Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace are working their way into our churches and the connections and communications that are made possible by social media changes how pastors and congregations relate and communicate.  Ministries that once relied on pen and paper (or at least the newsletter) for communication can move at the speed of the internet.  Relationships that might naturally ebb away after a pastor moves, can now be kept up in perpetuity in cyber space.  Thanks to social media, you and your eighth grade boys cabin can remain friends for life.

Friends on FacebookHow is this new connectivity changing the way pastors and congregations relate to each other?

1.  Removes the robe.  The cloak of professionalism that keeps pastors and congregants in relationships that traditionally orbit around the functions of a church building, gets shrugged off the shoulders.  The robe is a symbol that separates the sacred from the profane, the worldly from the holy and when a minister steps into the robe she steps into holy time — out of this world and into the realm of God.  However, even without the robe, some people think that the mystique of the holy still clings to their clothing and we expect to be able to glance at them, even sitting behind their desk, and see a little glistening.  Ministers are hardly people who got tired, irritated, or disappointed.  Let alone depressed, or fall in love.

In social media space, however; pastors and congregants become human to each other.  Each social media tool asks participants to answer simple questions like, “What are you doing?”  or “What is on your mind?”  If we are honest in answering these questions, then we also reveal the gamut of our humanness to each other.  Rather than keeping to the sterile politeness that files off anything that might be remotely real, we become participants in a common humanity.  We are not a pastor and a congregant, but people who clean the bathrooms because the relatives are coming, and who need coffee at 3 in the afternoon to stay awake for the next meeting.  Rather than defined by the definitions of our supposed roles, we are defined by who we are, what we do, and what we care about.

2.  Makes it easier to stay connected.  Quite simply, this is what social media was designed for — on-line tools that let humans do what humans do best — build relationships and make connections.  Churches might have invented the concept that meaningful relationships happen best in community, but we now have a tool at our fingertips that lets those relationships flourish outside of the church facility.  No longer limited to geography, social media makes it possible to create groups, on pages like Facebook, develop your own social media sites using technology like Ning and Joomla.

Although a church usually sees itself as one community, it is usually communities within a community.  There are naturally formed groups, like the youth group, and some officially designated groups, like the board or the “50 Year Members” club.  Think about your church as a series of overlapping communities, each with their own need to communicate, organize, and connect.  Social media tools makes it possible to create ways for groups within the church to stay connected.

Because of social media tools, the connectivity between a group and the church is no longer a one-way street.  Whereas communication traffic once started with the church and radiated outwards, using social media, it’s a three-way street with public transit.  Using the tools provided through social media, churches can keep up with the group, the group can keep up with each other, and the pastor can continue a relationship with both their congregation and the group, all while people from the world (depending on the social media site) hop on and off and get interested in what is going on.

Here are some of the methods I’m aware of how social media has been used in congregations:

Keep up with the graduating class as they go off to college.

Create a discussion page for youth in pastors classes about faith and their upcoming baptism.

Create groups for people who have some relationship to the church, but may not be regular worshipers.  (This could be your regional minister, colleagues, or the once a month attendees — but all have a vested interest in what is going on.)

Create your churches own social media site — where congregants can create their own profile, start forums, post events to a calendar, and notify each other of anything of interest.

Advertise special events and invite others to attend the “event” in virtual space, even if they can’t be there in person.

However, social media is changing how pastors and congregants can stay connected even after a pastor is no longer serving a church.  The protective measures we have implemented to help define boundaries: such as pastors not joining the churches they have just left or retired from — become blurred in social media where pastors and congregants can remain connected and continue a relationship even when the pastor is no longer in the same geographic location. Or, when congregants move away, they can still maintain a relationship with their pastor. Social media tools may mean that someone still has a connection to a minister through life’s transitions.

3. Changes the timing of the release of information.  A pastor posts they are working on a deficit budget and anyone who keeps up with them through social media has four additional days to stew on this piece of information before its announced to the whole congregation at the next meeting.  Or, a pastor posts that someone just came by for some pastoral care, and what might be a general statement about the reality of ministry, becomes insider information for a parishioner familiar enough with the context to fill in other details — like who might have just stopped by.  One of the hazards of social media is that it makes all conversations for everybody, and the nuances that are permitted through other manners of communication that take into account different audiences, is diminished or erased all together.

It also means, however; that events that might take a week to be released through more traditional methods of communication like the newsletter or announcements on a Sunday morning, can be shared, advertised, and invited, as soon as they are planned.  Members of a congregation who are connected through social media can create events and invite each other without the pastor needing to get involved.  And, through tools like “invite others to this event” feature on Facebook, anyone can do easy evangelism.

Pastoral Responses:  Funerals, Counseling, and Releasing Control

The flexibility of social media may send pastors or congregational leaders who like to keep their finger on  the pulse of planning into hysterics, or it may become a tool of liberation — depending on the leadership style of the individual.  However, social media tools do provide quick ways to keep in communication with those willing to use it.  A quick, “how are you doing, missed seeing you today,” no longer requires a stamp.  Or a “wow, your kids has sure grown, loved seeing the picture of you all down in Florida,” can be quick ways of continuing a pastoral relationship.

It can also be a vehicle for responding to pastoral needs, like being able to be present in moments of crisis or care that might be otherwise unavailable without the on-line relationship.  Personally speaking, I had a friend die unexpectedly, and unable to attend the funeral, I created an on-line group for “friends of” my friend to remember him.  For weeks, friends used the page to post pictures of him, comment to each other, advertise directions to the funeral, and in other ways support each other through our grief.  It became a kind of virtual grieving wall that transcended geography and brought a community of friends together.  Not a traditional funeral by any means, it was however; clearly a moment of pastoral care made possible through the tools of social media.

Using social media tools, does however, require release of control.  Your congregation may organize without you.  Your pastor may advertise an event before it gets printed in the newsletter.  You will create a page for your youth group and someone will post an unflattering picture of you drooling from underneath your sleeping bag.  But this is part of being human and being with each other in social and meaningful relationships.  And a part of becoming reengaged in community life with each other.

Rev. Janetta Cravens Boyd

Rev. Janetta Cravens Boyd is pastor of University Christian Church in Seattle, WA, and interested in how social media is changing church culture.