C911! Church Looking Over Online Shoulders?

church ministry boards requiring online persona total access

P911 means in IM-speak that a Parent is looking over your shoulder (also PWOMS)…that means “watch what you say until dad’s away.” Clergy often may feel this problem as the grapple with how to express themselves on social networks with the same tact and care they do in real life.

Twice on this blog I’ve written about how clergy don’t need to have a “public” persona and a “private” persona on Facebook but can use its privacy controls to use one persona effectively (1)(2). I think such a system makes it easier for clergy to be consistent in their personas and use social media in its most effective form.

However, the Kentucky Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church doesn’t see it that way and has put policies in place that allow them to police candidates for ministry’s online personas.

Rob Rynders has alerted the blogosphere of one UMC Board of Ordained Ministry that is requiring its candidates for ministry and those who are in the process of ordination (provisional members) to open all their social networks to the BOM to review.

Here’s the Board’s “MySpace, Facebook and Website Disclosure Agreement” as uploaded by Rob.

I agree to allow the Kentucky Annual Conference to examine any and all MySpace, Facebook, or other blog and website accounts that I may have.  I have added the Kentucky Annual Conference as a friend on these sites.  If I do not have a MySpace, Facebook, or other website account at this time, if at any time I should create one of these accounts, I agree to add the Kentucky Annual Conference as a friend. I agree that access to any part of these accounts will not be blocked to the Kentucky Annual Conference. I understand that any information of a questionable nature on these sites that are written and/or posted by me, could affect my status as a Candidate/Resident in the Ordination process with the Kentucky Annual Conference.  Further, I also understand that my Barnabas Team will regularly check these sites for inappropriate content. I agree to and understand that material that would be deemed questionable in light of the Social Principles and Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church or that would show lack of judgment in understanding the standards and ethics of a United Methodist clergyperson will be determined by the Board of Ordained Ministry and my assigned Barnabas Team.

…I agree to the terms stated above and have added the Kentucky Annual Conference (if applicable) as a friend on these sites as of the date of this agreement.

The account in question that clergy candidates would be required to friend has over 171 friends, most in the past month. Chris Wickersham has tracked it down to an Administrative Assistant for the BOM…a layperson (not on the Board itself) would thus be responsible for perusing clergy’s postings for “inappropriate content.” Wow.

I have a few thoughts about this.

  • This is not a “policing” effort because it is an impossible request to police. The privacy features of Facebook means that you can hide individual posts from individual people (click the lockbox at the bottom-right corner sometime and play with it). Thus, you would still be able to have private thoughts from a BOM account and they would have zero way of knowing.
  • This is not an “online awareness” educational effort because people already know. Looking at the last 10 people the account has friended, every single one of them has their privacy set so that non-friends can’t see their wall (or at least status updates/links). Smart and appropriate…clearly at least those clergy don’t need education on “what not to put on Facebook.” So education of “watch what you write” is not the reason.
  • This seems to be an effort to exert control and instill fear. It really seems like a power-trip OR a policy set in place because of a candidate who flamed out fabulously because of online writings (Chad Holtz-ish?). Either way, it feels too overbearing to let slip by.

While I applaud integrity and exhibit it in my own word and deed, integrity enforced by fear is not what we as clergy are called to preach and teach and I reject efforts that put that on the clergy. There’s enough fear in the system already: fear of the future, fear of upsetting the wrong people, fear of speaking prophetically.

Personally, I think every business and church needs a water cooler: the place where people gather to complain about their bosses. It’s the pressure-release valve that allows the individual to vent in healthy ways. Does that mean Facebook is all about pastors griping about their congregation? Of course not, I rarely see that and I know a LOT of pastors. But pastors (just like employees) need space to express themselves and release…to hold them accountable via an illegally-created online profile in an impossible-to-police method is not the way.

For a church to be prophetic, it must allow space for thoughtful musings. What would the BOM do if they saw pastors updating their statuses saying they “struggle” with Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’…would that become a mark on their chart? What if they shared a link for immigration reform…would that become a question of whether they heart America? What if people like me have really weird humor…would that become an issue?

I realize there are some pastors who are not like me and have identical personas in real life and online. It took me years to figure out how to do that and I continue to struggle with it daily. I would have nothing to fear from the BOM reading my profile. But I would be annoyed by it and I protest out of fear for those clergy who are not digital natives and might make mistakes that would cost them their ordination because of a power-trippy board.


