Facebook rules for pastors

October 5, 2010

"Should I post or should I not?" I ask myself this when I'm thinking of posting a particularly snarky religion-related Facebook status update that would entertain my old seminary friends, go over my high school friends' heads and unsettle some members of my congregation.

I use Facebook daily in my work, but it wasn't designed as a ministry tool. As the new movie The Social Network shows, Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook on a college campus with the social networks of college students in mind. Now, as a pastor with 866 Facebook "friends," I struggle with my mixed-up social networks.

If I post a vacation picture or two, church members will post comments on them. This is lovely and thoughtful of them, but it's also a reminder that even when I'm on vacation I have a congregation waiting for me back home. (There are larger concerns about vacation posts as well.)

When they began looking for a call to a church, many of my seminary classmates combed their Facebook accounts and deleted photos, changed favorite quotes and blanked out political affiliations so that pastor-seeking congregations would not prejudge for or against them by their online identities. I even have several pastor friends who maintain two Facebook profiles, one personal and one professional.

Pastoral ministry is a public calling, and in our social-media age this calling extends to online identities and relationships. I laud the possibilities social media presents and urge the church to use the tools for the kingdom. But just as church-owned houses offer particular challenges to a pastor and family when members drop in unannounced to fill the fridge with makings for the women's tea, Facebook offers the challenge of unclear and ever-changing boundaries. (For the record, Presbyterian Women of Hallock, Minnesota, this is not something I fret over but just an example.)

Since becoming a pastor, I've adopted some different Facebook practices:

  • Though I am Facebook friends with several church youth, I only post to their public walls rather than sending private messages. (I do use the message function for messages to multiple youth and their parents.)
  • I rarely put up status messages; it's too difficult to write something with so many different audiences in mind.
  • My interactions on Facebook tend to be affirming and broad-minded rather than combative or controversial.
  • Whatever my privacy settings, I always assume that anything on Facebook could be read by anyone at any time.

I'm a huge fan of social media, and Facebook sets the standard, at least for now. But it can be abused, and it brings with it unintended consequences, especially for those in public roles.

How do you approach Facebook for public ministry and personal use? What challenges do you encounter with social media? What are your Facebook best practices? 


Sometimes I joke that I live

Sometimes I joke that I live on Facebook and keep an address in Arlington for tax purposes. I've found Facebook to be a great way to learn about people and engage them in their outside-of-church real life. I've called parishoners who reported an injury on Facebook and I recently attended a JV Field Hockey game of one of my youth who who mentioned on her FB status that she was excited about the game (I corresponded with her and with her mother confirming the game time/location prior to showing up). Some people have reached out to me via Facebook when I suspect they might not have reached out to me in other ways. It's been a great tool for ministry.

I'm a political junkie, and I share links to interesting political analysis, but since my ordination I have refrained from partisan postings. But I do share status updates about baseball, my family, and my ministry, among other things. I'm not too worried about my "audiences" (I find that an odd term to use, actually). Except for avoiding certain topics that cannot be adequately expressed or addressed in 140 characters, I'm not worried about what I post or what people think of it.

If church members who are also my FB friends learn that I have an unnatural love for the Phillies, that I had a bad day, or that I enjoy listening to late 80s alternative music, so be it. That's fine. They'll also see on my status updates my wrestling with the lectionary texts and my expressions of joy following a great day of ministry.

Ditto... Chris.. Ditto to

Ditto... Chris.. Ditto to your comments, except super impose "Marlins" over "Phillies" and I totally agree! Thanks for the extra note..

two accounts

I'm a pastor in his mid 30's and I've been set free by setting up two facebook accounts - one family/friends and one for the church. It is has been a great opportunity to draw boundaries with my congregation members.

Doesn't this come under the

Doesn't this come under the double minded argument, as mentioned in James 1:8. This is never a good thing when we have to change ourselves to appear one way to one person and another to someone else. You are a Christian first, and already called to be hagios.

