Separation Ethics and Social Media

Facebook went public in the fall of 2006 … that is, sign-ups were no longer restricted to people with email addresses ending with .edu or some other approved corporation … The day it went public was the day my profile was created.  For a few months before that, I was “sharing” a corporate account of my husband’s. I said it was to learn about this developing social platform, but, frankly, it was more about keeping an eye on our daughter’s online presence as she was heading off to the University of North Texas.

It wasn’t my first foray into social media.  I had been introduced to “chat rooms” on CompuServe back in the mid 1980’s.   I belonged to various email listserves, began a personal blog and started affiliating with RevGalBlogPals in the mid to late 1990’s.  So, for well over a decade now, I’ve had a public, internet presence.  Facebook was a game changer, though; as a pastor serving on presbytery staff, it wasn’t long before my Facebook presence also became a professional communication tool.  Pastors and colleagues started private messaging me with quick questions or to give me news.  Friends and family, acquaintances from high school, college, seminary and every one of my pastoral calls eventually connected with me on Facebook.  Online ethics and boundaries in ministry became a topic of conversation as our various worlds collided in cyberspace.

There is no universal code of ethical boundaries that works for everyone online.  When talking about separation ethics, for instance, there are no hard and fast “rules” for disengagement.  Pastors do not have to unfriend all members of the church they leave.  On the other hand, answering questions about pastoral leadership tweeted by a former member is out of line. Understanding the values and wisdom of separation ethics is important in setting your own boundaries.  And, it’s imperative, if you have an active social media presence, that you consider which boundaries you will set for interaction with your former church members.

In a boundary training workshop offered by a number of New Jersey presbyteries this fall, we learned that boundaries in ministry are often blurry..  In a therapeutic relationship the boundaries are much clearer.  Therapists and clients have a “professional” relationship; a friendship or non-professional relationship crosses the line.  In the ministry, though, developing social relationships with members of the church is expected and often considered good ministry.  Attending ball games, fellowship activities, family parties, weddings, birth of a new baby etc. are often part of the normal work of ministry.  Having a relationship with members is important in pastoral care and spiritual formation and worship leadership and leadership development.  It’s important, though, to set our own boundaries … these placement of those limits may be different for different pastors and pastor’s families.  We need to remember, especially, our position of power and authority in the relationship.  It takes a great deal of personal integrity, self-awareness, and responsibility to set those limits, to know when we’ve crossed them (because most of us do at some point) and to re-evaluate.  Being transparent and talking about the limits with church members can be helpful.  The bottom line is that while some situations are “no brainers” others are more subjective.  We all agree that having a romantic relationship with a married elder is clearly out of line, most of us agree that being friends with a family whose kids attend school with yours is clearly understandable, but we may not agree about going to a movie twice a month with a particular group of women from the church.

Many of us prefer clear rules.  And, regarding separation ethics and social media, I know it might seem easier if I just gave you some specific do’s and don’t’s  … I won’t.  But I will list some things to consider in setting your own boundaries and expectations when leaving a call:

  • Consider the level of engagement you’ve had with members of the church on social media.  If you frequently have interchanges through wall posts or comments on Facebook or Twitter, think about stepping down the level of engagement.  Maybe set a “like or retweet” only rule for awhile, until the new level of interaction seems more natural.
  • Consider the nature of the post or tweet.  For instance, “liking” a pic of a new baby is not the same as “liking” a comment about “nominations to the PNC.”
  • Consider the emotional impact of your posts and your reactions to seeing posts from congregation members.
  • Consider the nature of your relationship with former members.  Some you may want to “remain friends” with because the nature of your relationship is different.  Yes, I know, there was an expectation that your relationships with members of a congregation should be equal.  We all know that’s not realistic.  Some people may have been serving in the community with you … singing together in a community chorus or barbershop quartet … others may be close family friends because of children, etc.  Some, you know, will be good friends for decades to come … that’s ok.
  • Consider the many tools you have on social media platforms … There are other options, for instance, on Facebook than merely “friending” and “unfriending” people.  You can “hide” posts from people on your timeline, if you find that reading their posts is difficult for you to make an emotional break, for instance.  Or, you can use “lists” to create space to connect with close friends or family without spending a great deal of time looking at the whole timeline.  Consider moving members of the former congregation to “acquaintances.”
  • Consider the privacy setting of your own posts.  Not all posts should be “public.”  Some may be for only friends, or friends and NOT acquaintances, or only family.
  • Consider the rationale of separation ethics:  A former pastor ought to disengage from the role of “pastor” and the responsibilities and influence of that position in order for the congregation to make the break and be ready to establish a healthy and faithful relationship with a new pastor.

Be sure to have the conversation about separation ethics with your congregation before you leave.  Ask your presbytery/COM for help with that conversation.  Always be willing to heed advice from others and direction from your presbytery.  And be intentional in evaluating and re-evaluating your boundaries.

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