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

An Update on the Presbyterian Church that Meets Online

Photo by stevewall on Flickr

As many of you know the past year has had me exploring many options for ministry. One of those things was to begin thinking about the formation of a Presbyterian church that meets online. It is hard to believe that we floated this idea about six months ago. My how times flies.  This project has spurred some good conversations about church, social media and community.

Like any group of folks with many projects on their plates, the leadership team has been going through the ebbs and flows life, ministry and planning. Over the past 18 months, I too have been riding the rhythms of life, engaged in my own sabbatical of wandering and discernment. So while this new community will contiue to move forward, yesterday I shared this update with our Facebook Group letting them know that I’m pulling back from driving the project.

Greetings all,

I hope folks are doing well and enjoying the Fall season.

First, let me say that I am feeling a little sheepish about not being as consistent and committed to this church online adventure that I had hoped to be. More than usual, life has been a little overwhelming and my own long-term discernment has been unexpectedly paralyzing.

That said, I am starting to see where I am headed and this has created a situation where I need lesson my involvement in some projects. It feels great to begin seeing some clarity of call, but I am also know that I have invited many folks into some things that I can no longer be part of in the same way: and for this I am sorry. So, yes, “a church online” will be one of the areas from which I will step back in leadership.

So what is next for this group? While I understand that I bring particular strengths and gifts to the endeavor, the ideas and questions from which this community has emerged goes way beyond any of us. I intensely believe that the idea of a church that meets online has huge possibilities. I will still be involved as I can, but Katie Mulligan and Derrick Weston have agreed to take the wheel and drive the proverbial leadership bus for the near future. I think they will help us to step back and take a more thoughtful approach to beginning this new community of faith. THIS PROJECT IS NOT OVER and I hope you will find a way to continue should you feel inspired to do so.

I also want to thank a few folks who walked this journey this far as part of the initial leadership team: Jennifer Owen Walsh, Jack Jenkins, Betsy Katz, Noelle Royer, Stephen Salyards, Bridgett Green, Mihee Kim-Kort, Katie and Derrick. I count them as dear friends and part of my church.

Lastly, while exact plans for future communication and social media platforms are still being worked out, for now, this Facebook Group is the place where people can stay updated, so please feel free to share this note and invite more folks into this next stage of the journey.

And my the peace of Christ be with you all!

Now this does not mean that I have decided what is next as I am still embracing the luxury that is discernment mode. The decision to pull back from this project only means that some possibilities are being narrowed down and my call is coming more into focus. Believe me, I look forward to the day what I can post some grand announcement about my future.

Thanks to everyone who has mused about this idea with me and I hope that you will continue to stay connected and support this new church.  If you want to keep up with next steps for this project, request to join the Facebook Group, a church online | beta