(Image credit: “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” from Monty Python)

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  1. says

    Communication and speaking from the heart is what will help the church the most. Essentially, they will be causing pastors to be more two faced than not, more inhuman proper figure heads, who have perfect views and perfect interactions, more and more like politicians with PR identities, without souls, or Spirit. We know how healthy that pressure is don’t we. But essentially what I see is a system trying to maintain itself, keeping itself exactly the same as it plummets to its own death. Fear, and more obsessive management, command, and control will manage and kill any organic change or ideas or valid complaints that might change the system and save it from death. I hear the pangs of death rattling. This is only a technical fix for an adaptive problem.


  2. Robert Stutes says

    Very helpful thoughts Jeremy. I think my public pronouncements as a pastor likely should be fair game for my supervisor’s thoughts and guidance. But this is kinda creepy, and definitely crosses the line.

  3. says

    Social networks are semi-public as well as semi-private spaces. It seems to me that the basic expectations of pastoral conduct is sufficient to police a pastor’s behavior. Anything else is just actual or implicit censorship and intimidation. If the tweet of your bulging underwear should escape it’s intended private audience, then the public ramifications of that should clearly include church discipline for the pastor. If however, you use your status updates to complain to appropriately boundaried friends about mealy-mouthed bishops who refuse to take stands on issues –such as homosexuality and the church for instance– and a generally officious and ineffective cabinet the Church has no business knowing about much less critiquing or monitoring those communications.

  4. Lorinda Hoover says

    As a BOM member in a different conference, I find this policy very troubling, and I would never support its adoption in my Conference. I am a team leader for examinations, and I make it a policy NOT to “friend” individuals for whom my team has responsibility.

    I will say that public Facebook posts of a questionable nature are appropriate for BOMs to raise questions about in examinations. (e.g. a pastor who posts photos of themselves drinking alcohol at a party might spark a conversation about how this is consistent with UM historical positions, and what sort of witness this offers to parishioners.)

    I could also see individual cases, where specific concerns are present, where it might make sense to require the examination team to have access to one’s Facebook or other social networking/web presence accounts. (e.g. where recommendations mention questionable Facebook activity, or there is a history of boundary issues). But certainly not a blanket policy in the way described here.

    As an aside, folks should also be aware that sometimes your posts can be seen by those you’ve excluded, either because you missed a privacy control, or because of a Facebook glitch. Last year one of my Facebook friends commented on a post by a candidate assigned to my team about the BOM process. For some reason, that gave me access to the candidate’s original post, and all the ensuing discussion, even though their privacy controls were set quite tightly. The candidate’s remarks were entirely appropriate, but some of the other posts were of the “water cooler complaint” type, and could have encouraged the candidate to enter into a gripe fest, without realizing that their BOM team leader would see the whole conversation. I alerted them to the “breach” while assuring them that I did not have any concerns about the appropriateness of their posts. (I absolutely agree, by the way, of the importance of a safe place to gripe; my concern here was not the potential for griping, but the fact that those involved were probably not aware of who could “overhear” them)

  5. says

    This is horrible on some many levels I don’t know where to begin, but here’s a start: They’ve got their own resident Pharisee to “peruse” and monitor candidates. (There’s a dream role for one called to ministry–wielding power and control over candidates with a Pastor in Chief of Facebook Enforcement.) It’s all about power and control, all about resisting the church’s forward movement. It shows a complete and total lack of trust in the candidacy process.

  6. says

    I assume everything I say online is (or will be) available to anyone, at any time, forever. I HAVE to pay attention to what I post. Even with that in view, I give thanks that I’m not in a place of authority over others having to police their postings.

  7. says

    My wife commented on her FB page that our Conference health coverage underinsured our daughter, which, before Obamacare, was a fact. The DS chimed in calling her a liar and sent a nasty letter to be placed in her file. So much for your DS as your “Friend”.

    I really hope this works in equal fashion, but I suspect that people critical of the UMC’s policies toward gays will be dealt with harshly, while those beating the war-drum will be overlooked. This is an awful circumstance.

    I’d like to say I hope that candidates band together and resist this, but I know that that is risky.

    Finally, what’s the logic, when candidates are trickling in, to doing something that invokes so much cynicism and bad will?

    • Carolyn says

      I agree that this may have to do with the battle over homosexuality, especially given the fact that the clergy agreement to perform same-sex marriages started as the Facebook group “New England United Methodist Clergy: Equality for All in Christian Marriage.” It might be that certain groups are trying to fight fire with fire.

  8. says

    This sounds and feels like an older generation of individuals trying to exert control over something they don’t quite understand. I think the Church tried it with the printing press once…

    • says

      I think that’s probably true. I commented on the tension between digital natives (mostly my generation and later who are born into technology) and digital immigrants (elder generations who adapted to technology later in life). This reeks of digital immigrants trying to control digital natives in a system they do not fully understand.

