lost on some of the folks I run with.

    So thank you, PB, for saying it in public.

  2. Thank you. Being “unfriended” by an associate pastor as he left the community (and having him extolled for the act by denominational poohbahs) was one of the most hurtful acts I have felt by the church since I left the fundamentalists. Think about how it feels for the one you are unfriending before you “delete” a friendship.

  3. Thanks for this. I have struggled mightily with social media. Given my anxiety issues and the fact that Facebooknwas taking over my life in an unhealthy way, I opted to take a break from using it for work related reasons earlier this year after I took a Lenten hiatus. For me, Facebooknwas chewing up an inordinate amount of time. In one parish, we even shared the parish Facebook page and it took me so much time to curate the messages. Because it was both work and friends, reading my newsfeed took hours. I got creeped out when a few people went thru my list and tried to friend my friends or family. In one, someone even tried to friend a family member to get to see more pictures of my niece, who they’d never met and never would meet.

    I pulled back, and committed to more in person interactions and more phone calls and emails. I still use Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t feel as judged when I spend all week posting on triathlon food instead of crafting messages.

    The unfollow button has helped (you stay friends but their messages don’t come up in your feed) and sometimes, taking a day or two off it entirely helps. I think social media can be marvelous. But it can also be addictive, in a harmful way.

  4. Thank you. I so often hear my (UU) colleagues cite that the Guidelines require us to unfriend former parishioners on FB when the Guidelines say nothing of the sort. Lots about how and how not to be in relationship and respect for our colleagues ministries but nothing, zilch, about un friending or having no contact.

  5. Thanks, Peacebang. When I left my former congregations, I changed the settings to my former congregants to “acquaintances” and chose to unfollow (but not unfriend) folks who posted frequently. It felt like good boundaries for me personally, but I sure was ecstatic today to see that the pianist had her baby girl. I’m glad it’s not an either/or. And, I’ve been really pleased that a couple of folks in my new congregation have said how much they enjoy that I post pictures of my kids, and talk about going hiking with my wife, “because it’s really good for us to see you taking care of yourself, and that you have family that you care about. It helps us see you as a whole person.” And, that why it matters, isn’t it?

  6. It’s not only an issue for clergy. It’s an issue for laity too. And it’s not only an issue for social media. It’s a real-life issue too. I think my denomination’s rigid insistence that departing ministers cut ties with their former parishioners makes lay members feel rejected and can be deeply hurtful to their sense of congregational and denominational loyalty. I also think the fears that it inhibits an incoming minister’s opportunity to lead are exaggerated and ill-conceived. If a minister is unable to provide effective leadership while co-existing with the ghost of his or her predecessor, he or she is probably the wrong leader for that congregation in the first place. At best, people’s sense of belonging is diminished; more often than the congregation and denomination can afford, they eventually leave.
    [I agree with all of this, and am very sorry that some ministers who were unable to refrain from interfering with the ministries of their successors made this seem like a necessary decision. – PB]

  7. PB, you are awesome. I love that you can combine talk of social media, anti-racism, being yourself, prophecy and leggings not being pants all in one post. I think that’s a great sign that you are being yourself. [Thanks, honey dear. – PB]

  8. Peacebang! This is awesome! This resonates with me in so many ways, as a minister who is also married to a minister. Have you heard of #lentunedited? I started an experiment last year called Lent Unedited with the purpose of encouraging people during the season of Lent to be more real on social media. The participation was amazing! I encouraged people to be more of themselves and less of the highly edited version we often like to portray. I found that I took some wonderfully rewarding risks as a result and so did many others. I’m going to start it up again this coming Lent. I think you and your readers might enjoy participating.

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