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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ask The Matriarch: Facebook "friends and frenemies"

Dear Matriarchs,

I am in my first year of full-time parish ministry after graduating from seminary last May. I am a relative youngin', and I have used Facebook for years to connect with friends from college and, more recently, seminary. I am friends also with a lot of clergy. I did some work with college chaplaincies and became Facebook friends with students my age from that ministry.

In the last few weeks, parishioners at my current church have begun to "friend" me on Facebook. I didn't want to be rude, so I confirmed the friend requests (but set some limits on what they could see on my profile). One person in particular began to leave snarky comments on my status updates -- when I posted about working hard on a sermon, for example, he "teased" me about how I only have to present one thing a week, and he has to do several sales presentations.

I've played around some more with the privacy settings, but I am wondering -- How do we negotiate boundaries and relationships with new forms of technology? People know I only answer urgent phone calls or emails on my time off, but what about social networks that bridge different communities and relationships? Is it better to not be friends on FB with people that I have a current pastoral relationship?

Thanks, Matriarchs!

ordinary girl

Jan responds:
This is one of those my-life-is-not-my-own-anymore questions. And with Facebook, our lives all belong to or are exposed to anyone we allow into our digital social network.

The up side: people want to connect with you. They want to know you and see what you do with your life.

The down side: they also want to spy on you. Or at least some do. There are definitely a couple church friends who obviously read my posts with an eye towards criticism. They ask "What do you mean by ___?" or "Why were you with ___?" The merciful part of me would like to believe such people have my best interest in mind or the best interest of the church in mind. My less merciful side is not so merciful.

I believe you have to let church people "friend" you. But be careful. Don't put Michael Phelpsian pictures of yourself smoking from a pipe on your profile page. Don't drop the F-bomb in your casual comments.

And if your BS (before seminary) friends - or your seminary friends for that matter - choose to include photos and comments that are scandalous, remind your people that Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. Hand them a Bible.

Blessings, Jan Edmiston

Stacey speaks about her experiences with Facebook and Twitter:
This is SUCH a tricky issue. I decided to be public on Facebook and have allowed any and all church members who are on there to friend me. But I am careful about what I post there (on my own wall or anyone else's). On the one hand, I feel free to share things I would never share from the pulpit, like my political affiliation and opinions. On the other hand, I feel like I have to be careful about status updates. If I update too often, it may look like I'm not getting any work done, for instance! The comment you got from your parishioner would have bothered me, but I probably would have either not responded or made some light flip response.

A few months ago, I joined Twitter, which is sort of like Facebook status updates, but at a much quicker pace. At first I linked my Twitter and Facebook accounts, so that my Twitter updates were automatically pushed to Facebook. But within 24 hours, I unlinked them and locked all my Twitter updates (so that only people I approve can see them). It was just too much. I decided that Facebook can be my very public place, where I don't mind what parishioners or high school friends read. But I needed a more private place, too, totally free of church members. It's tricky, but if a church member tries to friend me in that forum, I will simply let them know that my profile is locked and why.

It is hard to find any middle ground. If you're going to have an online presence at all, you have to be prepared to be as careful online as you are in public about what you say. If you need a space that's just for you and your friends, then you may need to draw some firm lines that you do not breach for any church members at all.

NJ Soprano comments on the risks:
I have a Youth Minister at my church who is 30-something and into all of the technology - iPhone, iPod, Bluetooth, TIVO, you name it, he's got it. He was under a fair amount of pressure to be on Facebook. He refused. His concern is that he might say something, or someone would respond to him that would be misunderstood and place his relationship with the kids in jeopardy. As his rector, I stood firmly behind him.

I think there is an enormous risk to any 'social networking' or any Blog. Even if you limited your 'friends' on FB, someone somewhere will find you and even an innocent statement about sermon prep can be misconstrued. You have to understand that if you are going to go 'public' with your thoughts.

You can't put the toothpaste back into the tube, so, going forward, you just may want to carefully consider what it is you post on FB. In fact, that may take all the fun out of things like FB and Twitter, but it's a reality of life in the 'fast lane' of parish ministry.

Godly Play Gramma also votes for "friending:"
My gut reaction is that you should be friends with people in the congregation - social networking is one of the ways people of all ages connect these days. There is something about saying, even on Facebook, "I won't be your friend," that hurts.

