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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Pastoral Care via Cyberspace

Who among us could have anticipated how communications and especially pastoral care-giving would be transformed by the Internet?  This week's question explores some of the possibilities and pitfalls of ministering on-line.

Recently, some newcomers to the church shared a photo on a social networking site, remembering a difficult part of their life that happened several years ago before I knew them.  I commented along with others on-line, saying something like "adding my prayers."  Later, in person, I tried to speak what came out as a sort of clumsy condolence.   The whole thing felt like I both said way too much (about a thing that is sad but probably well-processed by this family) and not nearly enough (the comments box is not exactly the place to wax eloquent, but I did want to say SOMETHING).

At the same time, a recently moved parishioner, who does not yet have a church in a new state halfway across country, has received a devastating diagnosis.  I have been kept updated by text and on a private blog, along with other friends and family members and have added this person to our church's prayer chain.

Both of these situations certainly have broadened my understanding of pastoral care, but it also feels like some really new territory in terms of what my role should be.  What have been your experiences ministering on-line through  difficult situations?  Any suggestions of pitfalls to avoid?  Anything that works well with you?

Martha, who blogs at Reflectionary, has this to say:

In some ways, Facebook is the new version of working together at the weekly sewing group or men's group or ____. As a pastor, if I overhear a story of past loss in an in-person setting, I make a note to follow up or not. While I share the feeling that a Facebook comment is not "enough" in some situations, it's a sign that you have noticed and I think that's worth something. And whether some other follow-up is required depends on the situation. Probably not in the case you're describing, just as might be the case if you heard the same reference at Ladies Guild.

The tricky part with social media is that others in the church community are watching and can see that we've responded in some way, which is a witness that we care, or not, which may not mean anything but can be interpreted as not caring. So I default to saying something like "adding my prayers." 
On the other matter, I think what you're doing is fine since the person doesn't have a new church family, but I would be more cautious if there were a new church and pastor involved and would probably reach out to that pastor. CaringBridge and other similar websites make it easy to follow the story of someone far away and to offer words of comfort and prayers, but I would always be asking the pastoral boundary question and putting myself in the place of the other pastor to check my instincts. 

Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness , adds:
This is difficult because new boundaries have not been established regarding social network ministry.  I think condolences or assuring someone of prayers is not what I would call pastoral care.  Friending someone on Facebook is not the same as interfering with the ministry of an incumbent.

I would try to direct a former parishioner back to their present pastor.  They usually get the hint.  For someone who has not yet found a new church home, I will do all I can to find the person a parish that works for them.  I try not to stand in the way of them finding a place by doing too much pastoral care for them.  

I believe that this is an issue that is going to have to be addressed by our judicatories and our seminaries as well as our colleague groups.  We do not have clear guidelines for social media.  It will be interesting  to discuss it here.  Thanks for bring up the issue.  We will be on the 'cutting edge' as we wrestle with new ways to define what is good and not so good pastoring in the light of the technological age.

And from Kathryn:

Yes, pastoral care in cyber space has changed everything...

I have learned the hard way that if I comment on a member's prayer concern on Facebook, then they believe they have communicated with the church their prayer concern. So for FB, I follow these general rules.
1) I comment 'prayers ascending' or 'Lord in your mercy' and then I actually stop what I'm doing and pray for that person/situation (this comes from helping to run a phone prayer ministry and about a month in we realized no one was actually praying for the folks who left their prayer requests on the message machine).
2) I send them a message from my work email to ask if they would like for the prayer request to go to the prayer chain, other ministers, etc... I have found that by moving the conversation to 'work email' it helps me reset the boundary of not using Facebook as the main communications device.
3) In person, I go with a simple question like, 'how are things going' since FB is different than everyone knowing. Again, this was a lesson hard-won.

Your long distance one is a tough one, such a tough case scenario. I think you trust your gut on this one and in the meantime see if you can help get them connected to a faith community (seminary classmate at a church out there by any chance?) and focus your pastoral care on the folks who are back in your church. 

Here is another thing I learned the hard way - if pastoral care cannot happen in person, it happens best over the phone. The amount of tone that is lost in typed messages can create misunderstandings and hurt especially when emotions are running high around an illness.

Blessings upon you and upon those who are in your pastoral care.

What "successes" and struggles have you experienced as pastoral care-giving has been reshaped by cyberspace?  We hope you will share your insights and your questions...

