If I may, I’d like to begin by voicing a concern. What I’m about to attempt is to outline some of the benefits and dangers of social media for pastors as well as a few suggested guardrails that might protect a man from driving a proverbial car off of a proverbial cliff. However, I recognize that it would probably take a grand total of sixty seconds after this piece is published for someone to go find an example of me breaking my own suggested rules. This is, in part, because I have had some form of social media for roughly half of my thirty-two years of life. Notably, it is also proof that the limits and dangers of social media discussed here are real. I do not claim to have a perfect record, but I do hope I have learned something about the scope of social media’s usefulness for a pastor, even if some of those lessons came through failure.
It is worth beginning with a consideration of possible benefits. It is not difficult to see how a pastor can misuse social media, but I still want to commend it as a potentially useful tool in pastoral ministry. In fact, in some cases, it is a necessary element of shepherding our people. This brings me to the very first benefit of social media: you are entrusted to care for the souls of the members of your church and in all likelihood, the members of your church are on some form of social media. We all know people whose online personas vary drastically from their personalities in face-to-face interactions and that variance is often negative. It is, honestly, naïve to assume that our members are either not engaging in any online interactions or that all of them are doing so in ways that honor Christ. If we wish to shepherd people well, there will be times when we have to know how they conduct themselves online in order to address it. If nothing else, this is a reason to have accounts which we can check periodically even if we never use them to post anything.
Still, I think it is worthwhile to engage with social media beyond simply monitoring the conduct of those in our care. At its best, social media is a tool through which we can hear perspectives we might otherwise have missed. Not only can this introduce pastors to people and resources in our own theological tradition, but it also allows us to sharpen our understanding of other theological traditions as well. The connections we make through such interactions not only offer us opportunities to learn but also to build relationships with other churches in our own communities toward whom we might otherwise have remained ignorant or indifferent.
Of course, the greatest argument for active engagement is the chance so speak with clarity on moral and theological issues and, even more importantly, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through a medium which reaches people we might otherwise never meet. In God’s kindness, I have actually had the opportunity to speak with people about the gospel, see them repent and believe, and help them find a healthy local church because of social media. And often, it is our willingness to forthrightly address moral or theological issues that opens the door for these very conversations. If we do not engage, even when it is difficult and requires grace and patience, we can overlook opportunities to point people to Christ.
Interestingly, the greatest dangers pastors face on social media are directly tied to the strengths of the medium. We should address moral and theological issues, but allowing ourselves to get too drawn into doing so online will inevitably lead us away from being faithful shepherds in at least three ways. First, we face the temptation to read too much into social media trends. The concerns of our congregation might not look anything like the controversy of the week on Twitter, but if we let that controversy control all of our thoughts, we will find ourselves incapable of meeting the needs of the people in front of us because we were too concerned with winning virtual arguments. Not every viral post is reflective of the culture of your own church or community. In fact, I am willing to bet that most are not.
And this is intertwined with the second danger. Pastors can find themselves neglecting their own congregations because they are too concerned with their online interactions. Pastor, you are called to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2), not every single person who happens to show up in your notifications. Your social media usage should ultimately, in some way, serve your work as a pastor to the congregation over whom you have oversight. It should not distract you from that work. Your call as a pastor has immeasurably more to do with how you care for the man in your congregation who just lost his wife or the family still adjusting to having their first child than with growing some sort of online presence.
Finally, though we might begin with a zeal to defend the truth and proclaim Christ, social media can train us to speak quickly even if we have to sacrifice wisdom to do it. While God calls Christians – not just pastors – to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19), social media rewards the very opposite. It can teach us to want to make the first joke, to make the fastest judgment, and to lean into outrage. If unbridled impulsivity and anger is to be considered inappropriate for our congregants, how much more inappropriate should we consider these traits in ourselves?
We are forced, then, to ask how we are to utilize the benefits of social media while protecting against its dangers. In fact, we might even wonder if it’s possible. While I do believe it is possible, I also know men who, out of an abundance of caution and because they know their own weaknesses, avoid social media interactions altogether. This is commendable! Although I certainly believe it can be a useful tool, if a pastor knows he is too predisposed to one of its many temptations to use it safely, then it is better not to use it at all. For those who would like to use it safely, I have found several helpful ways to keep myself accountable.
First and most simply, make sure other elders from your church and denomination are following you. The men who are responsible for holding you accountable for your behavior should see it. If they are not already following you, then go out of your way to make sure they know how to keep up with what you do. If they do not have accounts, send them the links to your pages and ask them to check in periodically. Make sure they have eyes on you. Without such monitoring, we can easily start going down destructive paths without realizing it.
It is also helpful to limit your interactions to only those which will be useful. This might sound dismissive or mean, but I believe it is absolutely necessary. There are people on every social media platform who are just there to antagonize others. They will intentionally read what you say uncharitably. When it becomes clear that is the case, simply disengage. There are plenty of fruitful conversations that you can have with others, even with those who disagree with you. You are under no compulsion to answer every fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4).
Finally, set clear time limits on your social media usage. You can do this with multiple apps, but I also know men who track it other ways. Maybe you only log on at certain times of the day. Maybe you only allow yourself a certain number of posts per week. I have even talked to men who balance it by not doing anything on their social media accounts until they have engaged in a certain number of pastoral calls, visits, or hours of sermon preparation. However you budget your time, just make sure you do it in a way that prioritizes your pastoral duties over your online interactions.
Brothers, God has called us to shepherd his people. This is an honor and a privilege, but it is also a weighty responsibility. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, pastors answer this question at ordination: “Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you an overseer?” (BCO 21-5). I, and many of you reading this, answered this very question or one like it in the affirmative. We are not released from our vows when we open Twitter or Instagram. May we honor God and love his people in how we engage on social media.
©Nathan White. All Rights Reserved.
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