Now you are a pastor and that has a badge attached to it too. 1 Timothy 3 gives those requirements. What is the message that you are sending?

I am really not trying to poke at you, I just want to know where I stand on these issues, as I am having struggles of my own. I pastor a small church and I am as transparent as I can be, sharing almost everything with the congregation. I do draw the line at intimacy with my wife, however if asked by one of them, what God thinks about that issue, I would not hesitate to use my wife and I as a positive illustration. I just would not glorify it as something dark and I would never tempt someone with a sin nature in that area.

Difference faces as a pastor

Good questions, @sportsminister. I guess I read James to be talking more specifically about faith, and Timothy to be about living overall. I'm not saying to present a fake presence on Facebook, but just to acknowledge that it's not a context for the same amount of disclosure and the same type of conversation with everyone.

Maybe think of preaching two sermons on the same Bible text. If I preach in my own congregation that I know very well I'll say one thing, but if I preach to a youth group in another city, or to a large group of senior citizens, even speaking on the same text I'll have a very different message.

It's a contextual question, I suppose. And it's important to think about how pastors are seen in all of live, but online as well. Thanks for your comments.

Point taken Adam, thanks I am

Point taken Adam, thanks I am really trying to work through these things and I thought this might be a good place. Turns out God is working in this and I am appreciative.

breaking Facebook's policies

Frankly, I'm amazed this works. I've heard of other people trying to set up separate personal/professional profiles and quickly having the lines blur between the two.

Also, this action specifically violates Facebook's "Statements of Rights and Responsibilities" (http://www.facebook.com/terms.php), section 4.2: "You will not create more than one personal profile."

What does this seemingly harmless violation mean for ministry?

Great Subject

Here is the question that I have. Where does a Pastor step in and watch what the people around him are doing. If you look through your friends that you have on FB and they are under the age of 13 (the age set by FB to be on the site) do you report them to FB? You do have the option to send FB a notice about the under age users and have them removed.

Moreover, where do you stand on the fact that your pastor's son is on FB and he is under age? I know that most people will say that they police it in their own way that the lines of communication are opened to regulate the usage of FB. However, we as parents can't be there all the time. In addition, you or the child had to have lied in order to get him/her up on FB. Although we are not held to the ninth commandment because of the new covenant, but God is truth and He hates falsehood. That has not changed.

So you find yourself at a crossroads, which way do you go now?


Important Topic

Thanks for this thoughtful article. I joined Facebook two years ago because so many of the young people in my church were involved there. I think we, as the church, and we, as clergy, need to be where the people are. I have found it to be an excellent way to initiate connections among church people and initiate pastoral conversations as well. (Note: I said "initiate" rather than "hold" or "create.")

I joined for professional reasons, but immediately began to make multiple personal connections. Still, I see my Facebook presence as a mixture of personal and professional. It offers a chance for church members to see another side of me, the pastor as a human being and an ordinary person. However, I am always aware that anything I post will be read by church members, and I exercise caution.

Other than the fact that I do post regular status updates, I follow all your guidelines, and would add a few others:

1. I do not initiate friend requests with anyone under 18. If a youth asks to be my friend, I ALWAYS say yes, but I do not seek them out.

2. I usually spend my Facebook time with the IM set to "offline." If I am online, I am making myself available to church members for conversations about anything from the death of a pet to a severe medical diagnosis to rehashing the Council meeting to asking about the potluck supper. (These are real examples that happened before I discovered that setting.) It is important for pastoral boundaries and time off to be unavailable on Facebook when you are generally unavailable for non-emergencies.

3. If I am eager to share something that is potentially off-color or especially partisan, I share it via a private message to targeted friends, rather than on my wall. This is an ongoing decision-making process, unique to each item I want to share.

Thanks for engaging this topic--it's an important one.

