Flickr / Jason HowleSocial media has changed many aspects of our lives and how we engage with others. We shop differently, research differently, communicate differently, and we experience community differently. Many of us broadcast our lives through status updates, photos of coffee and cute kids, and by checking in to restaurants, pubs and our churches. Say what you will about the pros and cons of social media, but it’s not going away anytime soon. Social media is not a fad. And so, it only makes sense that pastoral transitions in this new age would become more complex, and look much different than pastoral transitions even ten years ago.

After serving a United Methodist church for just over three years, I took my first call as an ordained Presbyterian minister. About a year and a half later, I accepted my second call and moved across the country to Chicagoland, where I currently serve as an Associate Pastor. I’ve dealt with this new type of pastoral transition a couple times in the past few years. I will say that it is definitely more complex than it used to be, but there are ways in which you can help both yourself and the congregations you’re connected to during these transitions.

I’d like to think about how to engage with parishioners on social media first, and then share some practical tips and tools to aid you in future transitions you may go through in your ministry, both as you leave churches, and as you start jobs at new churches. Becoming “Friends” With Church Members

A friend of mine was recently going through the call process, and was a little shocked to find that there were members of the church she was going to be called to already requesting to be friends with her on Facebook before it was even official. I’m a few months into my current call as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church (Winnetka, Illinois), and I had some folks reach out to me early on in my time here because they wanted to connect online.

I still remember sitting in classroom discussions in seminary, talking about how pastors really shouldn’t become friends with parishioners. We talked about the power and boundary issues, and about how it just made things too difficult when you were called to another church; what happened to those friendships? Could you still stay in touch? What could you talk about?

I always had issues with those conversations in seminary; part of that has to do with my own desire to be radically transparent in my ministry. I didn’t want to hide who I was with parishioners, or not be open to friendships for my wife and I, even if they happened to be with members of the congregation. Sure those friendships would always be a little bit different because I was their pastor, but I didn’t think it made sense to think that some folks were “off-limits.”

Part of that is probably why I have chosen to always accept any and all Facebook friend requests from people at the churches I’ve served, and why I have chosen to only have one Facebook profile. Many pastors have tried to deal with the question of “friending” parishioners by creating a separate, work Facebook profile. You may have friends and colleagues who have done this; often they choose a distinctly church name for the account (e.g. “Pastor Adam Walker Cleaveland” or “WinnetkaPres Adam Walker Cleaveland”). It’s always a little bit awkward, and it goes against Facebook’s Terms of Service by having more than one profile for an individual. However, those who use two profiles say that it allows them to use Facebook personally, and not have to worry censoring what they post, for fear of upsetting parishioners.

I’m not interested in having two identities on Facebook, partly because I don’t want to have to spend time curating two completely separate Facebook profiles. That just sounds like too much work for me; I think there are enough good reasons, both theological and practical, to only having one Facebook profile, and for using that profile to engage with folks in your congregation.

Disconnecting from Friends & Followers

So, what happens when you leave a church? In addition to all of the normal boundaries that you’ll have to figure out between you, the church and your denomination’s governing body, now you have to figure out what you’re going to do with all of the people that you’re Facebook friends with from your congregation.

Do you just unfriend everyone on Facebook? Unfollow everyone on Twitter? I’ve actually had some people tell me that when they left their congregation, they went through their Facebook Friend Lists and unfriended everyone from their former congregation. Their reasoning was that they were serving those folks as part of their job, and now that they were moving on, they were not obligated to remain connected to them.

That seems pretty harsh to me, and I couldn’t see myself doing that. But, I do think it’s important to give people from former churches some breathing room and space to continue on without their previous pastor as involved in their online and social media life, particularly with youth. At one former church I worked at, I had quite a few students who were very active on Facebook and Twitter, and we’d often get into conversations online, “like” many of each other’s statuses and found the online world a great medium to communicate in.

So, when I left, it was important for me to not be tempted to continue to “like” their updates, comment on Facebook or reply to Tweets. Below are some of the steps I have taken when leaving churches to help make the transition a bit smoother in the world of social media:

Facebook Friend Lists: Facebook actually makes curating lists of people you are connected to on Facebook very easy, with the use of Friend Lists. I think this is probably one of the most powerful, but most under-utilized, features that Facebook has. Whenever I accept any friend request on Facebook, I always assign each new friend to a specific Friend List. I have Friend Lists for many different seasons of my life: college, seminary and each of the churches I’ve worked at. This is a powerful tool, because it allows me to organize and categorize my Facebook friends, but it also allows me to unsubscribe from updates from specific lists, and it allows me to both post status updates to specific lists, or hide my updates from specific lists.

When I leave a church, I put everyone associated with that church into one Friend List. Then when I go in to edit the settings for that list, I can simply uncheck all of the Update Types for that friend list, and then I will no longer see the status updates posted from that group of people. That helps me from being tempted to engage with people from my previous church for a predetermined amount of time.

Unfriending People: I will say that you may indeed need to unfriend a few people from your congregation, but that is always a case-by-case situation. Maybe you have someone who likes everything you post, always leave comments and is extremely active on Facebook; that might be someone to unfriend for the reason of giving them space to connect with whomever is following you at the church. Or there might be a few people who you were connected to on Facebook because of your role as their pastor, but there was some conflict or other reasons that it would be better for both of you to not be connected in that way anymore. I think there are situations when it is helpful to unfriend people; I just don’t think it’s necessary to unfriend everyone from the church you’re leaving.

Remove all social media accounts from your computer, iPhone or other media devices: In order to prevent accidentally posting from a church account after you’ve left, and to remove any temptation to post, or check on things that are happening at the church, I suggest going through your computer, iPhone, iPad and any other media devices that might be connected to the Twitter or Facebook profiles, and delete those accounts. This will help give you a more clean break from the church’s social media life.

Talk about your plan: Talk to the church leadership about boundaries and your plan. It shows that you’re being pro-active and thinking through these issues. Be specific. Let them know what you’re planning to do about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any other social media platforms that you’ve used to connect with folks at the church. Make a plan, and then communicate that with the appropriate parties involved.

Give people space: In most cases, you’ll be leaving one church and moving on to a place you’re really excited about. But everyone else is staying where they were – they don’t get to share in your excitement about new opportunities and possibilities. Give them the space and time (online) to grieve that you are not their pastor anymore. If you’re constantly checking in with them, commenting on their Facebook status updates, it doesn’t give them the space they need.

To read the entire article from Congregations magazine, click here.

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