Every month or so, there’s a new scare about why we shouldn’t be on social media. Facebook is spying on you. Twitter is not trustworthy. Instagram is in control of your life. Virtual relationships are replacing real relationships.
And for some people, social media encourages addictive patterns that are hard to break. The urge not to miss anything causes perpetual peeking at the smart phone. The need to comment on others’ posts leads easily to intemperate language. The appearance that everyone else is living a more glamorous life than you can damage self-esteem and deepen depression.
These and other factors play into the dilemma ministers may face when deciding whether to get on or stay on social media.
Despite the well-known challenges, it is self-defeating for pastors in particular to declare their moral superiority to everyone else and walk away from social media. We may not like the present reality of how people communicate, but it is the present reality. When we opt out, we remove our voices from the conversation and fail to be informed about what others are doing and saying.
“These days, social media is a key source of pastoral care information.”
A new study from New York University and Stanford University has reported that people who deactivated their Facebook accounts for a month felt less politically polarized but were demonstrably less informed. And most people in the study who were paid to leave Facebook went back online after the payments stopped. According to CNN, the study found that Facebook produces significant benefits, “including being a source of entertainment, a way to be active in communities and a place to socialize.”
I imagine there was some time long ago when pastors declared they weren’t going to get sucked into the trap of the newfangled telephone. Surely it would lead to gossip and idle chatter and take time away from prayer and Bible reading.
And speaking of telephones, here’s a plea to younger pastors: Please answer your phone and stop screening your calls because you’re afraid of who’s calling. But I digress.
These days, social media is a key source of pastoral care information. Think of the times you’ve learned via Facebook or Twitter about someone’s medical condition or job loss or promotion or celebration. Being reminded of birthdays, engagements, children’s successes and other milestone events allows an attentive pastor to speak personal words of congratulation and condolence. Sure, you might learn the same information eventually – maybe. But don’t expect people to call you to tell you.
Pastors also face challenges in how they will allow others to communicate with them digitally. For example, I know some pastors who refuse to receive communication via Facebook Messenger. If that’s a generally understood practice in your faith community, fine. But be aware that if you want to reach and be responsive to those outside your community, you might need to rethink this practice. Some of the best pastoral care opportunities in my ministry came via Messenger from people who didn’t know another way to contact me. Or they came from people for whom Messenger is their native language. As a pastor, why should I demand that others communicate with me only on my terms and never from their natural patterns? That’s like saying you’ll only receive phone calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“We are called to bring the words of life to life by applying and interpreting them in the context where we live and work. Social media is an inevitable part of that.”
As important as it is, pastoral care is not the main reason to remain on social media. Pastors should answer the telephone and pay attention to social media for the same reasons they should read the newspaper. Sequestering ourselves from the unfolding world around us leaves us preaching a dry and impersonal gospel. The same is true when we distance ourselves from where our congregants live and work and the digital tools they use to express themselves. We are called to bring the words of life to life by applying and interpreting them in the context where we live and work. Like it or not, social media is an inevitable part of that.
For clergy to shun social media these days may appear to others a modern form of monasticism. Maybe you are called to such a life of focused prayer and devotion away from the world. But remember that the monastics never serve as leaders of parishes. And that few people are called to the monastic life.
Often when people abruptly declare they’re leaving social media behind (which is too often done in a sanctimonious and self-congratulatory way), they are taking an extreme measure to address a lesser problem. No thought seems to be given to moderation as an option.
Here are four tips for addressing the real problems that don’t require disconnecting entirely:
Set limits. If addiction to social media is your thorn, the problem is your use of social media, not the existence of social media. Set limits. Figure out what works for you and find a way to moderation. Rather than ditching social media for Lent, how about reducing time on social media instead?
Read but don’t post. If your social media posts are getting you in hot water, undertake a period of reading but not posting. There’s a way to be present, even to comment with positive words only, without igniting controversy. This allows you to know what’s going on in others’ lives and in the world.
Unfriend people. There’s no law that you have to get poked in the eye every time you log on to social media. Unfriend bullies. Unfollow those who make you mad every time. You don’t have to get off the platform to avoid a few people who are troublemakers. You know how you step the other way in a crowded room to avoid confronting someone? The same can be done on social media.
Be intentional in relationships. A false narrative has been offered to say that being on social media precludes real face-to-face relationships. That would be true only if you never left your house and only lived on social media. Virtual dialogue and face-to-face dialogue are not mutually exclusive any more than walking and riding in a car are mutually exclusive; each has its place. There’s little evidence that people who quit social media actually start having more face-to-face conversations as a result. Whether you’re on social media or not, be intentional to open yourself to one-on-one conversations.
Clergy or layperson, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely in the choir to whom I’m preaching since most of you will have accessed this column via social media. So, feel free to print it and share a hard copy with colleagues and friends who may not see it otherwise.