More on Boundaries

I also have 2 Facebook accounts, one for personal use and one for professional use. I often post to both and have a fair amount of crossover - that is to say, many who are friends on my professional account (often clergy colleagues) are also on my personal account.

One of the rules I maintain for myself is that all the under-18 friends I have, whether church-related or family, are on my professional account, and their parents are, too. The parents may also be friends on my personal account, but I insist that they "friend" me over on my professional account so that I can be as transparent as possible in my interactions with their children.

And while I'm not bivocational per se, I do have a part-time job as a health educator for a rather controversial reproductive health agency. There are times I'm a little political on my personal account, and maybe even have shared some "pearl-clutching" quotes a time or two. I stand by that, however, and am willing to take the risk that those who see that (even potential search committee members in the future) may be offended at times. I won't apologize that one of my heroes is Dan Savage and I won't clean up his language for him. (I won't quote him on my homepage, either, though.)


Great article, thanks. I too find myself trying to put every FB status update through the "parishioners - parents - secular friends" mental filter before posting. My main thing is that I try to never put up any status update that seem emotionally fishing. "I'm having a hard day today" or "I really need things to get better in my life, I'm so discouraged"...my parishioners should not feel like they have to take care of me emotionally. I have real live friends for that.

I'm also somewhat of a public figure in the church and only know maybe 400 of my 1800 "friends". I recently "de-friended" one of my followers because she "liked" every single thing I posted and usually also commented. I have never met the woman and it started to feel creepy.

I think I'll blog about all of this rather than take up your comment space.

Thanks for getting me thinking.


FB and pastoral care

I went to Facebook kicking and screaming a year or two ago because I serve a very young congregation in a young area, and I knew I needed to do it to minister effectively to our mission field.

What I didn't anticipate was how much it would help me in opening doors for soft-touch pastoral care. People who would be reluctant to take up my time by calling me, or have anxiety about crossing the threshold of the pastor's study for a formal, one-hour counseling session, can find me (or I them) on Facebook for an easy check-in about how it is with their soul. Their status updates often clue me in to what is really happening in their lives, allowing me to initiate contact in a non-threatening way.

I find that I get a lot more (albeit shallower) pastoral care done this way (without sacrificing office hours and face time for those who need it), and also interact more deeply with a broader range of folks in my church. I also get more contact with people who are not very distressed or depressed, but just ordinarily upended by life--and that even a little FB interaction with me (or other pastors in our church) can redirect, teach, or inspire them to a deeper walk with God.

Facebook and Youth Ministry

I think that facebook is a powerful tool in my Youth Ministry. It allows my youth to see that I attempt to be the same person inside and outside of my time at church. I did cleanse pictures from my younger days, but that was more for my own personal comfort than for shame of the way I have lived.

I wrote about my thoughts on social media at http://thomaslhodges.wordpress.com, and think that I can live my life and allow that life to be seen by my youth also.

I think that the two-accounts precedent is not good, it seems to draw a distinction to different spheres of life, which I do not believe is healthy. We need to have open and transparent lives, it may mean thinking about the consequences of what you post, but it should not prevent us from putting ourselves out there. I think we have to live dangerously and be serious about our convictions in the world around us...

Another great point here!

Another great point here! This is kind of where I am on this issue. I would prefer that my congregation know me inside and out and I have nothing to hide from them. After all we are all in this together and in order to build "the church" we need to be running in the same circles, always seeking after the Lord.

Thanks again.

Living Seamless Lives

I think one of the keys to dynamic Christianity, where we can impact people in the world around us, not just inside the 4 walls of our church (or our home), is to live a seamless life. For me, that means ONE facebook account, for I am ONE person with many facets. Yes, sometimes my posts are directed more to one group or another, but they are okay for others to read. I hope that when people from different facets of my life meet one another and find that I am a mutual friend would each have the same description of me. If I am one person to one set of friends and a totally different person to another, then WHO AM I really?

