The challenge of communicating in a technology saturated world.
Image: d3sign / Getty
Editor’s Note: With so many ways to connect with our flock and other people through social media, we asked some preachers/teachers to share how they interact with others on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other such applications/websites. They share some of the guardrails they have put in place when messaging with others. Their wisdom on guarding our online communication is both practical and deep. We hope some of the ideas shared here will help you as you communicate with others!
Mandy Smith, Preacher/Author
It’s helpful to have best practices for email, texting, and social media for ourselves and our staff. For example, I put into place for my staff a policy that we don’t have any relationally significant (i.e. potentially contentious or easily misunderstood) communication via electronic means, including among us as a staff. Instead, I ask that we communicate in person, if at all possible (and by phone or Zoom if necessary). When we don’t hear their voice or see their face, it’s easy to forget there’s a person behind the text on a screen. It’s easier to consume them from our hunger to be loved or spit venom at them from our pain.
Ultimately, though, when our strongest emotions are stirred, best practices for the sake of best practices will not be enough. Our immaturity, pain, anxiety will override any policies. The best of practices is for us to search our own hearts and ask the Lord to show us what we long to find in others that we should only find in him. It will take the rest of our lives to get it right. But the more we invest in that deep healing and embrace that identity, the healthier all our communication will be.
Dave Adamson, Online Preacher/Author/Social Media Consultant
Let’s be honest, social media and DMs are morally neutral tools. They can help you go into all the world to preach the gospel and give you a platform to speak up for the marginalized, or they can be used to create private places for inappropriate relationships and give you a platform to bully anyone who thinks differently.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “words create worlds,” and I believe it doesn’t matter if these words are said face-to-face, via a video watched online, or written in an Instagram DM. Which is why pastors and church staff need to have guardrails in place to minimize the potential of personal, professional, and spiritual damage.
So, assuming we’re already dealing with our own immaturity, stress, emotional issues, insecurities, and sin, here are some guardrails I recommend for electronic communication.
Don’t have ongoing conversations electronically. DMs and texts are for short information transfer.
Ensure someone else has password access to your accounts. For pastors, this could be an assistant or other trusted staff member. For everyone else, it could be a spouse, mentor, or close friend.
Ensure someone else has password access to your phone. In my house, all our mobile devices have the same password, which means my wife and daughters can access my phone and DMs at any time.
Schedule a time on your calendar to respond to emails and DMs. Issues usually arise when people DM or post from a phone late at night when we’re vulnerable to temptation.
Set up Quick Replies for Instagram that have been approved by accountability partners. This is easy to do and not only sets a guardrail, it also makes responding to messages more efficient.
Only respond to DMs and emails on a computer. See number 4.
It’s interesting that many church leaders will argue that “online isn’t real” until it brings down a ministry, career, or a marriage. These guardrails should be applied in advance to help you avoid doing something you’ll have to explain to your entire church later.
Taylor Turkington, Teacher/Trainer at BibleEqupping.org
Preachers and teachers will find themselves known publicly because of the nature of the work. Social media only increases the one-sided familiarity, so it’s natural that conversations begin.
Guardrails for social media messages flow from our theological convictions. We’re called to love and live rightly like Christ. The person on the other end of the message has God-given dignity. We are to serve in community, not private ministry or isolated relationships. There are responsibilities that go with teaching the Word.
Let me share briefly how these convictions impact my use of messaging.
Righteousness and Love
There’s much that’s been said about purity and righteousness. But we know that righteousness is tied to our love of God and people. If love is our goal in messages, I consider how to serve the person before me. This can cut off our desire to prove ourselves as teachers or get our own emotional needs met. Preachers often want to be needed or praised. They’re under stress and can be looking for confidants, but Christ-like love considers what is best for the person in my inbox. That’s not using them.
For me, when messages are with someone from the opposite sex, I mention them to my spouse. It may be a man I don’t know, whom I attempt to connect with someone else. Or it may be a long-time friend checking in on my projects or my family every year or so. I thank God for long-term friendships, with sisters and brothers, so we exchange a quick update. As part of our belief that we interact with image-bearers, my team or I acknowledge every message we receive (that isn’t spam).
Preachers and teachers, you are called to community. I will argue that the Body of Christ is called to sibling relationships for men and women. If we see these interactions as inherently dangerous, we’ve misconstrued our understanding of the people of God.
At the same time, those relationships are designed to be lived within a larger community. Private messaging is just that—private, and often more so than a quick coffee meet-up. If you wouldn’t say a sentence in front of four of your friends in the church hallway, you probably shouldn’t be messaging it.
If you are interacting with someone of the opposite sex consistently in messages, make sure that is known by your spouse and theirs (if they have one) and be sure you are interacting in the same manner in public for the sake of accountability.
I partner in ministry with several of the male pastors at my church who may message me once during the week in the way a brother would—checking on our family when sick, responding to my post, sending me something they think I’d be interested in. Yet, we primarily interact in-person, in groups, with our families. And anything we message to each other could easily be shared without any shame or concern.
I hope you’re partnering with women in your churches whom you treat like a sister in Christ, whom you seek out for wisdom, and whom you encourage in her ministry. Yet, know her in community.
Those who teach the Word have a power differential often forgotten that brings additional responsibility for accountability. We stand on stages and what we say is often interpreted as more than our opinion, even when the mic is off.
Even in the private message. We have a responsibility to pay attention to use of power, particularly in our search for friends and mentees. If someone wants personal, frequent, and long-term shepherding or tutoring, no matter who they are, I point them to have it in their local church. If you are their local pastor or an assigned ministry leader, shepherd them in community with accountability within your ministry team.
