The Social Networking Dilemma

Posted on


I am in my final weeks as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of San Bernardino. In the PC(USA), it is required in most presbyteries (our regional governance) that a minister cut ties with a congregation completely upon leaving (unless, of course, one is bestowed with the honor of being “emeritus”, which usually only happens upon retirement). That means the responsibility is on the departing pastor to refrain from initiating any sort of contact with members of the former congregation or continuing to serve in any pastoral capacity to any of them. There are a number of reasons for this policy, and I tend to agree with it. There have been too many instances when a pastor or associate pastor leaves and continues to be in pastoral relationships with parishioners at the former church, causing significant conflicts and issues for the new, remaining, or interim pastor or associate pastor.

I’m not writing to debate the merits of this policy, but to offer more dialogue to the ongoing debate about the issue of social media that has arisen in recent years (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). “To unfriend, or not to unfriend?” has become the question. Some say yes, others say it’s rude. Others have commented on this issue (one response can be read here).

The issue, in my mind, is the responsibility of the departing pastor to maintain clear boundaries for the health of the congregation, and to be clear that he or she is no longer a pastor to that congregation. So, I have taken the bold move of announcing to the congregation in my resignation letter that I will be removing everyone who attends FPCSB from my social networks my last week in the office (Dec. 18-22), and in the same breath invited those who wish to reconnect to do so on their own terms and in their own time, so long as they understand that our relationship with be different.

Why did I do this? For one, if the responsibility is mine to be clear about the boundaries of my relationship with the congregation as a whole as well as each person in that congregation, then it is my responsibility to help them recognize the reality of this new relationship, whether or not they may agree with it. By deleting everyone (i.e., unfriending, unfollowing, unconnecting, etc.), I hope to be giving each person the opportunity to decide on their terms what relationship, if any, we may or may not have from that point forward. If someone should decide to stay in contact, it will then be my responsibility to take care that pastoral boundaries are not crossed out of respect for my colleague who will continue to serve as pastor of FPCSB.

Further, my action allows those who may find it awkward being connected beyond my time here. Deleting them from my lists gives them an “out” with the option to reconnect on their own terms. I know there are those who connect to their pastor online for a number of reasons other than out of a desire to truly be “friends.” Again, I hope my action will relieve them of the responsibility of having to redefine the relationship or have an awkward conversation about our continuing to be connected.

Lastly, it gives me some clarity about others’ intentions so I don’t go contacting people who really do not want to be contacted by me, or for whom it may be difficult, or, again, awkward. If someone reconnects with me, then I know for sure they want to be in contact with me and I feel freer to be in contact with them (e.g., commenting on their posts, or including them in my posts, checking in, etc.).

The first issue for me is “responsibility”—what is my responsibility to redefine these relationships? The second issue for me is “clarity”—what will give the most clarity to any relationships/friendships I may have after I leave? I have taken several steps to respond to both of these issues:

1) I sent a letter to the congregation (via e-mail and U.S. Mail to make sure everyone received it) to announce my resignation, the reasons why I am leaving, where I am going, and to explain my intended actions with regard to social media.

2) I will be sending an e-mail out again the last week I am in the office to let everyone know that I will be removing them from my social networks;

3) In my final e-mail I will also invite those who wish to be connected beyond my departure to re-connect (re-friend, re-follow, etc.) if they wish to, and, hopefully, offer grace to those who do not.

The last issue for me in this is how to be “pastoral”—what is a pastoral way, a gracious and life-giving way, to do this? The most pastoral thing I believe I can do at this point is to offer grace and understanding to those who wish not to reconnect, and to socially trap them in something that can be very difficult to navigate. I imagine in some cases it will be emotionally difficult for me (and maybe the other), but I trust we will all heal eventually and move on with our lives. In the larger scheme of things, we are all connected in the Body of Christ, whether or not we are “friends” on Facebook.

There are no hard and fast rules around online social networks as is still too new. I imagine together we will slowly develop standards of “etiquette”, just as TYPING IN ALL CAPS IS CONSIDERED YELLING AND, THUS, RUDE. At some point, as more and more organizations, including churches, are encouraged to develop policies for websites, Facebook, and other tools yet to be created, this situation will become clearer (a great resource for policy development on a range of issues is the Insurance Board).