If I have something private to share with one group or another, I can make (or join) a "group" for those people to post directly to each other in a closed format. For example, when planning my high school reunion, all that business doesn't need to be done on my facebook wall - so we have a group. Likewise, my church friends might want to plan an outing or meet up after church for lunch - a Facebook group allows us to do that. And all without sacrificing the integrity of who we are.

If I have to think twice about something I'm going to post on facebook (yes, it has actually happened) then perhaps I really do need to think twice about that post. If it's not fulfilling my God-honoring position as an ambassador for Christ, then I probably shouldn't say it, even on facebook, and I probably should learn how to change my thinking too!

Just my 2 cents, for what it's worth! :)


Got burned this weekend when I posted a link to the Colbert/Stewart Washington rally. I was enjoying the humor of it and not evaluating it from a political statement. Felt like we needed a sense of humor about our apocalyptic political environment these days.

Got rebuked on FB about it from someone who took it literally as support of the politics of Stewart.


Rules for social media are evolving

Good food for thought and good comments. The rules for social media are slowing developing. In terms of being consistent, I'm wondering if you say the same things in an elder meeting as you do in a congregational meeting. Probably not. Is that wrong? I don't think so.

People reading this post are trying to understand the new rules. We also need to keep in mind that a large portion of our congregations haven’t even started to process the implications of social media. There is no telling the range of assumptions brough to the table by people who haven't even thought about theses issues. We need to keep that in mind as we figure out how to present ourselves.

facebook interaction

I am a late comer to FB & i am just getting a hang of some of the functions. I will never be as comfortable with thes networking sites as my children. I do think it is important to be consistent in all aspects of our lives. I notice that some people feel that they can be more irresponsible & careless on social networking sites than they would be in normal life. FB is good for showing different aspects of your life & being open to making friends with a wide group of people. I dont think you can make deep friendships only relying on social networking interaction. The main point for me is to have integrity while at the same time allowing people to see the lighter side of you a site like FB.

I don't think the issue is

I don't think the issue is lack of responsibility or consistency. I might tell a seminary friend an irreverent joke that I wouldn't tell most church members. It's not because the joke is actually blasphemous, but because my friend would be edified by it, but my parishioners would not. I wouldn't reference Monty Python's dead parrot sketch to someone whose pet has just died, though I would assume that they would not be offended if they heard that I did so to someone else.

For many of us, facebook is not a tool to make friends, but a tool to interact with friends we already have. It's an outlet for those perfectly godly and normal sides of our personality and interests that usually can't take center state in our public lives as pastors. Self-care, and whatnot. It totally ruins it if your congregation can see everything you do.

I suspect that the best compromise is to accept their friend requests, but make effective use of the customized privacy settings.

Indeed. whether it's two

Indeed. whether it's two profiles (which was necessary before newer privacy settings existed) or careful use of privacy settings, drawing these lines is about healthy boundaries. I wouldn't be _ashamed_ of anything I post anywhere. But parishioners don't need to see the 40 pics of my kids that I post for family/good friends to see. It would feel inappropriate to put that into their news feed, as if I were asking for some attention and compliments or some such. And just as there are some things I believe to be true that I wouldn't say in a sermon (because of the one-way nature of the conversation) but would in a Bible study, there are things I would say on facebook to family/friends that I know share a certain context with me but wouldn't want random parishioners reading because it'd require a level of conversation that isn't possible online.

Great post, great comments!

