In seminary, one of the big questions was always “Should you be friends with parishioners?” Well, that question takes on a whole new meaning when whether or not you’re really, really friends with any of your parishioners, more than likely you are Facebook “friends” with many of them (if you have realized that using social media in your ministry is a necessity in the day and age we live in; if you haven’t figured that out yet, perhaps you should read this).
Keith Anderson, in his series of posts, has a really helpful one that I’d recommend you read called “Should Pastors Remain Facebook Friends With Former Parishioners?” I think he offers some helpful guidelines when it comes to that question.
I know some people who create a new Facebook Profile for congregations that they serve to avoid friending anyone from their congregations on their personal Facebook Profile. And I guess I can understand their reasons. If you want to read why I disagree with that, you can read my post: “Why Pastors Should Only Have 1 Facebook Profile.”
I’ve actually had some people tell me that when they left their congregation, they went through their Facebook Friend Lists and unfriended everyone from their former congregation. Their reasoning was that they were serving those folks as part of their job/call, and now that they were moving on, they were not obligated to remain connected to those folks.
Now, that seems pretty harsh to me, and I couldn’t see myself doing that. But, I do think it’s important to give people from former churches some breathing room and space to continue on without me as involved in their online/social media life, particularly with youth. At Asbury, I had quite a few students who were very active on Facebook and Twitter, and we’d often get into conversations online, “liked” many of each other’s statuses and found the online world a great medium to communicate in.
So, when I left, it was important for me to not be tempted to continue to “like” their updates, respond on Facebook or reply to Tweets. So, I wanted to share some of the simple steps I took online to help with this.
- USE Friend Lists: This is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do with Facebook. Facebook allows you to create lists to put people into, and for a pastor, I think this is incredibly important. It allows you to manage who sees what on your profile, and allows you to keep your friends organized. Whenever I accept a new Friend Request, I always put that person into a Friend List. And you should too.
- Unsubscribe from Updates: I went through my Facebook Friend Lists and compiled all of my Asbury-related lists to one list: Asbury UMC. Once I had everyone from Asbury in that one list, I went to edit that Friend List. On the top right of the page, you can click on Manage List, then Choose Update Types. Then I simply unchecked all of the Update Types. What this allowed me to do was stay friends with everyone from my former call, but it meant I wouldn’t see any of their updates on Facebook, thus removing the temptation to click Like and engage them online after I left.
- Chat: I was always able to turn off chat for a specific Friend List, which I did for the Asbury UMC Friend List. People could still message me, comment on updates of mine, but it took away some of the immediacy and access that people had to me after I left.
- Unfriending: I will say that there were a few people who I did unfriend. And there was a different reason for each person. But I will say that I didn’t receive messages from those people saying “Hey! You UNFRIENDED me!” People are adults (generally) – they get it.
- Unfollowing: I really only followed the youth on Twitter (no one else in the congregation really used it), but I did have a lot of interaction online with them. In order to provide for that same space that I was giving people on Facebook, I did unfollow all of the youth, but I then added them all to an Asbury List on Twitter. I would, once a month or so, just scan the Twitter feed from that List and see how folks were doing, but I didn’t respond to any messages or tweets.
I do want to say a word about youth vs college students. When I left Asbury, there were some youth who were headed off to college, and others who were still in middle or high school. I didn’t feel the same obligation to stay disconnected from the youth going off to college. For those 3 years, I had been their pastor, and I was still going to be the closest thing to a pastor they would have when they left home, their home church and went off to college. So, while I minimized my connection with youth currently in middle and high school so that they could establish a good rapport with their new youth director, I still stayed in touch with some college students, especially those who were just starting their first year of college.
It will be up to you to figure out what the best boundaries are for you. I will say that for myself, I believe that you can and should be Facebook Friends with your parishioners, and I also think there are times when you can have healthy friendships with parishioners. And as much as I don’t agree with the traditional “cut all ties with all parishioners when you leave a church” model, I do think it’s important to be especially aware of the nuances of that conversation that exist now in our social media world. It’s important to have a plan and think through how you want to handle things.
How have you dealt with social media boundaries when you left a previous church?