So, what are your thoughts about this? Do you think a pastor should delete everyone from their social networking sites? Or should a congregation and departing pastor develop an agreement that allows for these online relationships? Or, should a pastor just leave everything as it is and let the people decide on their own whether or not to remain connected?

22 thoughts on “The Social Networking Dilemma”

  1. Hi Eric,
    I applaud your approach to this challenging issue, and whole-heartedly support it. Though being unfriended is considered an insult by some, you have explained your motivation, and parishioners will not be surprised. Members of congregations often have a difficult time detaching from pastors they respect and love. The opportunity to reconnect is offered, but you then control and set the boundaries for interaction.
    Blessings in your new call.

  2. Disclosure: I’m a member and lay leader at FPCSB and have worked closely with Eric this last year.

    I’ve been thinking about this post a lot since you posted it as well as your intentions since we received your letter. Having grown up in “Free Church” congregations, I am thrown by this whole Presbyterian way of “dissolving the pastoral relationship” and the very seriousness of it is freaking me out a little, but on the whole it seems to be a very responsible way of handling things. (Having grown-up in the “Free Church” I’ve seen some of what can happen when good boundaries are not adhered to.)

    I think at this point in the social media world, what you intend to do does make the most sense, especially for us grown-ups for whom social media is merely an extension of other forms of communication.

    I wonder if you are doing anything differently with the youth for whom social media has a different importance/value/significance/meaning? I would not expect your actions or intentions to be different. Especially for the youth, I think they should have the chance to choose how to interact with you in the future and you are the one who has to be very careful about your boundaries with them (I know you know this, I’m just thinking out loud). What I’m wondering is if you have or plan to take the time to talk to them about these things so that they understand why you are suddenly (not actually suddenly, but it could seem that way) unfriending them. I wonder if they need more than just a paragraph in a letter addressed to their parents. (You’ve probably already done this or planned this, in which case, ignore everything I just said.)

    Just my 2¢. 🙂

    1. Wendy,

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, Presbyterian polity is quite a bit different from Free Church and most other church polity structures. We have been accused of being “overly” intentional.

      In response to your concerns about the youth, yes I have spoken with most of them. We had a fairly extensive conversation at our youth group gathering on Nov. 20th, and I will again revisit the issue at our Progressive Dinner on Dec. 18th (my last gathering with them as their pastor) – that week I will be sending out a mass e-mail and posting on my social networking sites what I am about to do, and then on Wednesday and Thursday I plan to begin the process.

      Surprisingly, most of the youth seemed to get it, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with the whole “clean dissolution” policy. Several of them said they were going to re-friend/re-connect with me immediately, and I told them I would welcome that, though in no way expect it. And you are absolutely correct, from then on the responsibility is mine to maintain proper boundaries.

      I always appreciate your thoughtfulness about things, and I especially appreciate your concern for our youth! In chaotic times like when a pastor/associate pastor leaves, the youth can often times get shuffled to the background. I hope that I am being intentional with ALL my relationships.

      I’m also aware that the issue of social media and pastors has been a much discussed topic in recent years as it has taken on a more prominent role within churches – thus the reason for my post here. I’m also getting a lot of “offline” chatter about this post (via e-mail, phone calls, and private conversation) from folks both within our congregation and elsewhere. That tells me it is most certainly a pressing issue. I hope others will continue to press it so we can all discern some direction and guidance (as Presbyterians we believe we make better decisions when we do it together, even if it is sometimes a messy process).

      1. Hey Eric.

        I’m wondering about your last statement here, that “as Presbyterians we believe we make better decisions when we do it together, even if it is sometimes a messy process.” That’s one of the things I like best about the Presbyterian church, but I’m wondering how you are using it here? I take it as if you’re thinking about possible future policies and where we go from here?

