19 June 2012

Should Pastors Remain Facebook Friends With Former Parishioners? (Social Media and Pastoral Transition, Part 4)

Posted in Social Media and Pastoral Transition, Resources, Leadership, Social Media, Church, Tagged with digital ministry facebook pastoral transition social media

facebook friendsThis is the big question in social media and pastoral transition and the way you answer this question has a lot to do with your Facebook philosophy.

If you are among those who see your Facebook profile as a professional tool, you may be more inclined to unfriend former parishioners. Your professional responsibility ends with your call and you can go on to apply these tools to your new congregation.

However, if you see social media as something more than just part of your professional practice - as something about relationship and community building, the sharing of grace in a network that extends through and beyond the local congregation (as Elizabeth Drescher and I suggest in our book Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible), you may be more inclined to remain friends with former parishioners. Yet, this raises a set of complicated questions about appropriate boundaries and digital ministry practice.

Here’s my take:

Am I “friends” with my parishioners solely because I am their pastor? No. That may be why we met, but its not why we’re friends. We have common experiences, shared interests, faith, and a personal history. We have rejoiced and mourned together. We genuinely care about one another. More, we are part of the Body of Christ. Not just the Body of Christ in our congregation but in the larger Church.

I mean, I wouldn’t unlist my phone number, change my email address, and return snail mail to sender because I’m leaving. Why would I unfriend people on Facebook?

We’re All Adults Here...Right?

Unfortunately, some pastors don’t maintain appropriate boundaries when they leave congregations - and it has little to do with social media. Former pastors have commented and meddled without the benefit of social media for ages. The technology may make it easier to be reached and to speak, but it essentially a matter of good old-school boundaries.

The misbehavior of a relatively small number of people should not be the cause for not being friends or Facebook friends with parishioners. We are adults and we can set appropriate boundaries.

Here’s what I’d say to my congregation:

  • I will not provide pastoral care or comment on the transition, call process, new pastor, or any Redeemer issues.
  • If you ask, I will remind you of this.
  • I will be available to help the new pastor in whatever way he or she needs.
  • I may be more passive in our connection, but the friendship and connection remain open.
  • However, I reserve the right to laugh with you and point out how cute your kids are.
  • I will keep sharing my life with you.
  • I won’t be offended if you want to unfriend me or want see fewer of my updates.
  • I will pray for you.

Holding the Excitement and the Grief

Here’s my real point of concern in staying friends: I worry about sharing my excitement over my new call and new adventure while my former church is in the midst of grieving and does the hard work of interim and self-study. I can imagine that this might be hard to take. And yet, as our deacon noted, it can be an opportunity to continue to learn from each other. And this is only a temporary time - a year, maximum, until Redeemer has a new pastor. Then we will all be excited for the new ministries we’ve embarked on.

Some have suggested refraining from social media interaction for a full year at the end of a call. Every situation is different, but this feels a bit artificial to me. And anyway, the danger of meddling doesn’t end with the interim process is over. The temptation may even be greater when a new pastor is chosen and people make the inevitable comparisons, and look to you for what they feel like they are not be getting him or her.

And on grieving - I’m a little concerned that the grief might be amplified because we are further cut off. So many people have said to me, “Well, I’ll see you on Facebook, right?” Knowing we will stay connected definitely eases the pain of goodbye.

If holding the grief and excitement is problematic, pastors might consider moving former parishioners to their list of “acquaintances” in order to exempt them from posts that may seem unhelpful. On the other hand, if people don’t want to see it, they can always hide your updates or unfriend you. Don’t take it personally.

digital accompaniment

For me, I look forward to being connected and staying friends. We can continue to appreciate, learn, and connect with one another beyond the pastor-parishioner relationship as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

We are all on this journey of faith and being Church together. For a time we walk that journey together. For a time we walk it apart. These days we walk it on Facebook too.

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