I am a public employee with a fairly sensitive position. I like Facebook, but I am very careful about what I share there. I seldom mention work, and when I do, it's pretty generic stuff like "woohoo - long weekend". I try to avoid posting status updates during work hours. I post links about issues that concern me, but I don't wax eloquent about my opinion. I don't post pictures of my grandkids even - and I don't talk about them by name.

So maybe you use Facebook to post personal updates, and opinion updates, but not to talk about your sermon. You can just not respond to snarky comments - the way things move on Facebook, the snarky comment will be buried sooner or later.

Or could socialize with church on a Ning ( and leave FB for friends. Ning would be good for collaborative work - each team could maintain their own part. However, I still can't see saying I have 420 FB friends and I won't be your friend because you attend my church.

Rector in Hawai’i offers some more ideas:
Boy. This is a tough one. It's hard to not accept invitations from parish "friends." It's one of the reason I don't have a general blog -- I don't want them to see everything I think and write.

This is what I'd suggest: start a new Facebook page under a different name.... Like your name with your middle initial, or your name without your middle initial, or any other variation of using your name. Then go back to your initial friends list and send all non-parishioners an invite. Don't advertise it in the parish or make a public announcement about the 'new' site. If someone discovers it, just say that it's only for family and close friends; your public list is the one they've been accessing and they can continue to do that.

You can still check and use your current FB for parishioners and anyone else who asks. But you can also control who sees what by having that second FB site. You absolutely do not need to take the snarky crap for the parishioner who seems to think it's okay to rudely and disrespectfully comment on your status updates.

A second site is a bit of a hassle but you do need to set some boundaries and the first site has given you reason to do so.

FWIW - I have a land line that is unlisted and blocked because there were a few parishioners for whom every little incident was an 'urgency.' That number is given to someone only with my permission; there might be 5 parishioners who have it because I know they will absolutely not share it.

Wise layperson advises fair policies whatever you choose to do or not do:
I am not a priest, but here are my two cents:

I suggest that you restrict your Facebook/LiveJournal/ Personal blog use to your trusted friends and family and that you use fairly strong privacy settings for personal content.

I think that having a place set apart, either in real or virtual life, where you can be yourself and not have to be 'the priest/pastor' is important.

One reason not to friend congregants on Facebook is that not everyone has the same access to computers and so not everyone can reach you that way.

The other, as you have noticed, is that really congregants are not your friends-- if anything they are more like your employer. If you worked in a business setting would you want your boss to read what you had for breakfast and make decisions about you based on the personal information you reveal about yourself on Facebook?

What ever you decide to do, be consistent and fair. If you let some congregants in but exclude others it will create the impression of a clique or in-group and that can lead to trouble.

Also, be conservative in you posts, even to your more private blogs. Think before you post. Do not post when very tired, impaired, or upset/angry. Once something is on the internet is can spread far beyond its intended audience very easily.


  1. The idea of setting up a second, semi-private Facebook account sounds good, except for one thing -- it's explicitly prohibitted in the Facebook TOS to have more than one user account.

  2. I actually opened my facebook account just for the purpose of being in touch with our youth and only later did it become MY social network.

    I'll friend just about anybody. I am circumspect about what I post, what flair I'll put on my board but I think ANYBODY needs to do that. Facebook is NOT your private life.

    I have decided to be open about political groups and social causes that may surprise some of my parishioners since I don't make a big deal of them in church. But I won't be part of groups that are rude and offensive. So I might have been tempted to join "Bush is a big jerk" type group but I didn't. But I am a supporter of many political people that church members might not be. I just try to keep it positive. To me that is about my public witness as a follower of Christ as much as it is about being clergy.

    It has been a great way to keep in contact with the youth of the church, especially the marginal ones.

  3. What I find creepy about Facebook is that people can tag you in a photo, so there sits a photo that someone else posted, but it is on MY page. I also don't like getting all those notices about what other people comment about stuff I don't care about. I've changed the settings, but it hasn't helped. I would think that there are more pitfalls than benefits.

  4. I know a clergyperson who just put on her facebook page that she is just using the FB to catch up with old buddies from college, and to please understand. I don't think it is a bad thing to NOT friend parishioners. My problem is not wanting to friend wacky people that I have never had more than five minute conversation with since I was five. or fifteen. ;-) Can you address that?

  5. To PSanafter-thought: you can untag yourself from any photo that someone has tagged you in.

    I already responded to this question in the main post (as Stacey), but I just wanted to add that I thought Wise Layperson's response was so great. In all of my online interactions, I try very hard to remember never to write anything that I wouldn't say in real life.