        I wonder what would have happened if you had said at Session, “I’m thinking about how to handle social media as I leave, what do you think?” We’re having the discussion now, those of us who wish to be part of it, but did not get a chance to be in a room together talking about what it meant and what the ramifications might be beforehand. You wrote what you had decided and sent the letter–no room for discussion and in a reply to another comment say, “I hope those at FPCSB might eventually see the wisdom of my decision.” The decision would have had to be yours in the end, but I’m wondering if at least I would feel differently about it if it had been made–or at least contemplated–“in community.”

        (And perhaps you chose a different community to have the discussion beforehand. As I’ve said before, I don’t really get the levels of the Presbyterian stuff. I’m just left wondering how much of a partnership “Ruling Elders” and “Teaching Elders” actually have. Maybe we’re not meant to, but that’s not how it’s been presented…)

      2. Wendy,

        I thought about inviting an open discussion. But, in the absence of a policy and little consensus among “social networking gurus”, and with time being somewhat short, I didn’t think we really had the time as a group to invest in it. So, I decided to go ahead and relay my intentions rather than invite too much input. In general, yes, I do believe we make better decisions together. I also know that when time is short and decisions have to be made, we are all apt to make the “easier” decisions. My fear, in this case, was that the easier decision would simply to leave things be and let people make their own decisions whether or not to engage with me after I leave. The challenge with that is it puts me in an awkward position to decide whether or not I should be able to comment on other people’s posts or initiate messages when they are left on my friends list (referring specifically to Facebook here).

        Honestly, I think this may have been more about my need for clarity in the relationship so I don’t inadvertently overstep tacit boundaries of which I may be totally unaware. In any case, you make a valid point about a decision made “in community”, and one of, I am sure many, the holes in my decision making process and my belief in Presbyterianism as a way of being in Christian community.

        You are correct to assume that I had conversations in different communities prior to my decision. Some conversations happened a while ago before I contemplated leaving, and others were while I was in process personally. But those conversations were in more informal communities—colleagues, friends, etc. Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders are to be in partnership with one another, though they each serve in very different capacities. And there are times when Teaching Elders need to make decisions autonomously from Ruling Elders, and vice-versa. In my experience, however, those are the exceptions not the rule.

        As I’ve stated elsewhere, as the Church catches up to the world of social media I’m sure more and more groups will begin developing “norms” for behavior.

        Thanks for your thoughts, as always!

  3. 1) It is a good thing I never go to church or even converted, then. I shouldn’t have to get deleted!

    2) I heard about this rule years ago and thought it was silly. I still do. I grew up in a church where the big cheese came from the congregation, served 6-8yrs, was released back into the congregation, and then replaced by another congregational member. This has happened over and over again since the 1800’s. Sure people may have had emotions about this, but it but there was never a resulting crisis. Shouldn’t argue about God’s will anyway, right? Former bishops, Sunday school teachers, and youth group leaders always had a place in my heart after moving on…and so did the next person. If the Mormons can handle it, the Presbyterians can too…

    1. (Again, disclosure: Rachel is connected with a family who are members of FPCSB)

      Rachel, I hear you, but I’m not really sure how to answer. I am aware there are a variety of responses out there to the dissolution of pastoral relationship policy. But, in the long run, for Presbyterians and other mainline denominations who have professional clergy like we do, it is a good policy. I’m afraid I’m just not that familiar with Mormon polity.

      As for former leaders, the same is true with me. But, it was MY choice to connect with them (just like it will be yours and others’ to connect with me). My former leaders (pastors, youth directors, etc.) did not initiate contact with me, I initiated with them, so it was on my terms. There were some leaders I wasn’t too fond of and if they did initiate contact with me, it would have been very awkward and I don’t think I would have welcomed it. With my initiating contact after they left, I made it clear to them that I wanted to continue being friends (of course, then they could decide if they wanted to be friends with me in return, but that’s another blog post).

      This is NOT about whether or not people can be friends with me, it IS about how we go about that after I leave.

  4. There is no rule that you are allowed only one Social Networking account. Celebrities or public figures usually have both public and private accounts.

    Those who use their social networking to a minimum usually keep their accounts private and personal.

    Perhaps you can consider a public FB page for the masses or pastoral-related matters and a separate personal/private FB page for smaller circles and less uncensored and filtered.

