By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministry
[dropcap type=”1″]t[/dropcap]he first few months at a new church are incredibly important for a pastor. First impressions are made and relationships are formed that can have a significant impact on their future ministry together. The ‘ghost’ of the outgoing pastor is rarely a helpful thing. That is why most denominations have set rules in place to dissuade continuing “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor.”
What undermines another pastor’s ministry (or other ministry professional), and how one avoids this, can be a bit subjective. Does it undermine another pastor’s ministry when a beloved pastor retires but continues to live just a few blocks away from the church? Possibly. Is a pastor undermining another’s ministry when parishioners follow them to a new appointment 20 minutes away? It certainly might feel that way.
In each case, one’s physical proximity isn’t everything; the former pastor’s intentions and behavior also have to be taken into account. If they did all they could to create space for the new pastor, is it fair to hold them accountable for the decisions church members make?
[quote_box_right]De-friending church members might be an easy solution but it can also suggest a clinical artificiality to the relationship that could cause unintentional harm.[/quote_box_right]Facebook and other forms of social media provide yet another means of pastoral and personal connection. And thus, it also offers another point of connection which demands our concern during times of transition. Like email and phone contact, connections made through social media are not directly impacted by distance. Unlike the aforementioned, social media connections may be unintentional so they warrant additional care.
It is increasingly common for spiritual leaders and church members to be connected online but the nature of this connection varies greatly. For some pastors and church folks, this interaction is informal and sporadic; offering glimpses of the other’s life beyond Sunday morning. For others, this interaction is very intentional. More ministry leaders are using social media for pastoral care, and ongoing disciple-forming conversation, than ever before.
Given the diverse ways social media is used, a simple directive for transitioning leaders is hard to come by. Instead of suggesting that leaders delete all their friends, create separate ‘ministry accounts,’ or stay off of social media altogether, perhaps it would be better to work toward some process of discernment. For those who use social media sporadically, it’s less likely that their connection will offer much of a threat to the incoming pastor. But for those leaders who use social media heavily and intentionally, deliberation should be given as to how they can create space for the new pastor.
As we consider our alternatives, we also must acknowledge that our haste to create a clean separation can have the unintended effect of delegitimizing future relationships between leaders and church members. De-friending church members might be an easy solution but it can also suggest a clinical artificiality to the relationship that could cause unintentional harm.
The following advice is given as a starting point. It is not a one-size fits all solution to pastoral transitions on social media.
The first work that should be done is discernment. The key goal of this discernment is arriving at a solid understanding of how ‘real’ our social media relationships are. As relationships, by their nature, involve more than one person, we should be interested in understanding both our self-perception and the possible perceptions of the congregations members we are leaving behind. Consider the following questions:
Do you share posts (words, pictures, video) that are personal in nature with members of your congregation?
- When you share such posts, how do you feel when church members interact with it?
- Are your feelings significantly impacted if these posts are responded to in a positive or negative way, or if they are ignored?
- Do the members of your church grow in their sense of connection with you through your online engagement with them?
- Do members expect you to know something significant about their lives because they posted it online?
Do you share posts and links to topics that are spiritual in nature?
- When you share such posts, do members comment on these posts or mention them in other in-person conversations during the week?
- Do you use said posts to supplement other teaching you do on Sunday morning or in Bible studies?
- Do you regularly engage in online conversations around such topics that would help members to understand your beliefs and provoke them to think more deeply about their own?
- Do you blog or post video/audio of your sermons? Is this done in a manner that is distributive or conversational?
Do you share posts about events and items that are specific to your local church?
- When you share such posts, are members more likely to notice and/or participate in the events?
- Does your sharing of an event convey some type of blessing or validation?
- Do members ask you to share church items via your social media networks?
Good pastoral transitions involve a lot of work from both the incoming and outgoing pastor. As each is often involved in navigating two transitions simultaneously, discernment is an important tool to help one to know where time and energy is best spent. How ‘real’ such interaction is perceived by both clergy and laity should influence our steps forward.