    Also, like Pastor Joelle, I first got on Facebook to connect with our college students and youth. Toward that end, I think it has been a great success. I'm grateful for the access I have to them - it opens up a new avenue for ministry.

    FB has also been great for connecting with new colleagues. I was recently doing research for something I was writing, and I wrote a note on FB about it and not only got some really helpful responses from colleagues, but also got put in touch with some colleagues of theirs that were also helpful.

  6. I too am a young twenty-something clergy person. And part of me wants to say that there is a generational difference as far as how open we are on facebook... that people in our church may or may not understand and that clergy of different ages will feel differently about.

    Facebook for me definately started as a place to connect with colleagues in seminary. And now what I love about those relationships that I have built is that I have a support group and people to share ideas with from all over the world! even though I'm working at a small church in the rural midwest.

    The first church people who friended me were my youth. And after I had two or three do so, I created a group for our youth and the members quadroupled instantly! There are a few other church members who have friended me, but overall, the church isn't that technologically oriented.

    I have a lot of family on facebook, so I have already been "censoring" some of what I say because of 11 year old cousins who are peeking at my status. But like others who have said this before me, I really like that I can be authentic and honest about myself on facebook for those people in my congregation who really want to know. I'm not going to preach my political associations from the pulpit, but I'll tell anyone who asks me personally in a conversation or wants to read it on facebook.

    I'm a big proponent of not hiding who I am to my congregation, and facebook helps me to continue being authentic. Even if it means a status update on Saturday night about how I'm reworking part of the sermon that didn't feel right... (ahem, or rewriting it all together).

  7. I find Facebook a useful way to contact a certain young singles in the parish and young marrieds in the parish. They do not expect to find the Old Lady lurking on FB, saying, "Hi! How are things? Haven't seen you in a while?"
    I don't friend strangers who ask, tho', and I'm reasonably careful about what I post.
    Not all the clergy I know ARE careful, and that worries me.

  8. Wise layperson said: I think that having a place set apart, either in real or virtual life, where you can be yourself and not have to be 'the priest/pastor' is important.

    This is true but also sticky, for lay and clergy. Having an alternate place to be "who we really are" can also lead to destructive behavior such as acting out, etc. I think it's important, as Katie Z. said, to be authentic, both online and in life, but with maturity and self-assurance. And both worlds are known to have those who troll in the trade of negativity. Consulting others for their wisdom is always a good move.

  9. I keep a public blog and also am on Facebook. I am careful about most things I say, but also periodically remind folks that my blog is my place to be a human being. So far people have been gracious and understanding, and that leaves me with a forum to be, if not wholly open, then certainly more myself than I can be in most church-related settings.
    One thing you can do is set up friend lists that function like tags and let you filter who can see what. Lifehacker had a post on it during the brief flap over FB's privacy setting.
    On the flip side, I had a fun experience over last week's sermon, when I posted a status update that I was hoping a sermon would drop from the sky, because I was having trouble. Had several comments within an hour that some church members were looking forward to hearing what I came up with, and positive feedback Sun. after church. Also had 2 sermons emailed to me by friends looking to help me out. I still wrote my own, but it was nice to have the support.
    To piggy-back on what Katie Z. said, we are definitely working with different understandings of what privacy is, how friendship works, and what it means to be authentic. My ultimate advice: be careful what you put out there and give some real thought as to what your comfort level is--because we're all different.

  10. I hadn't even spoken with Stacey about this, but I did the same thing as Stacey. I twitter, and that's ONLY friends. Facebook is open to anyone that I know. (I get really weirded out when people I don't know try to friend me.) It started out as a ministry thing and then people my age joined and it's morphed. Twitter has been a nice balance for me.

    You're not supposed to have two facebook accounts--that's true, but it's easy enough to get around by using separate email addresses. I think I'd be exhausted by having two.


  11. One problem that I ran into when I ended my relationship with my boyfriend of three years is that if your statuses are linked, (ie, Dick is in a relationship with Jane), then if Dick changes his status to single, it appears to facebook as if Jane has just entered a NEW relationship, and goes about announcing it to the world. AWKWARD.

    More here:

  12. I have been thinking a lot about facebook and blogging lately. I think I navigate being "myself" but being careful what I post, but that is always tricky, I think.

    I like certain aspects of facebook, but not others. I joined because of a family member, but I like that I can keep up with young adults in the parish.