    As with Twitter, the concept of having the “most Followers” usually is the idea with social networking. So you can ‘network’ with the masses.

    So, Twitter is a little trickier to “filter” who your Followers are, unless you “Protect” your tweet feeds. More defined: Your Tweets are protected; only those you approve will receive your Tweets. Your future Tweets will not be available publicly. Tweets posted previously may still be publicly visible in some places.)

    Mine, personally, is “Protected” so that I can approve who is Following me. This allows me to filter spammers or BOT types and have ‘real people’ Following me or subject-matters or services that interest me. Then again, having thousands or millions of Followers is not a goal of mine.

    If your Twitter account is not Protected then the entire world can Follow your Twitter feeds without your knowledge and approval. Hence, the practice of “Following” rather then adding as a Friend.

    So there are options to what type of social-networking pages or groups you can have. It’s just up to you to decide what you want to use/monitor and what kind of dialogue you want to exchange in each social network page or group. Same with Blogs. I take it this Blog will close on your last week of office.

    1. Visitor – (Is that your real name?). You have a good point! Not sure how to navigate Twitter. I guess I can delete the folks I’m following, and those who want to keep following me can. Then, in a few months, start following those who are still following me? As for having multiple accounts, I decided against that a long time ago. Whether it is personal or public, what ever we write on the internet is still discoverable. So, I choose to just be intentional about what I write, same as I did when I was writing for newspapers (remember those?). I’d hate for something I didn’t intend to get out. But you are right, there are options! Thanks for the comment.

      And, no, I do not intend to close this blog. People subscribe and they can unsubscribe on their own terms. I have little two-way interaction with subscribers unless they comment on a post. Subscriptions are otherwise pretty passive. I will, however, remove references to my position at FPCSB and update with info about my new church.

  5. Actually Kathy I think Eric is onto a good thing here.

    I’m a member of a PU(USA) congregation and we just had a pastor leave. He is very active on FB and is FB friends with any of us who also participate there. There were/are a lot of strong emotions surrounding him leaving – people who were in favor of him leaving and those who were not. I feel like I can’t unfriend him – what would that say? And yet really? I’m not interested in still being FB friends with him. I’m in a very awkward spot.

    A previous pastor, who I like much more, left about 6 or so years ago. He isn’t on FB (and probably won’t ever be!) however had he choose to remain in contact with us via that method it would have been very difficult for us to move on to a church life without him (it was even without contact!) We needed to though as a church – we needed the separation that allowed us to grieve and to start to see a church life without him.

    I think Eric’s choice is a good one. He’s in a position of leadership in the lives of the people in the church and they need the opportunity to decided again if they want to continue this relationship. In re-friending/following/whatever-ing via social media they are choosing to do so as a friend, not in a pastor/congregation relationship. That freedom of choice is a gift to his current congregation and one that I respect his ability and maturity to give.

    1. I hope those at FPCSB might eventually see the wisdom of my decision. It is difficult enough to leave. I am less worried about those who want to continue being friends, and more worried about the people for whom it might difficult. The situation you describe is EXACTLY what I’m trying to avoid.

      1. Hello back to you and Cindy! I really appreciated this post and the thought and care that you’ve put into this decision.

  6. Hey everyone! Tell Eric that he doesn’t need to “unfriend” everyone. We promise not to ask questions that make him reply in a pastoral way. We just want to stay in contact in a friendly way. If each person refrains from putting him in an awkward position, friendships can continue. For a few months, Eric could refrain from initiating a conversation. We would have t contact him first. What do you think?

  7. Saw your post via Bruce R-C’s FB status. As a Vice-Moderator of COM I commend your efforts to establish and maintain good boundaries. Sounds like an excellent way to honor the transition in relationship. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Thanks for this! I know that this is helpful for those who may not have thought about the different options that they have, and truly it may be helpful for those ministers who have not yet taken the steps to pastorally/social network-ly take that step away.

    1. Thanks, Bruce. Means a lot coming from you. And, so far so good. Getting harder as my last day approaches. But, I think it speaks to the depth of the relationships we’ve built of the past 3 years.

Leave a Reply