An Open Letter to Pastors About the Dangers of Using Social Media

Photo: zippy on Flickr

UPDATE 10.11.12: Here is a very thoughtful response from David Hansen as he offers a caution about the letter itself. Thanks David for the graceful push-back and call for even more nuance, Get Out of the Garage.

Dear Pastors,

Apologies if this post seems less than fully baked, but what I am about to try and talk to you about has been noodling around my head for a while and I just haven’t been able to muster the courage to write. You see, as one who interacts with many church folks online, I deeply believe that some of you have used this technology as vehicle for distraction, escape and avoidance from life, ministry and call. Of course this is not a phenomenon that is confined only church folks and I may be overstepping my bounds, but, because I care so deeply for you and for the churches you serve, I want you to avoid heading down a dangerous road.

First, let me say that I KNOW that there are times when online community provides all of us a safe place to find meaning, healing, support, etc. As one who is fully supportive of embracing and integrating social media into the life of the church, I am in no way advocating any kind of blanket limit, ban or rejection of this powerful communication medium. So please to not hear these things as a plea to turn away from social media. That said, let me point out three dangers that I perceive happening as I have watched some of you interaction twitter, facebook, etc.

I am bigger than the church I serve. I think one of the most dangerous things a pastor does in their online life is to disproportionally give energy to ministries and movements outside of the church they serve. Sure, it’s great to be involved in communities that are outside of an immediate call and sometimes these other foci can fill a void in a person’s calling, but there is a danger that such actions can become detrimental to the local pastoral ministry to which you have been called. When I see some of you investing so much energy and time into things that are clearly born from your own passion and convictions and not that of the church you serve, I wonder if you are making choices that will, intentionally or unintentionally, sabotage the call to which you have been called. Not only can this pattern result in you being overextended and burned out, but I can imagine that the people for whom you are their pastor will feel neglected, abandoned and worst, unloved.

They said no, but you’ll say yes. Often see some of you fishing for affirmation when an idea falls flat in your church. What tends to follow is a deluge of supportive responses reaffirming what you need/want to hear, “you were right” and “the congregation was wrong.” The problem with this is that most of us only interact with people who are generally supportive of us as people. Online interactions are not often safe enough or the appropriate venue to really push people on issues and actions. Sure, it does happen, but for the most part if you seek affirmation online, you will get it . . . not because the idea or the action was truly right, but because people support you and want you to feel good about yourself and your calling. This is not a bad intention, but to mistake this support of you as a person as approval of an idea is dangerous, because that support doesn’t come from the community you serve, but from those of us who are not privy to the contextual complexities of the congregation that you serve.

Here I can be the real me. This is probably the most difficult aspect of online life to manage for a pastor. I understand the need for a place to vent, but as a general rule I advise you to never to vent online and when unsure, default to, “If you can’t say it out loud and in public, don’t say it online.” because you just never knows who is tracking what, who taking screenshots for future use or who will eventually see what is said. Again, I do see how safe online space can be beneficial, but you risk much when intentionally compartmentalizing yourself into two or more personas. I choose to believe that most thoughtful folks in a church, even if they saw some venting, would be able to understand. But what I would not want is for people to see your online life and experience a completely different person. For generations we pastors have been told to live two separate lives, church pastor and real person, and this has only lead to trouble. We feel confined, churches feel lied to and our unhealthy and destructive behaviors can be hidden from view. Social media has the capability to draw us into the same kinds of unhealthy dualities that can lead to broken relationships, congregational disillusionment and pastoral misconduct, so we must be even more diligent in how we live online.

Okay, so there you have it, three dangers that we must watch out for when engaging in online activities. Again, please do not hear any of this as anti-social media, anti-technology or as a justification for your congregation or you to disengage or avoid social media and technology. Rather, I offer these cautions and this letter as a call and affirmation to more fully engage in these tools, and to ensure “success” by doing so with a greater awareness of the dangers and pitfalls.

With love, hope and trepidation . . . Bruce

  • Eric Bonetti

    I’d be greatly concerned about any ministry where there’s a disconnect between one’s pastoral role and one’s private life. Yes, there need to be healthy boundaries, but that is the not the same as having two distinct and separate roles.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericledermann Eric Ledermann

    Bruce, this is great counsel and much of what I have tried to share with colleagues navigating the sometimes muddy waters of social media. I think it is profound coming from you, especially, because of the role you have played in helping pastors and church-folk engage social media over the past few years, both as a pastor and as moderator of G.A.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dennis-Maher/1045287449 Dennis Maher

    I have observed pastors saying so much about themselves and their famiies that it becomes all ego. No one of us is as important or so right as some blogs and facebook entries would suggest. Everything that happens to you or that you do does not have to be shared. OTOH, some pastors and execs think they are above social media. They may even lurk but not participate out of the theory that knowledge of what others are sharing is power and secrecy is good.

  • http://twitter.com/rev_david David L Hansen

    Thanks for posting the response, Bruce. I think these are important conversations for those of us who are using social media for ministry to continue to have.

  • James Sledge

    Great article. Reminds lot of us of some personal tendencies we need to watch. Did for me.

  • Brittany Harrold

    Thanks for this article. Could you and anyone expand a little on the first warning “I am bigger than the church I serve.” with an example. I am just not sure exactly what you are talking about. Would that include sharing a photo on your facebook of you at a political rally or something like that? Just curious as a young person with all the social media and now working at churches and trying to balance being authentic with congregants online and with my friends and family online.

  • Dottie Metropol

    Thank you, Bruce! Boundaries are a necessity in this social media world.

  • Beth

    “For generations we pastors have been told to live two separate lives, church pastor and real person, and this has only led to trouble.” Hmm, I don’t think this is the message I’ve been given, so much as the message to just “be the pastor” ALL the time (or, just be perfectly pastoral all the time). Have total and complete integration, in other words. (I don’t think my congregation would like to think of me having some sort of “duel life” that they wouldn’t recognize as me!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/miriam.shelton Miriam Shelton

    I graduated from seminary about 25 years ago. A classmate had the experience that a member of his church gave him a cell phone, which was a novelty and a luxury in those days. Unfortunately, the phone had been bugged. Eventually, the church fired the pastor for things that he said in what he believed were private conversations. That is an extreme case, but the lesson I drew from it was that one should not have the illusion that information shared on it is insulated against misunderstanding or misuse.

  • James Kim

    Great reminders Bruce. Good stuff! Thanks!

  • MK Robinson

    Thank you, Bruce, for your honesty! I have been waiting for someone to write this article! Thanks for giving it to us with such compassion and tenderness. I appreciate your words. I will hold them in prayer and stew about them (as well as try to remember them every time I am tempted to post something that divides and doesn’t build up the body). Thanks!


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