This week’s Matriarch Mail brings us another BFP question. A Beloved Former Pastor, having ended (officially) serving a congregation through retirement or by accepting a call to a new congregation, continues to be a presence within and around the congregation or with some/most/all of their should-be-former congregants. A BFP continues to benevolently provide goodies without the on-going professional responsibility. We want to avoid that ethical breach.
This week’s question is about appropriate social media boundaries.
I am leaving my current congregation in a few weeks. I am moving far away, so there will be no temptation or opportunity to have personal contact with my soon-to-be-former congregation.
But what about social media? Many have “friended” me on Facebook and are following me on Instagram.
What is the current wisdom about what to do about social media connections when ending ministry in a congregation?
What have you done when you left?
Does your denomination have any guidelines about this?
What should I do?
Rev. on the Move
Our first response is from Kathryn Zucker Johnson, Senior Pastor/Head of Staff at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church:
This is such a great question. I know some Presbyteries say that folks need to be out of social media contact for 1-2 years. In my opinion that might be the correct answer, but it might not be the right one?
I think maybe the difference is in that gray area between seeing what folks are up to based on what comes up in their newsfeed vs. actually interacting with them. So no liking or commenting on their posts, on Facebook maybe even unfollow for a year, and making a category on Facebook for former parishioners so not every post you put up is seen by them.
As one who deals with a former colleague online, I wouldn’t mind that she’s on Facebook, it’s that she is just about always the first one to ‘like’ or ‘comment’. That seems like a boundary violation to me.
I haven’t had to figure this question out personally, as I’ve been in my current call since before the advent of social media. The clergy code of ethics of my denomination (American Baptist) includes the severing of ministerial leadership relations with former constituent – that obviously leaves a lot up to interpretation (what counts as “ministerial leadership relations” may differ from context to context, and may also be interpreted differently by various parishioners as well as clergy). Clearly, our code does not make specific recommendations with respect to social media use. (And in fact, my denomination, as far as I know, doesn’t offer any guidelines regarding social media).
Over time, I’ve had to develop my own guidelines for how I use social media, and I expect that will continue to evolve as the technologies themselves do. My current personal policy is to work within layers of privacy, so that not all my contacts necessarily see all my activity. I would anticipate that, if I were to leave here, I would do as Kathryn suggests, and make a category for former parishioners who would only see some of my activity. The issue of how to interact with their posts, however, is pretty important, and I think Kathryn offers good advice on that count as well.
I think one of the tricky parts in all of this is, as you prepare to leave, articulating to the congregation how you will be handling this. The truth is, what we clergy interpret as doing our job, some of our parishioners do understand as mutual friendship. That adds complexity to the issue of cutting out or cutting back on social media interactions, because of the potential for hurt feelings. On that count, I don’t have much wisdom to offer, but I will be very interested in reading what others have to say.
Karen Sapio, Pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church:
Like Stacey, I left my last call before social media arrived on the scene. By the time former parishoners started sending me friend requests on FB, several years had passed by which time new pastoral relationships were well established. Though some Presbyteries do have pretty strict policies on this, I think they are very hard to police and enforce. There are just so many social media platforms and ways that BFPs and former parishoners might find themselves interacting in the social media world. For example, you unfriend a former member–but you and she have mutual friends who weren’t part of the church. You both start commenting on a mutual friend’s post and there you are chatting, sort of. Or you are all part of a FB group related to some denominational intiative or local non-profit. Or your kids and their kids follow each other on Instagram. So saying “no social media contact” doesn’t really help IMHO. Better to stick with the same general principles that apply to other kinds of separation ethics: No inserting yourself into conversations about congregational matters, No giving pastoral care, Much restraint even on ordinary friendship stuff for the first year or so. And if the current pastor is finding anything you are doing problematic, cease and desist.
Kelley Wehmeyer Shin, Pastor of Memorial United Presbyterian Church (Xenia, OH):
I am PC(USA). Our Presbytery does have a policy regarding healthy boundaries with Facebook and other social media. But it is geared more toward privacy issues of church members and sexual misconduct guidelines. I believe it is wise to take at least a year’s hiatus from social media with former church members. It honors the “leave-taking” covenant between a pastor and congregation at the end of their ministry together. And even after a year of being off social media with former parishioners, it does matter how former pastors interact on social media with their former church members. I agree with Kathryn that it is inappropriate for former pastors to continually be interacting with former members on Facebook.
And the last, very good word from Kathryn Zucker Johnson:
As always, those with good boundaries will find a way, even with social media, to maintain those boundaries. Those who don’t – won’t.
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Awesome responses, wise and wonderful Matriarchs!
It’s your turn, Dear Reader, to add your own good advice:
When a pastor leaves a congregation, what are best practices to maintain good boundaries? Answer in the comments below.
Are you struggling in a sticky situation? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and get some support and good advice from our Matriarchs.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor serving in Nashville TN. She is a contributor to the RevGals book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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