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I agree with the ideas above.
    For the people who have moved away, perhaps you could even call a sister church in that community and ask if they have a pastor who would be willing to call on them. Depends on the people, of course. Some people would freak out about that, but sometimes when you are in crisis, that kind of outreach can be comforting. Especially if they know you gave the reference.

    The other aspect of social media pastoral care is the fact that people think that if they put something on facebook, then I have "seen" it, whether or not I have commented on it. And the reality is, we don't see every status update of every friend. So I have told people not to assume I know what is going on through updates on fb.

    And I really, really agree that the phone is better than email if you can't be there in person.

  2. Yes to what Marci said! I'm surprised at the amount of Big News (pregnancies, job changes) that people announce on FB and *assume* everyone (including the pastor) has seen. I do try to stay on top of FB updates of people within the church, but I just can't see everything. We've tried to get the message out that in-person announcements are as important as FB announcements!

  3. As a tentmaker who doesn't live full-time in the community where my church is located (and has no secretary), I depend on electronic media a lot. I've had to be very intentional in helping people understand what works and what doesn't. Facebook doesn't, really, because if I'm away for a couple days, I can't dependably pick up everything I've missed. So, we have a pretty clear rule about speaking to me "directly." That can be a phone call or e-mail, or during a crisis it can be a phone call or e-mail from someone else. I have several key people in my congregation (who know the difference between prayer concerns and gossip) upon whom I depend to let me know immediately if something is going on with someone else. I always follow up with a phone call if I can't visit. We just never know whether e-mails are received.

    We also have many associate members, summer residents whose primary affiliation is with another church, often in another denomination. That can be hard. I know where the boundaries are with my Presbyterian peers, but what about non-denominational churches (which don't exist here as they do in the South, where many of my summer congregants are from). I consider those people "mine" while they're here. When they're there, I offer prayer (we'll pray for anyone, after all) and then say something like, "May I stay in contact with your pastor so I know how you're doing?" If I get rebuffed by the (male) pastor, I admit I sometimes go around, because in my mind an affiliate membership creates an official pastoral relationship.

    And, I try to be aware of the difference between boundaries and turf, because those are different issues with different pitfalls.

  4. This is so interesting as it is an aspect of ministry with which I have not been confronted. I'm afraid I have a deep suspicion of Facebook and perhaps am reactionary in this regard, refusing to become part of it. (Which is why I become increasingly frustrated that many forms of communication are only undertaken through Facebook.) I know I am possibly losing out on something important but I can't help but feel concern that there is a real danger of pastoral care becoming impersonal. Years ago, before I was ordained, a very experienced and caring priest expressed to me his concern that "young" clergy thought they could minister via computers, but that in reality it is "all about visiting". I still value that comment.

    I suppose in a way I am lucky because in my parish there are very few people who even own computers so it is not an issue here, but I know in more affluent parishes this is how things are done. But it really worries me that we are in danger of losing the personal side of pastoral care. Comments here have stated that some people communicate only through Facebook and expect the pastor to have read it.

    I suppose, having lived all my life in "third-world" countries, I simply see it a different way, but it frankly disturbs me. I can see those who have commented are very committed to keeping the personal side going, and I would agree it needs much more discussion at all sorts of levels. It should actually be part of training nowadays -- setting boundaries etc.

  5. There's lots of good advice here. How Facebook is used in ministry will vary from parish to parish, I suspect, but it is a way people let those who care of them know what's going on in their lives these days. One thing I would say is that I think it's going to get harder and harder to avoid using social media in ministry, and still be part of the world our people live in.

    I've just finished a senior MDiv thesis on social media and the church. However, it really doesn't try to answer the kinds of questions being asked here. It's more about how all kinds of communications build community in a parish, why that matters, and where social media might fit in that mix. So, a why-to rather than a how-to. If anyone would find it interesting, I have both the full thesis and a summary version on my web page:

  6. Pat, I totally understand where you're coming from, and it sounds like in your context you can successfully avoid social media. But I think it's really all about knowing context. I'm in a University community and believe that my ministry is actually better now *because* of social media - I'm actually more connected to some of our college students (as well as teenagers) than I was 10 years ago. And I also see more of what they're seeing, in terms of all forms of media (videos, articles, anything online that goes viral). I feel I am much more knowledgeable about the lives people lead outside of church than I used to be.

