Clergy must navigate traditional boundaries in new social media world

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Developing policies is a challenge, observers say
October 26, 2011

When the Episcopal Church's Province III Youth Ministry Network earlier this month issued a set of guidelines for interacting with young people through social media, it was on the cutting edge of a growing effort to help guide ministers as they walk through the digital landscape.

Two or three years ago when Elizabeth Drescher was researching her book "Tweet if You ♥ Jesus," she said, the "big conversation was about why do we need to do this at all -- why does it matter?"

Now, she said, "that conversation is pretty much over … now they're really starting to wrestle with what's the best way to do that in light of our standards and practices for professional ministry. That's just unfolding. There's not really a clear standard for how that's working."

The Rev. Jake Dell, Episcopal News Service's senior manager of marketing and advertising, agreed, noting that the digital environment is not static, but instead "is so new and changing so quickly that policy will have a hard time keeping up."

The church is playing catch-up in this environment, said the Rev. Victoria Duncan, the head of the Episcopal Church's Office of Transition Ministry. "We're trying to embrace what the culture is way ahead of us on," she said. Through the transition ministry office, people seeking church employment may maintain electronic portfolios on which they can list their online media presence, such as Facebook or LinkedIn accounts.

The issue of how clergy ought to connect with church members is an old one, but social media's porous boundaries between public and private communication raise questions about where and how clergy should maintain a digital presence. Those questions take on heightened attention when dealing with youth; hence Province III's guidelines that suggest ways "to apply commonly accepted principles of healthy boundaries for digital networking and communication."

Traditionally, clergy are expected to be mindful of their relationships with the people in their congregations so that the needs of the congregants are served rather than those of the cleric, and so that the power inherent in the cleric's position is not abused.

"We have to remember that we're not better than, worse than, but that we are in a different category and that comes with things that are terrific and things that aren't fun that we have to live with," Duncan said.

Often the concerns boil down to whether a priest can be friends with his or her parishioners. And, friend or not, most dioceses have policies about whether and how a departing rector can continue to be in relationship with parishioners. A cleric's spouse or partner is often expected to abide by those policies – a tough requirement if they have chosen to be digitally connected to congregants even if the cleric has not.

Dell said that while there is "wisdom" in those policies, "I don't know that anyone at this time would be ready or is comfortable saying that upon leaving a ministry you must terminate your Facebook account and un-friend all your parishioners."

Yet, Drescher said, she knows ministers who have done just that. A Presbyterian pastor who was leaving his congregation announced to all his Facebook friends that because of the denomination's policy against maintaining contact, he would close his Facebook page when he left and open one to which he invited only personal friends. His former congregants, he said, would be able to re-friend him in one year, if they still wanted to be connected.

The Rev. Alex Dyer, priest-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James in New Haven, Connecticut, said that finding the proper online stance "is not that different in many ways. The same boundary issues apply… you've just got to be careful."

While some clergy people want to avoid the social-media milieu altogether because they feel overwhelmed by the choices and fearful of their implications, others say avoidance is not possible, counterproductive and precludes use of a powerful evangelism tool.

Dell added the caution that it is crucial to claim one's identity in the new land. People ought to create a presence on Facebook so as not to have their identity hijacked, which has happened to clergy. "You can't simply hide from it. You can't just simply say I am not going to go on it," he said. "At the very least you have to claim that little piece of the internet that you want for yourself."

With 750 million Facebook users, Drescher notes that the social networking site would be the third largest in the world if it were a physical nation. Studies show that 60 percent of women older than 18 are on Facebook and the figure is close to that for men, she said. In addition, people who are the most active on social networking sites are most likely to be engaged in the world, Drescher said, noting "really strong positive correlations" between social networking participation and volunteerism, and between volunteerism and religious engagement.

"It's a huge landscape and we need to be there," she said. "It's really important that people in leadership in the church understand what the digital media landscape looks like" and how, for instance, Twitter is different from Facebook and LinkedIn.

"We need to think long and hard about how we participate in that world based on the practices that are already part of our tradition," Drescher said. "There aren't new practices that we need to invent. We just need to know what the new landscape looks like."

One feature of the social-media landscape is that it is "intensely networked so you are likely to have the experience of bumping into someone in the digital grocery store more often than you might in your local context," she said. In other words: can anyone really put up a hard boundary between public and private?

Drescher said no. Even clergy who interact with parishioners only on their congregational Facebook page and create a different page or group for their family and non-parish friends can't ensure that those two environments are separate. If a person has friends in both locations, they can repost and share things from either page, and so "there's no 'private' on Facebook," she said.

Yet, Dyer said, "you control what gets put up there. People think that their whole life is going to be this big open book and that's not the case. It can be, but that's your choice."

Dyer does not have a personal Facebook page but, the one he maintains is "totally professional." On that page he will occasionally post information that might be deemed personal by others, such as what he is doing on vacation.

"I think there's some benefit to letting people in on my personal life," he said. "People can see a different side of me than what they may see on Sunday morning and connect with me on a different level. I become a bit more real – little more human and little less institutional."

Those benefits work both ways, he said. Friending people on Facebook can be pastorally beneficial because, Dyer said, it allows him to check on people he hasn't seen in church lately without sounding like he is nagging them about their attendance.

The Rev. Diana Clark was contemplating retirement as rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, as Facebook was becoming more and more popular. She got friend requests from parishioners but did not accept them. "It just felt like Facebook would not be a proper place for me to relate to parishioners unless it was specifically St. John's Facebook page," she said.

"If I had set up a Facebook page so parishioners could be on Facebook with me, then what do I do, 'unfriend' them when I leave?" she added.

With so many young people using social media and texting as their primary modes of communication, more questions arise. For instance, is there an ethical difference between a young member of a congregation "friending" an adult such as the youth minister, and the youth minister "friending" youngsters? Are there any legal obligations surrounding statements and behavior that a youth minister might become aware of via Facebook interactions with young people?

Drescher said she has spent the last three years trying to find canon lawyers and others who will talk about what might be legally appropriate in a digital environment but, "because there hasn't been any litigation on it, nobody wants to talk about it."

In the end, while standards are developing and the landscape keeps changing, it seems that the old rules can always apply.

Dyer urged common sense. "There's going be people who always have problems with boundaries and unfortunately Facebook is just an opportunity again for them to cross over boundaries," he said.

People tend to think that technology is doing something to their relationships, Drescher said, but she insisted it is not, and clergy don't have to do anything "radically different."

"What's important is not to make the way we communicate human being to human being any more exotic than it is in our face-to-face experience," Drescher said. "We need to be open and kind and caring and clear with others in both spaces."