  9. Wes Stanton says

    I’m not a lawyer, but I have the impression that, if the KY conference has a policy of monitoring something, and they MISS an evidence of illegal activity — which they would — the conference’s liability for the illegal activity will be astronomical. I’ll be surprised if the policy isn’t quickly set aside.

    • Lance Houghtling says

      Wes, I was a lawyer until 10 years ago. You are right. What a piece of “wonderful” evidence for a plaintiff’s lawyer suing the church.

  10. says

    I think pivotal to this whole discussion is the question of whether we think of Facebook as public or private. Lorinda makes a lot of great points above about the ways that things can be used and have been exposed in ways that were unintended. It seems ridiculous to me that any AC would mandate connection in the way talked about here, but I also think it’s ridiculous to assume that if you aren’t friends with your boss(es) that they won’t see what you’re doing. You should basically always operate as though everyone can see what you’re posting on your wall or on other’s walls. If you want something to be private, it should be sent in a private message or in an email outside of the Facebook network all together. It’s not unlike the lunches we go on at Annual Conference to vent about what just happened in the previous business session. :)

  11. says

    Why not have them record all of your phone calls as well for “quality assurance”. What would be wrong with this? We want to increase the quality of pastors so we need to monitor and measure them more carefully. We should also make sure every sermon is recorded and cataloged with the Board of Ordained Ministry to assure “quality”. This would insure “quality” and uniform pastoral leadership, preaching, and care.

  12. John Louk says

    Are we not to have the same character publicly and privately? If we don’t, then isn’t that being two-faced (a hypocrite!)? Is it acceptable to not behave as a follower of Jesus on FB as long as you know how to make it private or hide it? Is it our job as digital natives to protect those poor digital immigrants who don’t know how to do that? As Christians are we not to submit to those in authority (or should we only submit if we agree with the persons in authority)? Isn’t the Church our mother? What makes “accountability” suddenly “integrity enforced by fear”? Has the author spoken with anyone from the Kentucky Annual Conference or their BOM? Is it really appropriate for a Christian to blindly accuse other brothers and sisters in Christ of trying “to exert control and instill fear”? Is it OK to claim this BOM is just a “power-trippy board”? Is it not arrogant to claim this must be older persons (digital immigrants) not understanding this technology and merely trying to exert control over digital natives (who are so smart that we don’t need accountability)? Yikes!

    • Carolyn says

      “Are we not to have the same character publicly and privately? If we don’t, then isn’t that being two-faced (a hypocrite!)?”

      This is very true, however, not everyone agrees with the UMC on every social issue. I know people who think that the language in the Discipline around homosexuality is too liberal, and others who think that the language around abortion is too conservative. Both could be accused of failing to toe the party line if they expressed those opinions on FB. Yet they firmly believe that their opinions are in line with the Gospel and that their faith is genuine. If they stayed silent, they might feel that they were not truly living out their Christian convictions to speak out against what is wrong in the world.

      I counter your question with another: if we can’t truly be ourselves on FB, as people of faith, where can we be ourselves? For those of us separated from our home conferences, FB is our main connection to other clergy and potential clergy. How is it possible to live out our true convictions of the Spirit when we feel we must constantly self-censor in order to live up to someone else’s idea of “appropriate?” Is that not also hypocrisy?

  13. says

    I don’t particularly like the idea of being required to connect with an oversight agency, although I understand some of the idea behind it. What UM ministers post on their pages is frequently identified with the church as a whole, even though it shouldn’t be. Therefore the church as a whole has some interest in how its agents present themselves to the world, and this policy might be a way of attempting to deal with that, however inexpertly. I personally think that some education and guidance would be a better way. In the matter of what are seen as embarrassing photos, for example, it could alert folks whose ideas about what behavior is acceptable for ministers have been formed in different times that not everyone shares their view, and that public displays of those photos could cause them problems. In the area of venting, it could remind people that what we might understand as griping about a church we love could easily be seen by some less familiar with us as statements presenting or deriding a church position.

    Jeremy’s earlier tutorials about Facebook privacy settings could be useful guides for that kind of teaching.

    Jeremy notes that the policy is impossible to police — even those who add the conference as a friend can still set their privacy controls so that there might still be posts not seen by the person whose job it is to keep an eye out for the supposedly harmful material. That’s accurate. Of course, since part of the policy is an agreement not to do that, such a person would accept the policy with the intent to subvert it. The idea of “telling the board what it wants to hear” in order to get an approval vote, whether in the area of openness about social media use or any other part of the process, does not demonstrate good character. The policy, even if it is mostly misguided, would have helped show this.