    Social media has its negatives and its positives, but there's no going backward at this point, imho, so we have to figure out how best to use it, ministry-wise (and otherwise!). I'm hoping to soon read Sherry Turkle's new book "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other" very soon. I think it will be very applicable to ministry in the social media age. (Maybe a RevGals book conversation in the future?)

  7. Bemused. It has never occured to me to "friend" my pastor on FB.

  8. I only check FB occasionally, and I am not a 'friend' of anyone in the congregation. no-one has asked me. I know some of them are on FB, so it isn't a lack of technology in the congregation, just not the way people relate to me.

  9. I have been reading here for a while, but this is my first time commenting. I am a new UMC pastor in a college town. I am 25, and I am on staff with two other pastors, both over the age of 50, who are not on facebook. I joined fb my Freshman year of college, and it has been a part of my life ever since. I have found it to be a fantastic way to keep in touch with friends who are scattered around the country and the globe. With that said, I have found it to be both good and bad when it comes to ministry.

    I have two profiles- my original profile dating back to college, and one I created when I started at the church. Though I believe this is "technically" against fb rules, I have found it helpful in creating and keeping boundaries. The one church person who had friended me on my personal account reacted poorly to a rather innocuous status of mine, sending me a mean message about it. I defriended him from that account immediately, but added him on my church one.

    One of my main responsibilities at this church is youth ministry. I have discovered that my youth are FAR more likely to respond to a text message than to an email, a phone call or even a facebook message. I make it a point now with new students to ask if they text, and if they would like to communicate with me in that way. Though some might see this as impersonal, I have found that high schoolers are far more willing to open up through texting than any other form. Often, after establishing a measure of trust through texting, (they know I won't judge, blab to others, etc.) I am then able to transition a text conversation to a face to face conversation.

    It is a new way of doing ministry to me, but I find myself enjoying it. Overall it has strengthened my relationship with my youth, and I can tell they appreciate the personal connections. I'm not sure this relates totally to the original post but it speaks to new media in ministry :)

  10. Pastor Bethany, you are on the cutting edge of social media ministry, and your instincts sound good. Setting up a second profile is one thing often recommended if you use FB in ministry, even if it is technically against FB rules. But be aware that many denominations are establishing rules that discourage or limit texting with youth, though it doesn't sound as if your parish does. The idea is to follow the same kinds of safe church principles of transparency in social media as in the real world, so communications that are visible to a group are preferred to individual communications with youth. Some policies even require that your emails and texts be copied to other ministers or to parents. Others allow texting only during the hours when phone calls would be considered polite.

  11. Wow, Cathy, that's interesting! I hadn't heard about those limits before. Like Bethany, I text with our youth often, and have found it to be an invaluable way to communicate with them. Bethany, my experience is like yours - they rarely respond to email or FB but will respond to texts pretty much immediately. I have also found that they are far more likely to initiate interactions via text than via any other forum.

    Cathy, do the denominations that discourage texting with youth also discourage phone calls? To me, they are the same, in terms of transparency/privacy, but with texts there is at least a "trail" that doesn't exist with phone calls (unless both parties delete the texts).

  12. I have never seen any guidelines regarding phone calls, but those might be contained in overall youth policies. Most of the guidelines I'm familiar with are specifically about "digital" communications, so that includes texting, email, FB, posting photos of youth on parish websites, etc. You can find lots of examples just by Googling something like "social media guidelines youth." They have been adopted at parish and diocesan levels, and they tend to copy each other. These would be some interesting typical examples:
    Orthodox Church in America
    Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut
    Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha
    I believe this is an area where there is an alarming amount of ignorance. I think some prefer it that way because once you get into it, it gets very complicated, for example, regarding publishing photos of children on parish websites or FB pages. A few but not many parishes ask parents to sign release forms in advance.
    This is an example of a photo release policy, from the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California.

  13. Thanks so much for the links, Cathy! Lots of good information to mull over here. I'm in a very loose denomination, so our church sets its own guidelines for pretty much everything. We do have a photo release policy, but we haven't set any other social media guidelines. Thanks for the info!

  14. It's very unusual for me to "friend" a church member, but I do respond to their requests. I think in my last interim I friended a few, but that was part of an attempt to build a web for the church community on Facebook, and I friended people who were key to the existing social web in the congregation. As churches use Facebook more and more -- in response to the way our people use it -- I will be interested to see if the expectations around friending will change.

  15. We use social media to stay connected with one another, post events and prayer requests.


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