I do, I think, use a mental filter when posting to Fb, but I think it's not just for the sake of the parishioners who have friended me; I don't really want to offend personal friends and family either. (I do, however, sometimes let snarky ...sports-related posts through the filter.) And I would also say that I'm not afraid to show a "side" of myself that might be out-of-place in the church setting. It's really all about context... I think people make use of mental filters that are particular the context they find themselves in. That doesn't *necessarily* mean a person is sometimes being false. Human personalities are multi-faceted, and some facets fit better than others in a given situation. College life was like that: I had several different groups of friends... I was goofy with some, I talked progressive rock and philosophy with others, I told awful puns with others... but I was never pretending to be somebody other than who I am.
So on the one hand there is some stuff I filter, but for the sake of everyone: sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek humor, and the like, do not always translate well to the printed word, at least in short snippets... (i.e. I don't want to leave room for someone to think I'm being serious when I'm being sarcastic, though I'm sure it will happen on occasion). On the other hand, I'm not going to over-worry about a member of my congregation seeing a slightly off-color comment that I make on someone's status, or noticing what I watch or what I listen to. There are a lot of parts to the person that I am; some of it shows up on Fb. And if you don't like it, [filtered]. ;-D
One more thought (this clearly was an excellent article for bringing out thoughts on online ministry). I would say that I use all of the bulleted "rules" that Adam mentions. Plus one more: Fb friendship goes two ways, and so I suspect that some parishioners might not be all that enthused to have their pastor be able to see all of their posts and pictures. Therefore I never send friend requests to parishioners, but always accept them when they make such requests to me (it's not a large congregation, so I know all but the most inactive of our members).

Best Practice

I participate in youth ministry in my denomination. I do not post any pictures of the youth activities. Since people can make comments...I don't want to "host" a picture with negative or derogatory comments.

I "un-tag" pictures my college friends post. I have told them not to tag me in photos due to my current vocation as Pastor.

working with youth and the internet

The first social media outlet I experienced with a youth group was MySpace. I'm not sure what it was about MySpace but I describe it as the evil twin of Facebook. Some kids went crazy with posts and status updates. It was as if they could hide behind the glass wall of the internet. Comments on MySpace didn't really count as hurtful, crazy or inappropriate. As a youth director, I would check out the pages of our youth from time to time to see what they were up to outside of church and perhaps post a little message on their wall to say a word of encouragement. However, there were a handful of times that I had to have a conversation with them face to face about some of the things they were posting. I was walking a fine line between infringing on their first amendment rights and letting them think the internet made them immune to kindness. We had a few lessons in our confirmation class about the internet and how what you say on MySpace shouldn't be any different than what you say in real life. I also had a youth at a previous church get into a relationship with a stranger on the internet and it came out to be a 40 year old man who was stalking her. Yes, even today, kids are not aware of what is out there. It surprised me how many kids had never had the same conversation about the internet with their parents or teachers in school. I figured, if no one was helping them out, better us than the 40 year old stalker.

I have been on Facebook for

I have been on Facebook for quite a while now. I don't maintain two accounts. I don't post snarky messages about members of the congregation, partly because half my congregation is here too, but also because I belive clergy who post snarky messages about members of the congregation are juvenile.

Many of the young people in the congregation are here, and I am mindful of what they can read. It was similar in the last congregation. But Facebook also gives me a way of keeping up with the lives of those those younger people and families when they aren't able to be around the church.

But the person I am here is the person I am with the congregation. I would not say anything here that I would not say to one of them directly.

Rev. Fran Ota

ethics of using Facebook as basis of pastor's rebuke

An elder in my church copied some of my daughter's Facebook posts (He's definitely not on her Friends list.) and emailed them to the pastor. He called her in to confront her about them and suggested that she, as a member of the church choir, should be careful about posting ironic comments about such things as elderly people's driving habits because she is the "public face" of the church. Such comments did not show "the fruit of the Spirit."

The pastor got the information fourth hand and was certainly not part of the intended audience. Was he wrong, or was it thoughtful of him to call her in for a warning?

She was mortified to learn that an elder and the pastor are reading, copying, and emailing her posts.

Sorry for my being ignorant

Sorry for my being ignorant but I read for the first time in my life that pastors use Facebook... Actually I can't understand why they can need it. It's a social network, the kind of addiction they fight against and....use it? The world has just turned upside down for me, honestly. You may consider me old school, but I really can't see WHY pastors can need Facebook accounts...

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