{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

In Transition: What to Do About Facebook When You Move to a New Church

In June I will be moving for the first time and assuming an array of new duties as I transition from being an associate pastor to a lead pastor. So in lieu of this transition, I’ve decided to focus a project I have for a young clergy leadership group on the topic of moving well. I’m calling the next few blog posts In Transition and I will focus on a few things I’m working through as I transition between churches in a few weeks. My hope is to not only grow personally and vocationally as I move, but I hope this series will help generate discussion for others who might also be moving.

What Do I Do About My Facebook Friends When I Leave for a New Appointment?

We live in an Internet-driven age. There’s no denying it. And since we can’t wish ourselves back to simpler times when Methodist pastors could pack up all of their belongings in a station wagon to move, we have to deal with the complexities of itinerant ministry that now extend not only to challenges of family and spouses who work, but also to lives we live online through social media.

Before I begin, I want to point you to a couple of excellent posts by my friend, Rev. Jeremy Smith. Jeremy is a tech nerd in the very best sense of the phrase. He offers some great technical advice on how to go about making changes to your Facebook account as you move from one church to another. This most recent post is an update from previous posts where he addressed the issue. Read Jeremy’s work for details on healthy choices you can make to smoothly transition between churches via social media.

Instead of getting into the technical details, I want to offer you my personal philosophy and the reasoning behind it. You might not agree with me and that’s fine. But this is my philosophy and maybe it will help you better solidify your own as you move now to sometime in the future.

Keep Your Friends While Keeping a Healthy Distance

There are some pastors, DSs, or bishops who would argue that when you leave a church, you need to truly leave it. And that means un-friending people in the process. I’ve known many Methodist pastors who have used this philosophy to set up boundaries from day 1 in a new appointment. When you know you’ll leave one day, why bother becoming friends with people? After all, you’re their pastor and not their friend. It’s about the office of pastor, right? Well yes and no.

One of the primary roles of pastors is to establish relationships with people. Yes, we’re there to be your pastor. But there’s nothing wrong with also being a friend. Personally I find it incredibly unhealthy for pastors to keep a distance between themselves and parishioners in the name of respecting an office. As leaders we need to develop the self-awareness to know where the office ends and where we as people begin. Too many of us see ourselves as pastors only and we forget how to take off the mask and just be ourselves. As a result, we isolate ourselves (and maybe even our families) in a lonely life where we are void of many meaningful relationships. You can, in fact, be friends with church members. You will not break the church or the office of pastor if you become friends with people — so long as you develop the maturity to know certain boundaries and can become aware of how to be sensitive in the gray areas where life and ministry get messy.

A friend recently pointed me to the book Networked where the authors note that a major misconception people have about social media is that we see it as a tool when it’s really a place. It’s a place where people go to see others and to share their lives (even though it’s most often the best projection of their life). To say that a pastor should just unfriend people from their previous appointment is just nonsense. If I’m in a restaurant and I run into a former church member, am I going to turn and run away as though I don’t know that person? Of course not. I’ll stop, say hello, and maybe ask them about their family. I will not, however, ask them about my former church and how the new pastor is doing there. That’s none of my business because I’m gone when it comes to the ministry of that church. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to care about how people are doing, how their families are growing and succeeding, or how they’re struggling at any given moment. It simply means that I need to exercise the self-control to not be their pastor once I’ve moved — and that is a gray area for many of us.

My Facebook Policy

So what exactly will change about my relationships with people on Facebook? Here are two ways I plan to change my social media relationship with Mulberry members as of June 11 when I become the pastor of Aldersagate UMC in Savannah:

  1. I will “unfollow” people so they will not show up in my news feed as often. It’s not that I don’t continue to care for them. But I’m moving to a new place and I will need the space to fill a Facebook news feed with new people who I will be living with. This doesn’t I won’t occasionally go to someone’s page to check out their latest vacation or grandchild pictures. But it does mean that I will set it up to where I will not have daily or up to the minute reminders of what’s happening in their life.
  2. I will ask that all former church members refrain from commenting to me about what’s happening at Mulberry. I care about Mulberry a great deal and it will always have a special place in my heart. But my focus is on my new appointment and the wonderful things that will happen at Aldersgate — not what’s going on in my absence at Mulberry. This includes pastoral care needs. There are three fine pastors and an incredible staff available at Mulberry to offer pastoral care. As your friend, I care. But I do not need to be the first contact for pastoral care. Count me with the masses of other friends who hear news you share publicly and do not use me for private contact concerning pastoral needs.

In addition to this, I will offer my page for my blog as a great spot to keep up with my writing. I use this page to promote articles and columns I write and I encourage people to engage with it.

Ministry is messy business. It’s complicated because pastors do not just offer religious or goods, we share life with people. And that’s beautiful. But this also makes moving from one church to another a bit complicated. Upcoming posts will try to deal with other issues of leadership in transition.

So what do you find as good practices for social media when you move from one church to another? How do you avoid unhealthy practices while keeping the integrity of a pastoral ministry that fully invests in loving people?