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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ask the Matriarch :: Facebook Friends

Boundaries are always an issue ministers have to be aware of, and the boundaries for a pastor once she's moved on from a particular congregation can be especially tricky. Social media has added another layer of complexity, and our question this week comes from someone trying to handle this appropriately.

Here's a social media twist:

I have become "facebook friends" with a few of the youth I knew from my first parish (over 14 years ago).  Most of them no longer live in the community, and my interactions with them are pretty sporadic.  After so many years, it's been nice to catch up a little, especially since seeing many of them at my former congregation's anniversary celebration this summer.

however, just recently, I got a question from one young woman who has come back and is pretty active in the congregation.  She asked me a question regarding a good problem they are having (they are having a lot of new members in their congregation) and wondered if I had any ideas for them.  I wrote back that she should talk to one of their own pastors regarding ideas.  

I haven't gotten back in touch with her again, and I'm not sure how to handle her question.  Should I just repeat again, "this is really a question for your current pastor"   Do I need to go farther than that?  I would hate to have to 'unfriend' her, as I do enjoy occasionally finding out what's going on in the parish, sort of like reading the newsletter.

kathrynzj offers:
I was going to tell you how hard core I am on this, but then I realized the distance in time there has been. It sounds like you handled it well. Did she come back and ask again? If that's the case then I think you either ignore the question and don't respond or simply tell her you're too far removed from the situation to really give any professional counsel.

Jennifer writes:
I think your response is right- go to the current pastor for advice. Be consistent and clear that you are no longer their pastor. End of story.

Martha counsels:
It sounds to me like you *did* handle her question, referring her back to the pastors currently serving the church. I wouldn't advise reaching out to her on this subject again. The last thing you want to do is offer advice on how to better accomplish ministry in a church you formerly served. I feel like there is a missing piece in the story if you think you might need to "unfriend" her. 

On the broader topic of being Facebook friends with members (from any age group) of prior churches, my approach is to not pay much attention to their activity on Facebook. If through the magic of Facebook's algorithms they appear in my news feed, I'm glad to see them; however, I don't "like" status updates, etc. I guess I would make an exception for a new baby or a marriage, or any other major life change. But I make it a point not to put them in groups or on lists I follow particularly. I also don't "friend" them, though I will usually accept a friend request. I recently received a Facebook message with a query about a book we used in a study group a few years ago. That question I answered directly, with a link to the book on Amazon, because it was objective. In any case where my ministry opinion might be solicited, I would do as you did and refer the questioner to the current pastor.

RevHRod/Heidi advises:
Last night I sat in a seminary presentation on the use of social media.  The RevGal giving the presentation suggested a number of useful things to keep in mind.  1) When you post something publicly it can go viral very quickly.  There is no confidentiality on Facebook.  2) You might want to consider having two Facebook pages; one for pastoring and one for friends and family.  3) Social media is an incredibly valuable tool for communicating the gospel, particularly with people who are under 30.

All of that having been said, this is really not a social media question.  It's a boundary question. The old rule about not messing about in your successor's parish should hold true no matter how 
the conversation takes place.  To do otherwise isn't fair or professional.  That doesn't mean you can't still be friends on Facebook, or even face-to-face.  It just means that you need to stick with your first response.  "That's a question you should ask your pastor."

Rev Red writes:
Social Media has certainly created new issues and concerns in the communication realm of ministry!  I do have former congregation members of all ages who are friends with me on facebook.  I have indicated to each one, when accepting their request for friendship, that I am not their pastor in this setting.  I also let them know that I will gently turn their "Pastoral needs/requests" back to them to take up with their own clergy.  I find that most understand and honor this or only need one gentle reminder.  I enjoy the contact that Facebook gives me with their lives and the churches.  The only person I have ever had to block from my page and from the church's page is a former pastor.  He is not happy with me, but was warned.
I think your response that turned the question back to the young woman to take up with her current pastor is adequate.  I don't think I would bring it up again unless she does. You have kept your distance as a pastor and allowed the friendship to still be. 
As a 60 year old woman, becoming familiar with and using social media,  including FaceBook and a smart phone with texting, is a challenge.  I also feel that it is an important ministry avenue. I actually have decided I enjoy it.   By friending my youth, I have a better sense of their lives.  Some of my congregation members seldom communicate except via texting or facebook.  I am adapting......some days anyway.

And Terri adds:
I think your response was fine and appropriate. It clearly states to her that you will not engage in conversation about the congregation - but you are interested in tidbits about her life. I think it is fine to remain Facebook friends with her unless questions like this increase.


It sounds like our matriarchs are pretty much in agreement on this one! What do the rest of you think? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.  

We need more questions for our queue! Please email us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.

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