Pastors and Social Media

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If I were on a church’s pastoral search committee, one question I would have for each candidate is:

What social media accounts do you use, how often do you publish on them, and who in your life has total access to your page and your private messages and could confront you, if necessary, about anything on there?

A brief unpacking:

What social media accounts do you use?

In general, I would be more comfortable with regular Facebook use than I would be with regular Twitter or Instagram use. All variables being equal, Facebook, as ridiculous as I often find it nowadays, is probably the social media platform that can most be justified by saying, “This is where the people in my church are.” If you’re a typical evangelical church, the odds are good that fewer than 10% of your people on Twitter or Instagram, but it would be not surprising if about half of the congregation was on Facebook.

The point of this question is not to just to see which platforms the candidate prefers, but to get a read on why, if he were to become pastor of my church, he would continue to use them. A pastor who heavily uses Twitter is almost certainly not using it because his people or his ministry need him to. And what I would want to see up front is whether there are signs that this man uses a platform like Twitter precisely because his people aren’t on it. Does the way he interacts on Twitter betray a desire to be part of far-away conversations and remote controversies? Is social media a way for him to “dress for the job he wants, not for the one he has”?

Instagram makes me nervous in a different direction. Perhaps I’m projecting my own weaknesses here, but I would imagine it would take a particular man with particular inclinations to use a platform like Instagram regularly and remain chaste and faithful in his imagination. Instagram is a beautiful app. It’s an app where people go to encounter beautiful people and make themselves look beautiful. A potential pastor who is very active on IG would face a unique combination of temptations on a regular basis: lust and unfaithfulness, yes, but also vanity. How aware is he of that? Does any part of his life look inordinately shaped by the values of IG?

How often do you publish on them?

The point here is straightforward. I would want to see tangible proof that, for this pastoral candidate, social media is something he occasionally does rather than somewhere he regularly lives. Does every single viral trend, every single controversy, every single “moment” in culture get some kind of response from him? To me, that’s a red flag. Does he regularly engage “random” people or insert himself into a variety of threads and conversations that don’t involve him? If so, the question really becomes, “What are you not doing because you’re too busy doing this?”

An interesting diagnostic process for this man would be to make contact with some of his personal references and friends and ask them: “Does he return calls consistently? Does he show up at get-togethers? Does he help you move/clean/serve? Does he ever talk about the books he’s reading, the ideas he’s engaging with, or the people that matter to him? Or is he, on any given day, probably holding his phone or laptop?”

The last part of this is recognizing the shaping effect that digital tech on us. If during the interview process, we became concerned about how often he posts, we need to be honest with ourselves and say that becoming a pastor is probably not going to improve this. All variables being equal, the problem of hyper-posting is not that this man has nothing better to do (and so when he finally gets something to do, he’ll do it instead), but that he’s not able to discern what “better” really means. If the algorithm has captivated his full attention now, it will probably continue to captivate it even when there are church members waiting on him.

Who in your life has total access to your page and your private messages?

Who knows your password? Who knows they can ask for it and you’d give it? Would you have any discomfort if an elder were to log in to your account at any point and not give warning? Does your wife ever see your private messages? Has she ever been surprised or hurt by something she found there? Who are at least two other men in your life whom you have given the keys to your account for a season, and would be willing to do so again?

There are nuances here. I don’t think a pastor should have a hard and fast rule against ever having a conversation on social media that’s not fit for the whole church to see. Friendship is by nature somewhat private and exclusive. The question is mostly about seeing if his candidate sees privacy as a thing to be grasped or as a potential pitfall. Is he OK with an unusual openness? If not, why not?

Who could confront you if necessary?

Could the elders? Could a regular member? Could even someone you disagree with and perhaps even find hard to like do so? Is there anyone who is neither family nor employer whom you respect enough to change something if they believed it to be necessary?

Perhaps it would even be a good idea to ask the candidate for an example of when someone who wasn’t employer or family told them they should delete something or apologize for something, and they did. If there aren’t any such stories, it raises the question not only of whether this man has the right friendships in his life, but of whether he is willing to submit to counsel that doesn’t necessarily have teeth. Changing something up because a spouse or an employer asks you to is one thing. Changing something up when a friend who can’t make you do anything says, “Hey, think twice about this. . .” that’s something else.

This post isn’t an attempt to pick on pastors or to single them out as uniquely bad offenders. It is an attempt to say that when pastors log on to social media and berate others relentlessly, post incessantly, or communicate inappropriately, it is very likely that red flags were visible before the point of crisis.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Samuel James’ newsletter Digital Liturgies is republished with permission.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he attends Third Avenue Baptist Church. He serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway and publishes a regular newsletter called Digital Liturgies.

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