Pastors engage social media’s role in church life

By Sheldon C. Good
Mennonite Weekly Review
(Reposted by permission from Mennonite Weekly Review.)

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HARLEYSVILLE, Pa. — Though online social media should not replace face-to-face interactions, these tools can enhance ministerial leadership.

And social media are nothing more than tools, two consultants told a group of 30 ministry leaders at an educational gathering March 17 at Franconia Mennonite Conference Center.

Most often, social media include Facebook,?Twitter, blogs and online video.

“It’s providing amazing opportunities for pastoral care,” said Scott Hackman, a seminary student and a consultant with MyOhai, LLC.

But people have different views of social media’s functions and effects. The group of pastors described social media as connection, nuisance, virtual community, addicting, time-consuming and a new definition of friends.

Hackman, a former youth minister and salesman, shared how his journey with social media began.

“I was a stay-at-home dad, and I wanted to connect with others who were in a similar context,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could connect with people and actually engage with them.”

So Hackman created Dad Parlor, a Facebook page dedicated to create space for fathers to share and connect.

But a Facebook page — and social media overall — does not replaced the need for face-to-face interaction, he said.

In fact, Hackman believes social media enhance interpersonal relations.

“In Sunday school, someone undoubtedly will say, ‘Hey, I saw this about you on Facebook,’ ” he said.

Hackman acknowledged that “how you lead in person looks different than how you lead on Facebook.”

Hackman and Todd Hiestand, lead pastor at The Well, a church based in Feasterville and a consultant with MyOhai, led the group in an example of crowdsourcing, which taps a group’s collective wisdom by asking people to submit feedback on a question or thought.

Hiestand said he sometimes uses crowdsourcing when preparing for sermons.

“I ask a question via Facebook,” he said, “and people in my community will engage with feedback.”

Hiestand said the way people respond can give him a sense of the pulse of his congregation.

“And sometimes I can then even incorporate that into my sermon,” he said. “It can even get people thinking about a sermon topic before Sunday.”

Hiestand explained some of the available social media tools and a few of his “rules of the tools,” specifically adapted for congregational life.

He acknowledged the misconception that social media offer a quick fix for churches.

“Sometimes people think, well, if I just join social media, my congregation will grow by 400,” Hiestand said. “I actually view it as the opposite. It’s all about building relationships.”

Building connections via social media, he said, is comparable to the long-term, slow process involved in forming interpersonal relationships.

“If you invest the time, you will reap the rewards,” Hiestand said.

He stressed, though, that engagement should be focused on other people, not oneself, as a way to supplement real relationships.

Hiestand described how tools such as Facebook, blogging, video and Twitter all have pros and cons.

“Facebook, for some people, is about sharing that they had macaroni and cheese for dinner,” he said. For others, it’s viewing photos, video and advocating for causes or interests.

No matter how social media are used, Hiestand said, leaders should always remember that even online “you are never detached from your role as a leader.”

Hiestand’s rules also included:

If you wouldn’t say it from the pulpit, don’t say it online.
Don’t be a jerk; rather, be encouraging.
Don’t self-promote.

Hiestand said he constantly reminds himself that “my attitude on social media is going to affect how people interpret my sermon on Sunday.”

Ministry leaders at the gathering use a range of social media and have different opinions about their effectiveness with ministerial leadership.

Dawn Nelson, lead pastor of Methacton Mennonite Church, has a Facebook page but said she only uses it occasionally.

“I use it to keep up with what people are doing, but I also try to check in with them verbally about what they write, in case it is misleading,” she said.

Nelson started a church Facebook page a few years ago but hadn’t used it until recently. Someone now co-administers the page and shares photos on it.

“I hope it will grow,” Nelson said.

Beny Krisbianto, pastor of Nations Worship Center in Philadelphia, sends updates about church ministry projects and special events using Facebook.

Regarding pastoral care, he said, checking Facebook pages of people in his community “is the best way to know what’s going on in their life in that moment.”

Jim Ostlund, pastor of youth and young adults at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, uses all four of the social media discussed at the gathering — Facebook, Twitter, blogs and video.

During worship, he’s also used Skype, an online voice and video chat program.

Social media have become valuable tools “in maintaining ongoing contact and building relationships with congregation members, especially young adults and youth,” he said.

Steve Kriss, director of communication and leadership cultivation with Franconia Conference, said that for pastors, social media can blur public and private life.

“The pastor is always a pastor, and a personal opinion is always a pastoral opinion,” he said. “The pastor’s challenge is to find ways to use the technology purposefully, generatively, hopefully.”