An online pulpit? Ministry and social media

A couple of conversations online in the last two days, and a couple in the real world, have caused me to think about the pastoral implications of being part of the oversharing generation.

I have many politically motivated friends on Facebook who happen to be in vocational ministry. Conventional ministry, from the generation above mine, is that ministers shouldn’t be endorsing any particular political view (I think Peter Jensen articulated this best in his ABC interview a few weeks back).

People in ministry are in positions of influence. There’s something about the pastoral or discipleship relationship that inherently imbues strongly held personal opinions with a possibly unhelpful significance. We’re not good at splitting our personal convictions from our theology – partly because most of our personal convictions flow from our theological presuppositions (which are also personal convictions, but hopefully biblically based).

Anybody in this sort of relationship needs to maintain a detached objectivity and the ability to put forward views with nuance. But we also need to be able to speak of our convictions on non-essential issues without being slammed or defriended.

So the question I’m grappling with is as I move towards holding more “influence” as a vocational minister is how do I do that and remain a person of conviction who is prepared to put forward views on controversial issues like politics or education.

I have a real problem with people equating what Christians in ministry say online – either in their Facebook statuses or their blogs – with a “thus sayeth the Lord” statement on reality. We need a diversity of voices speaking on complex issues in order to nut out an appropriate position. I’ve spoken to people who’ve suggested it’s inappropriate for anybody in ministry to critique non-essential decisions of those they are pastoring because it’s not pastorally sensitive – but how do we critique the prevailing consensus, if we believe it’s wrong, without speaking our mind. So, for example, if your church has a culture of advocating for one particular method of educating children. If there are parents who look down their noses at other parents who don’t send their children to a particular brand of school (this is a purely hypothetical situation), then how do we put forward our views without causing some offense? How do we do it right? How do we maintain our humanity? We don’t want to be the “toe the party line” drones who are dominating our political landscape too afraid to say anything that might lose votes.

I don’t think a blog is the pulpit, but it is a pulpit. It’s a bit like Tony Abbott calling on people to only trust his carefully worded statements rather than his off the cuff responses. Sermons are tightly prepared exegesis aimed to teach people the word of God. Posts on a blog are opinion pieces that are hopefully not contrary to sound exegesis – but I don’t think the burden of responsibility is the same. We should be careful with how we use our tongues, and our keyboards, and should steer clear of slander, malice, dishonesty and gossip. But to suggest that we can’t speak out on issues that we feel strongly about by equating blogging with being a called and appointed “teacher” is a little wrongheaded, and opens up a can of worms. Should I, for instance, read a woman’s blog if blogging is teaching?

Conversely, I think we need to be really careful to present our personal views with appropriate nuance. When we speak out in favour of a particular methodology, or political party, we need to frame it somehow as personal opinion in an issue of liberty. And I think blogs are a terrible forum for this. Controversy is inherent to the medium. Controversial posts get more hits, more comments, and are more fun to write. Controversial posts are also a much better corrective against opposing views. They make people think, they prompt discussion. But controversy is often not pastorally sensitive (though I reckon Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all pretty controversial). It annoys me when people post such controversial ideas when I disagree with their fundamental views. I get a bit narky.

Here are some thoughts around this subject, in list form.

  1. We all need to be careful to frame our views appropriately on issues of liberty.
  2. We need to be prepared to participate in discussions in a loving manner when we agree and when we disagree in order for discussions not to be bogged down in player-hating.
  3. We must recognise the limits of the medium – both in terms of non-verbal communication, and in terms of the form and function of blogs as dialogues primarily based on personal opinion not produced primarily as ministry, but rather as personal reflection and possibly the pursuit of wisdom (unless somebody deliberately sets out to have a ministry blog – but even then the medium needs to be taken into account). We interpret based on medium everywhere else. Peer reviewed journal articles are interpreted differently to the opinion column of a tabloid newspaper though both are ostensibly written communication.
  4. We need to frame our disagreements in love and with a desire to be reaching the same goal. A more nuanced view (because most of us start on extremes, most of the time).
  5. We need to be encouraging people to speak their minds on issues as part of the online conversation, and we need to be prepared to speak the truth with love if we think they’re wrong.
  6. Any outcomeĀ  that leads to those in ministry, who are hopefully generally well thought out theologically (and hopefully more broadly), being too scared to voice their opinions is less than ideal.
  7. People in ministry need to be sensitive to those reading their thoughts and not create unnecessary obstacles.