Social media offers a lot. The chance for people to exchange articles and ideas, as well as the opportunity to (re)connect with people from nearly all over the globe. For all that can be said in its favour, however, the pitfalls of social media can be easily outlined. Trolls, getting into arguments online, and the fact that anything you post is online forever are some of the more obvious downsides for everyone, but what about those, specifically, who work for the church?
For many Uniting Church ministers, social media is an extension of their ministry, a chance to connect with people, in their own congregation and beyond.
Rev. Suzanne Stanton is Minister of the Word at St John’s Uniting Church Wahroonga. She says that social media, used positively, can build connections amongst a church community.
“It can be a place to affirm and encourage others both when things go well and when they are struggling,” Rev. Stanton said.
“For the congregation, it can be a way of sharing good news about what is happening in the congregation and also a means of spiritual encouragement through calls to prayer and written prayers shared. Using social media to share Internet articles on mission and ministry is also valuable in generating conversation amongst congregation members.”
Rev. Dr John Squires is the Principal of the Perth Theological Hall, having previously been based in New South Wales. A self-confessed “Facebook tragic”, he says that the platform has been helpful for his ministry.
“The main professional advantage of Facebook for me is that it facilitates ongoing contact with friends and colleagues in various locations – across Australia, as well as people in Europe, the UK and the USA.”
“I use Facebook to post photos and reports of key things that I have been doing in ministry. I know that this is partly for my own self-ego gratification but also it is partly to assure colleagues that there are indeed good things happening in the Uniting Church. I get good feedback on the latter on a fairly regular basis.”
A resourcing space
For Uniting Church ministers, social media can provide a practical place to exchange ministry ideas and resources.
“I think it is good that people in one location can know that there are good things happening elsewhere, be encouraged by that, and perhaps gain ideas for their own ministry from that. I’ve certainly picked up ideas from other people online. It’s a good forum for sharing, alongside of face to face conversations,” Rev. Dr Squires said.
“I belong to some moderated Facebook groups which provide links to resources and discussions about resources for particular needs and occasions. Craig Mitchell facilitated some of these groups when he was working for the Assembly and they have continued.”
“I have used Facebook as a tool to educate people about particular issues that I have a passion for. I’ve been criticised for being on a soapbox, and also for expecting to educate in an environment where emotions are dominant (and can’t be adequately addressed). That’s a challenge that I still ponder.”
“I have posted lots in past years about the theology of Christmas carols (and that morphed into a four week Advent study that I led in the church I was then serving) and also about the theology of the Trinity (just to aggravate my more orthodox friends!). Because of the interest that was generated by my posts about marriage, in the lead up to the recent Assembly and in the weeks after the decision was made, I have started a blog, to which I post reasonably regularly. I am a follower and reader of the blogs of a number of colleagues and can see the benefits of this kind of online resource as well.”
Putting Up Boundaries
The Uniting Church NSW and ACT Synod has a detailed Social Media Guide that ministers need to adhere to regarding their social media presence.
According to the guide, ministers need to ensure that their social media presence does not undermine their work, that they guard confidential information that they gather through their work, and that they only use their private email address for their personal accounts.
Keeping these standards in mind, then, is something that Uniting Church ministers need to practice in their online life.
“I am aware of the problems that come from a blurring of boundaries in using social media,” Rev. Dr Squires said.
“I’ve been called to account a couple of times for the posts that I have made—especially when I have expressed a personal opinion in a direct and unsubtle way, and it has been seen to reflect badly on the church of which I am a member and minister. I’ve pulled my head in a couple of times in this regard.”
Rev. Stanton told Insights that she has put a number of boundaries up with congregation members on social media. “My main social media platform is Facebook and I never initiate Facebook connections with congregation members as I wouldn’t want to pressure them in any way to accept a friend request when they may prefer privacy,” she said.
“However, I’ll always accept a friend request from someone as long as I know them outside of Facebook. My policy in personal posting is never to share anything that I am not happy for anyone in my congregation to see and I never comment on anything to do with particular pastoral situations or life in the congregation on my personal Facebook page. I know it sounds a bit like selective reporting, but really my motto is that if I can’t post something positive I won’t post anything at all.”
Rev. Stanton also nominated a number of ways that she applies due diligence to her congregation’s Facebook page, including only posting general content and photos of major events at a distance.
“I rarely post photos of children and never without specific permission from their parents,” she said.
“I would only post content that I believe my Church Council would endorse as a whole body, and that I think represents the congregation as they would wish to be represented publicly and corporately.”
Rev. Dr Squires said that he refrained “from posting on certain issues at certain times.”
“Because of the particular ministry roles that I have had in the past decade, I have regularly been involved in conversations face to face which are “difficult”, “challenging”, or similar, and I know that I can’t be reporting this online, even when it would feel like a very good release of pressure to do so.”
“I have a great supervisor and that’s where this work belongs—in confidential supervision sessions, not on public online posts! But I need to keep monitoring my activities and ensuring that I maintain a strong sense of boundaries as to what is appropriate, and what is not. That actually holds for various face to face conversations that I have as well—I need to be sure about what is appropriate to talk about in formal and informal conversations with colleagues and church people.”
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor