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?