    Anyway, there are times when I have wished I hadn't gotten into it.

    I think about an anonymous blog, or a private blog, where I can be more honest, but I do think there are pitfalls with that, too. I think, if I REALLY want to do that, I should really put it in my journal, and keep it really private.

  13. This is so timely! I spent a while this morning discussing with one of our parish leaders, who is well versed in Facebook use, the very issue of whether I should have a page or not. What you all mention are exactly the issues that I raised. I still haven't decided, but it sure is helpful to read everyone's thoughts.

  14. My only difficult with Facebook, Twitter, etc has been when I have had issues with my boss and have not had the liberty to truly express my frustrations. But then, as I thought about it... I decided that would want to be true to myself, learn a little self-discipline and not go shooting off from the lip (my most besetting sin!) So, being "public" has helped me work on that. It's not all bad. If I need a private space I do know how to find some 'prayer pals.'

    This is where having a group of peers who are NOT your co-workers or family or church members is really beneficial. The women I see every month are lifesavers. Of the four of us, I'm the only one who blogs or Facebooks regularly.


  15. For me, it would be very nearly impossible to do my job well without facebook. And it would be nearly impossible to pretend to have a social life, too, since I live in an area that is demographically very different from me. Facebook is an extremely integrated part of my everyday life.

    So though I use facebook for both personal and ministry-related stuff, I am still careful about what goes there--I don't use the "pass a drink" app and I don't swear on my page and I don't accept inappropriate bumper stickers (funny though they may be!). Other than that, though I'm pretty honest. I feel like the internet is so much more long-lasting than things I might say in person, it pays to be cautious in general, regardless of what the terms of service say. And, RE photo tagging, I figure that my best way around that is not to do things that might end up embarrassing tagged photos on facebook.

    But I do have a locked Twitter account that doesn't include church members, and I do treat it as my safe space. I say things there I would never say on facebook, and trust my colleagues and friends to treat that little padlock on my account the same way I treat theirs.

  16. All of these comments have been fantastic!

    I too am very careful about being circumspect on Facebook. I'll often post about what I am working on (when at work) or what I am thinking about.

    I don't use the apps much, but I do interact a lot with my friends from college, seminary and - now - the clergy world. Like Teri, I am a bit more isolated, and FB is an integral part of my social network.

    So I am pretty careful not to say anything inappropriate, not to refer to anything confidential. Anything I wouldn't say in public, I don't say on FB. (I am not yet ordained, and I have friends on FB who are on the Commission on Ministry.)

    But, the several incidents of sarcasm and putting down the work I do really irked me, and they all happened with one person within a few days of accepting his friend request. I don't want to treat some parishioners differently than others, so I created a category called "Contact Only" and used the privacy settings to restrict access to my profile more closely than "no photos or videos". And I moved all of the current parishioners into that group.

    I might expand what that group can see, but for now, it's pretty limited until I figure it out.

    For those of you who might be tinkering with privacy settings, you might try the feature that lets you view your page as someone else would.

    Thanks for all the comments!

  17. I've struggled with this issue, both with my blog and with Facebook.

    Here's how I've resolved it: I really need my blog to be a place where I can be myself and engage in some major gut spillage, even about church stuff, if need be; so I am highly selective about who can see it. (My pastor, for instance, is not privy to my blog, and knows why. And I'd assume he'd maintain similar boundaries with me.) Because of Facebook's relative informality and swiftness of communication, I have pretty much opened that up to all my friends, including church friends. (I did wind up "un-friending" a niece-in-law who never initiated conversation with either FT or myself, but who seemed to be quite the Nosy Nell, reading our posts and relaying them back to her mom.)

    Sometimes I'll write a blog post that I really, really want to share with my more casual friends. What I do in that case is copy and paste it into a Facebook note, rather than link to my blog.

    I will admit to counting down the last days of my former job with a discernable degree of glee on my Facebook account.;-) I'm sure that the six-degrees rule made that a bit indiscreet. Oh, well.

  18. I want to comment about the parishioners who say snarky things like "only having to present one thing a week," etc. I know these things are irritating, but I would like to point out that many of our folks don't know how to relate to pastors as regular folk, and this may just be a way to try to connect.

  19. Facebook - broken water mains... washing machine issues... poking folks... checking in with the youth... saying hey to my kids... even talking to some older folks that I never figured would show up there.

    Blog - semi-private... pretty neutral these days... and may soon go private. I need a place to vent... about parish... and about life.


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