    But I completely reject this policy or similar ones if they affect only persons still in the ordination process; either every elder, deacon and candidate or none of them. We who are ordained are not entitled to ask for transparency from those who seek to be if we won’t ask it of ourselves.

    • says

      Hey Brett,

      I like your analysis, and ask that you consider and elaborate even further.

      1. Do you think that this policy is intimidating to ordinands, especially younger technological natives?

      2. Do you think this policy increases truthfulness or increases self-consciousness?

      3. What would be the benefit of more truthfulness vs the benefits of more self-consciousness?

      4. What would be the downsides to more truthfulness or to more self-consciousness?

      5. What are the personal benefits and consequences, and what are the denominational benefits and consequences?

      • says

        1. Do you think that this policy is intimidating to ordinands, especially younger technological natives?

        I’m a digital native and a provisional Elder, so yes.

        2. Do you think this policy increases truthfulness or increases self-consciousness?

        I think it means I can outsmart any digital immigrant who whats to spy on me and adjust my privacy settings accordingly. But to answer your question more directly, it increases self-consciousness in the same way middle school girls increase self- consciousness of their peers by scrutinizing each other’s outfits.

        3. What would be the benefit of more truthfulness vs the benefits of more self-consciousness?

        Truth sets us free. I think I read that somewhere. What’s funny, is that as I write this I’m self-conscious about the fact that someone on my BOM might read this and not be happy with it. But I’d rather be punished for my truthfulness than to sin though not being true to who I am.

        4. What would be the downsides to more truthfulness or to more self-consciousness?

        More truthfulness would lead to a lot of discomfort for those who don’t want to know the truth…who aren’t comfortable with the ugly parts of being human, with the hard parts of the struggle of following Christ. More self-consciousness would result in more cynicism, more skepticism, less people coming to the Church and more people leaving it. I think that more truth leads to less cynicism and skepticism.

        5. What are the personal benefits and consequences, and what are the denominational benefits and consequences?

        What’s good for souls is good for the church.

      • says

        Nathan, sorry for the delay in replying.
        1. Because this policy is apparently limited to ordinands rather than to an entire conference membership, it is in fact intimidating, no matter what its intentions.
        2. I think it would increase both of them, although self-consciousness probably more than truthfulness. I think just about any positive impact it might have could be achieved through other means that would have less negative impact.
        I’d echo Kurt’s statements on #3 and #4, and I’m not sure if the benefits and consequences you mention in #5 stem from the policy or from the possibility of greater truthfulness so I’m not sure I can answer.

  14. says

    There are so many things that bother me about this:
    1. No one would ever suggest bugging a pastor’s phone or demanding transcripts of personal emails (except in the case of legal malfeasance, like abuse), yet just as much “inappropriate” conversation can happen this way. Neither would any clergy or bishop suggest that we do the same for the social media accounts for council members or for the people in the pew
    2. One of the things that has the mainline (and maybe all) churches in such a state is this dual personality clergy thing. We are people. We have relationships. We mess up. We are no more holy than the unordained in the pews. Bringing clergy off the pedestal is one of the best things we can do for the church in the way of creating meaningful relationships and in terms of encouraging the priesthood of all believers. Jesus brought together a group of men and had a relationship with them. That relationship came first and out of that, ways of holding one another accountable. This is what the church is meant to be. A group gathered because of relationships with each other and out of a desire to deepen their relationship with God. Clergy have training to facilitate that. That’s all. Relationship is primary. As long as there is this “holiness” divide, we are not living into that post-reformation value.
    3. We are called to model behavior but no amount of “big brother” activity will enforce the doing of that. In fact, as others have suggested, this kind of policy simply moves clergy deeper into the closet of hiding not only all kinds of behaviors, like having a glass of wine (yes, that is problematic for some churches), going to “inappropriate” movies (with R ratings), cussing on the tennis court, etc. but also putting their actual career choice in the closet and dodging the “what do you do for a living” question.

  15. Rev. Jason Harris says

    I think it is a little overboard. Our conference looks at social media sites during candidacy to see what kind of thing an individual puts out to the world, which I think is fine. I don’t think someone should be “policing” as their job, looking for someone to slip up according to their views. Our conference has someone that checks on Myspace, Facebook, etc for what is posted during candidacy, but I don’t know what would be “borderline” postings, like what he talked about in the blog. Could posting a political article or “struggling” with Love Wins cause me to lose ordination? What would be the guidelines for the conference to follow? How would candidates know what is and is not acceptable? And if someone wants to be friends with their conference, that should be their choice, not forced.

    I can understand the want to know what pastors and potential future pastors are putting out into the world, but who and how is what is considered okay going to be defined and regulated? It seems like to much trouble and it has the potential to hurt more than harm.


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