No one’s gifts, including leadership and pastoral care, are designed to be used solo, but within Christian community with others who can give guidance and warnings if needed. Social media culture fans our feelings of power, as if we can do anything on our own, but we know better.
Sean Palmer, Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston/Author
When Steve Jobs said that iPhone was the most personal device, he could not know how prescient he was. Our phones, and the activities we use them for, know more about our light and darkness than our closest friends.
Pastors are no more or less susceptible to using the Internet for ignoble purposes, but the results are not merely hurtful to ourselves and families, but also our churches and, worse still, the witness of the Kingdom.
It’s crucial that pastors and church leaders think carefully and behave intentionally when it comes to social media. Here are some initial steps:
Realign Your Life: You might need to leave social media. If not leave altogether, like me, you can limit your engagement.
Remember Your Vocation: If you wouldn’t say it to your church, don’t say it on the web. Beware the lack of nuance in spaces like Twitter, Parler, Facebook, inside the private messaging features and apps. Words are easy to misconstrue, absent of context. What might be motivated by innocence, may not read that way to others. What’s more, with type and text being mindful of how your spouse, children, or closest friends might interpret your words and posture.
Real Conversations with Real Parishioners: If people have questions regarding your theology or need care, rather than a dialogue over social media, invite them to lunch or coffee. If your interlocutor lives far away, the question becomes whether or not you are the right person to host this conversation. Perhaps it’s better to find another pastor for whom local, incarnational ministry is a reality.
Real Friends: Leaders need friends, real friends. Like everyone, we need those in whom we can confide our brightest hopes and deepest struggles. Friendless pastors are susceptible pastors. When relationships become elusive, we begin to nurture relationships which may be out of bounds, having been so long out of the practice of mutual relationships.
Real Spirituality: As a spiritual leader, you need to commit yourself to spiritual direction. We all require a trusted voice, with an active ear, to hear our insecurities, rejoice in our successes, and challenge our deficiencies. Too frequently, we turn to social media as a means of being known. This is the wrong place for the wrong thing.
Anthony Delaney, Senior Leader at Ivy Church (Manchester)/Author
Pardon My Algorithm
As a church leader now in my fifties though I’m in no way ahead of the curve at least I try to be aware of the lie of the land. To that end I have a podcast, a blog, two Facebook pages (did anyone else try to have a public page after starting a personal one, only to end up with one you use and the other you don’t?), I’m on Instagram and Linkedin.
I was on Twitter for many years and ended up with thousands of followers, but left one day after reading 2 Timothy 2:24, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel.” I realised big issues in short sentences was quite toxic for me and I needed to guard my blood pressure.
It’s always about the heart (Prov. 4:23, Mark 7:21, Luke 6:45) and its overflow, not the platform.
Recently after descending into a Facebook comments war with another minister who seemed to me to be only posting negatively and divisively on various platforms, I posted my phone number and said “let’s talk” (remember that?). We found much common ground. He asked if I had seen various other positive posts he had also put on, which it turned out were indeed there. I realised I was not engaging with him at all, but rather with “algorithm avatar him” promoted because those were the posts people actually commented on. That made me consider who people think I am based on my own digital footprint, which has often worn big hob nailed boots.
The Digitalisation of Your Reputation
For good or ill, your social media presence is the digitalisation of your reputation. My question as a minister then is simple – do I aim to gain as many followers as possible for myself, or to gain followers for Christ by pointing to him.
For that to be meaningful however I can’t just post about myself going to church, being in church, or talking about church. There has to be something more personal to engage people and actually build trust through appropriate openness. So I will talk about my struggles and joys in short form videos and post Bible verses and items that inspire me.
However I rarely post photos of my family. I don’t portray myself in ways that would seem extravagant. I am more discerning than I used to be to add friends who actually know me in some way in real life (and are real!). I block people who are offensive, because they are not “friends.” I do not communicate at all in private chats, e.g. Facebook Messenger, except to say “Please email ….”’ My PA has access and passwords for all these channels and often posts thereon for me. I use accountability software and our church will pay the subscription of any staff member who wants to set that up to help set guardrails in place.
Of course, one can bypass all systems and safeguards either by stealth or stupidity, so when I read of others falling in such ways I’d only go back on Twitter to post: “A good name is worth more than riches” (Prov. 22:1). And “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Ken Shigematsu, Senior Pastor of Tenth Church (Vancouver, BC)/Author
Given the number of pastors I know who have fallen to sexual temptation and knowing that I am not above an inappropriate relationship, I deeply value my weekly Zoom conversations with my friend Mark, where we mutually confess various temptations, struggles, and sins and then pray for each other. This may sound heavy, but in practice it feels truly uplifting. When I name a temptation with my trusted friend, it also seems to tame it. I am less likely to go down a path that may seem innocuous at first but will ultimately prove disastrous – saving me from acknowledging and confessing something even more troubling both to my friend and my God.
Where there is excess, there is lack. When we feel dead inside, we grasp for something shimmering that promises life. When we feel like our soul is satisfied, temptation diminishes. As the Quaker elder Parker Palmer says, “Self-care is never a selfish act, it is the stewardship of the only gift we have to offer the world.” Part of faithful stewardship involves doing things that make us come alive. For me this means doing something physical outdoors such as running through a forest trail, hiking up a mountain, or kayaking on the ocean. Others are transported to joy while listening to a piece of stirring music or standing in front of a beautiful work of art. Any practice that makes us come alive over time, even if it is not overtly religious, is a spiritual practice and will protect us, our families, and our calling.