Pastoral Identity and Authenticity Online

A wonderful article by Lynne Baab in Spring 2010 issue of Lifelong Faith explores how various e-communications platforms – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, regular congregation-wide emails, and a good website – can work with established forms of communication – sermons, printed newsletters – to support and enhance the task of faith formation in the congregation.  It's a well-done piece, and worthy of your attention.

[Note: link to the article sends you to her personal website; Lifelong Faith is an excellent journal, and should be on the reading list of every church leader involved with faith formation ministries.]

In her article, Baab talks about the importance of the congregation – and the pastor(s) – having an online presence.  Baab writes that she has been "increasingly impressed with the strategic use of both Facebook and Twitter by congregations and by
Christian leaders," and she suggests that "every minister should consider having a blog."

Which – departing from her article now – got me to thinking about the identity and authenticity of pastors online.  When I started blogging over five years ago, many pastors and seminarians blogged anonymously or under pseudonyms.  I blogged semi-anonymously for a while myself, but then I shed anonymity in March, 2007, feeling a bit awkward about trying to keep quiet about things I was posting online for the world to read.  Some folks still blog anonymously, though it seems to be a less frequent occurrence (thanks to the rise of Facebook, blogging itself has declined in our Lutheran blogosphere).  Furthermore, many blogs that technically remain "anonymous" are much less anonymous these days, thanks to linking from Facebook and Twitter accounts. 

Yet the presence of those anonymous church-oriented blogs poses a question of authenticity – can we trust the words of someone who won't stand by their words?  No pastor can preach or teach anonymously, so why should they blog anonymously?  Can a pastor be anonymous and authentic at the same time?  I'm not so sure. 

"Authenticity" is not the same as "letting it all hang out," or revealing every last detail about your private life for all to read and see.  An authentic pastoral self is one that is honest about the brokenness of the human
condition, one that doesn't hide behind theological or liturgical phoniness, but instead uses the gifts of faith, scripture and tradition to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to bear through the caregiver's life and presence on the ministry of walking with God's people in their daily lives.  Indeed, the ministry is not just tasks and words, but tasks and words shared in real life … as we read in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: "We are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also
our own selves
" (emphasis mine).  [Three years ago I reflected on this verse during my 9-month hospital chaplain residency.]

Surely we all have filters that we use in our
professional and personal lives, revealing ourselves more to some people
than to others.  But how we manage ourselves online – what we share, what we don't, and how we share – is important for pastors and church leaders to consider, since we are interacting with our members and communities both online and "IRL" (in real life).

But more.  There are pastors who keep two Facebook accounts – a "personal" account for use with family, friends, and personal acquaintances, and a "pastor" account for use with their congregation.  I don't get this, to be honest.  This practice, like the anonymous blogs above, seems to present a question of authenticity.  Who is the pastor presenting himself to be through the "pastor" account?  Is this the image of the "pious pastor," constantly posting Bible verses and faithful insights?  What, then, is the pastor hiding from church members that he posts on his "personal" account? 

Rather than create two profiles – rather than present himself in two different ways on the same social network – a pastor should have a single personal profile and a separate Facebook page for the congregation.  Having a Facebook page for the congregation would create a Facebook destination for church members that is distinct from the pastor's profile, thus encouraging patterns of online communication that are tied with the congregation rather than with the pastor.  Pastors come and go, after all …

But assuming that you only have one Facebook profile – with which you're connected to high school friends, past co-workers, and distant cousins – do you become Facebook friends with people at church?  Do you set up different Facebook groups among your friends, being a little more judicious about what information the folks in your "church" group have access to?  Or do you simply deny Facebook friend requests coming from church members altogether?  

I am Facebook friends with people at my church, and I have found Facebook to be a great way to connect with folks about life and our shared tasks in the ministry.  Admittedly, I am fairly judicious about what I post on my Facebook profile (those of you who are friends with me might disagree – I do post a lot on Facebook!).  As my number of Facebook friends has grown – including among church members, long-lost high school friends, and people I've met only once at a conference – I've become less inclined to share my politics online, for example.  [UPDATE: Full disclosure: when I got ordained, I did some cleaning up of my blog. See details a few paragraphs deep, here.]  I simply don't see the need to get into political discussions/debates with a growing group of folks, many of whom I'm glad to be connected with online but with whom I have little, if any, personal relationship.

Twitter is a slightly different animal than Facebook, and it makes sense to me that pastors and church leaders would have multiple Twitter accounts.  Twitter is less personal than Facebook.  On Facebook you become "friends" with other Facebook users, and you share all kinds of personal information – from schools to relationships to pictures to your answer to the famous question, "What's on your mind?"  On the other hand, on Twitter you "follow" feeds of information – brief comments and quotes, links to articles, updates on a live event such as a conference, speech, or a baseball game.  Twitter is about sharing ideas and information, especially with hashtag searching

I've been "tweeting" regularly for several months – after some fits and starts for over a year – and most of my Twitter followers are church folk, people who connected to my twitter account via my blog or our shared work in the church.  Yet most of my tweets are about baseball – I can easily send 20-30 tweets as I listen to a baseball game, whereas tweets about church or local community issues come along much less frequently.  So rather than clog the feeds of my churchy followers with comments or re-tweets about the #Phillies, I created a new twitter account for my baseball tweets: @getyourpeanuts

So whether for personal or ministry use, multiple Twitter accounts with clearly-defined uses – one for congregational announcements, another for Bible reflections, another for your love of NASCAR, for example – can be both effective and very helpful to those who follow you on Twitter.  Because of the nature of Twitter, I don't see as much of an authenticity concern with Twitter as I do with multiple Facebook profiles or anonymous blogs.

—–

Holden Caulfield, the great angst-ridden American prophet who could call out phoniness a mile away, yearned for an authenticity of life and love that was ultimately illusive for him and for so many people who have identified with him over the years.  He saw the phoniness not only in his teachers and classmates, but in ministers, too.

"If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers.  They
all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons …
I don't see why the [heck] they can't talk in their natural voice.  They
sound so phony when they talk."

– Holden Caulfield
(of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and central image in a
recent sermon of mine
)

Online and in person, let's give up our "Holy Joe voices," and replace them with a "natural voice" that is authentic and honest … a voice which opens us up to conversations and relationships that become places of holy encounter with God and with others.

We’re just a bunch of phonies trying to throw Jesus off a cliff (Lectionary 4, Year C)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Luke 4:21-30
January 31, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

One you get a few paragraphs deep into The Catcher in the Rye,
    the classic 1951 novel by J.D. Salinger, who died this past week.
    it becomes painfully clear that there's something wrong with Holden Caulfield.
He's angry, depressed, scattered, desperate … yet, and perhaps not surprisingly,
    he shows glimpses of deep insight, as is often the case with those who are marginalized.
He longs for something real,     something authentic, something worth holding on to …
    but this yearning for authenticity contrasts with the phoniness that surrounds him.
You see, Holden Caulfield looks at the world and at those around him
    with a deep skepticism and cynicism,
    acutely diagnosing the phoniness of the people and places around him.
Though most of us might not share his quirks or crude language,
    and though we may not relate to his deep carelessness,
    there is something about his analysis of the phoniness of the world
    that has struck a chord for generations of Americans.

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