If in considering the questions above you could only think of rare occasions of significant, or ‘real’, interaction with members of your congregation online, your ‘social media transition’ might not be worth significant concern. It would still be important to be intentional and collegial in redirecting pastoral conversations to the incoming pastor.
On the other hand, if you found that the questions above caused you to remember multiple occasions where you interacted in significant (real) ways with members of the congregation, you should plan to spend more time considering how to best honor and transition these social media relationships as well.
Developing an Action Plan to Transition Well
In the past, many advised deleting/unfriending/blocking church members from social media accounts during one’s transition. Of course this is still an option for problem situations and for those wishing to draw sharp, “professional” boundaries. But as social media platforms mature, they are becoming more flexible and capable for those seeking to create boundaries between themselves and former church members. Social media accounts allow this process to be handled more delicately through the use of lists and intentional posting on the part of a transitioning leader. Rev. Jeremy Smith, Minister of Discipleship at Portland First UMC has recently detailed the currently process of doing this on Facebook; you can find his guide HERE.
Following is a short list of things to consider doing as you seek to create space for the pastor or ministry leader that will follow you. The particulars of your situation may dictate a different course and you should consider discussing your plans with the other ministry leader involved in your transition, if at all possible.
- Intentionally limit all social media interaction for one year with members of your former church.
- Avoid and defer all pastoral interaction, particularly those conversations about the new pastor.
- Write a letter explaining why you aren’t interacting with lay folks from your former church.
Actions To Avoid
- Don’t delete all your former church contacts. The big platforms now offer a variety of settings to help manage relationships.
- Don’t create a separate, or new, Facebook account.
- Avoid assuming that all the members of your church really understand itinerancy. Expect they’ve had a pastor with different understandings. Explain yours.
Before you delete, group, or otherwise limit interaction with members of the ministry you are transitioning away from, you should consider directly communicating your intent behind any change in engagement. Our United Methodist process of itinerancy may make perfect sense to you (possibly) but it’s unlikely that all of the members of your church will understand it. And for those who have been Methodist for their entire lives, it’s likely they’ve experienced at least one pastor with a radically different understanding of professional boundaries and collegiality than your own.
Finally, a couple small housekeeping matters.
- If you are an administrator for your church’s social media accounts, please be deliberate in sharing this access with the incoming leader and detail any common practices that you’ve found particularly effective in connecting with members. If the incoming pastor is not on social media, work to find another staff person or member to transition this responsibility to.
- Remove yourself from the various administrative roles and notification alerts that keep you aware and connected.
- Add the information about your new position to your personal online profiles while also clearly noted your end date if possible.
- Develop short but polite boilerplate language to respond to social media messaging from those who aren’t aware of your transition. This might mirror language you’d use as an auto-response on an email you don’t plan to check regularly.
- Consider how you can proactively connect the new pastor to the most helpful online resources and connections so they can hit the ground running.
Social media and other advances in communications technology offer much to people seeking to stay connected and remind us that we are rarely as far from one another (or Kevin Bacon) as we might sometime perceive. This flattening of our world also brings us some new challenges but nothing that can’t be overcome through careful work and and prayerful preparation.
What are your thoughts?
What has worked for you in social media transitions? What hasn’t?
What would you add or change? Leave a comment below.
Sample Facebook Post
Adapted from a post by Rev. Peter Perry, Used with permission.
Social Media, and especially Facebook, creates a constant virtual proximity to people, even when real-life relationships change. As a pastor in transition, I am committed to making space in my church for a new pastor to enter into your lives. Therefore over the next few weeks I will be using various FB options, ranging from unfriending to unfollowing to adding friends to selected groups and limiting my posts to those groups.It doesn’t mean I love any of you less, but that I want to be faithful to the covenant of pastoral ministry. Especially to those who are connected to me through First Your Town UMC, I will encourage you to go to your new pastor for pastoral concerns and conversation about the church. But don’t worry… my personal life, especially my photography, will continue to be largely public on Facebook.