Pastoral Leadership and Social Media

By Adam Walker Cleaveland, Associate Pastor, Winnetka Presbyterian Church, Winnetka, IL

For as many years as I have been writing or talking about social media and the Church, I have been pretty adamant that pastors should only have one Facebook account.

There were a variety of reasons I took this hardline approach and even taught to other church professionals. For one thing, I personally think it would be too confusing to try to manage two accounts. And there is always the possibility of forgetting which account you’re signed into, and posting something to the wrong account. It just sounded like too much work to me.

But the primary reason has always been more theological. I believe in authenticity and transparency when it comes to being a pastor in the 21st century. For as long as I’ve been working in churches, including before being ordained, it’s always been a frustration to me that pastors can be put on pedestals, and in a different category than “regular people.”

And yes, I sat through the same seminary courses that many others did, and I’m aware that we are called to something unique. I’m also aware that there are certain power dynamics at play, whether we want to admit it or not, that add some layers of complexity for the types of relationships that pastors can have with parishioners. I remember cringing in my pastoral care class in seminary when a few students starting ranting about how pastors can or cannot be friends with their parishioners…and I think it only gets more challenging now with social media.

I try to be pretty much the same Adam on Facebook and on my blog as I am in Session meetings and in the pulpit. I believe that authenticity and transparency are important for ministry in the 21st century church. I believe people can see right through you when you’re not being transparent.

So, if I posted all of my thoughts and views and funny photos and everything else on my personal Facebook profile, and then shared lots of nice scripture verses, uplifting quotes and sermons on my professional Facebook profile…well, that idea never sat well with me.

And so I’ve tried to be the same person online as you interact with offline.

And sometimes that makes things challenging. When I started my blog, Pomomusings, in 2003, it became a place for me to think, out loud and in public, about some of the important theological questions that I had at the time. It’s also safe to say I started to use that space as a venue for challenging ideas and rocking the boat a bit.

While there are some people who enjoy having their boat rocked, there are certainly others who don’t. I’m sure there were times when some folks had issues with some of my views, or my language, or my way of sharing something online. Sometimes, those folks were members of the churches I served, and generally, we were able to have some really good conversations because of those interactions.

The events of 2014–2015 have certainly raised a lot of important issues to the consciousness of people in our pews. For some in our community, decisions made at last summer’s General Assembly of the PC(USA), the war in Gaza and Israel/Palestine and of course Ferguson and racial issues that need to be addressed, were the things that set the stage for some frustration about Facebook and the way I was using it in this specific community.

There were questions about the types of articles I shared. Are they “balanced enough” and “fair”? Is it really okay for pastors to share things that imply what their politics might be on certain issues? When is it okay to post articles and links about controversial issues, and when is it not okay?

When I became aware of this, it caused me to think about how I’ve viewed social media in the past, and the advice I’d been giving folks at social media boot camps and at other events.

How well should a congregation know its pastor? Can social media be a space where pastors share their political views, and other things that are important to them, in the virtual presence of parishioners? How does all of this translate to the question of preaching?

These are not necessarily questions I have the answers to, but they are ones that I am still wrestling with. And for me, what I walked away with was a greater understanding about those who have had to be much more intentional in navigating this with their congregations. It’s not easy.

For me, the solution was found in tweaking Facebook privacy settings and Friend Lists and being much more intentional about choosing who (from my church) sees what status updates, tweets and photos. I also think this experience has helped me to see something totally obvious: what works in one congregation doesn’t necessarily work in another.

I love the folks I’m in ministry with in my current call, but for a variety of reasons, it is better for my current ministry that I share less on social media with members of this church. That doesn’t mean I’m having to “silence” myself. I continue to share online as I had been, but I just “filter” who sees what – and that gives me flexibility and space I need. I can still have meaningful conversations in person about some of these hot button issues.

While I have somewhat changed my thinking on the topic, I still encourage pastors to have one Facebook account and to be as transparent and authentic as they can. But I have a greater understanding why some feel the need to have two accounts.

For those of you who are pastors, it is definitely beneficial to think through where you are on this issue. How does the way you exist online impact your pastoral leadership and effectiveness? Do you consider social media and online connections with your parishioners to be part of your call? What does that look like? I think the answers may be different for each person.

Being a pastor is not an easy calling. Being a pastor in today’s world with social media only makes it more challenging.

Adam Walker Cleaveland is the Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church, Winnetka, Illinois, and has been blogging at Pomomusings since August 2003. You can also find him blogging at Dazed Dad. He lives in Chicago’s North Shore with his wife Sarah, their son Caleb, and a lab-pit named Sadie.

Learning with and from others for faithful discipleship, The Center for Lifelong Learning provides opportunities to clergy and church leaders for exploring various topics relevant to 21st century ministry with a practical focus to help participants identify and address specific, real-life needs. For a list of our upcoming classes, visit here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Top