Social Media Policing? Chill out, it’s all good.

UMReporter article highlights oh-so-quaint debate

A few weeks ago this blog participated in a discussion on a social media policy and the United Methodist Church (C911: Church Looking Over Online Shoulders?). Since then, the UMReporter interviewed me, other bloggers, and the Kentucky Annual Conference officials and posted their writeup on the discussion (Clergy debate monitoring of social media). I was pleased with my quote as I think it accurately represents me and fairly represents my thoughts:

“An institution’s first response is to regulate anything we don’t understand…rather than to see its positive potential,” [Smith] said. “Do you educate pastors on how to use social media, or do you rule by fear?” He’d like to see annual conferences offer workshops on what to post online—and what not to post—rather than adopting a monitoring policy.

I was impressed by the great questions the reporter asked me…but I must admit being disappointed in the final article. The article focused more on the ‘controversy’ than on the substance of the debate and the comments that were substantive distracted from the conversation. For instance:

  • The article reported on the multiple ways how bloggers failed to be journalists, saying that no one called the source, no one contacted the Annual Conference responsible. Let’s laugh at the bloggers.  I didn’t care to contact Kentucky but I did contact my own Board of Ordained Ministry to see if they had a similar policy (they do not). Allan Bevere said that “bloggers should consult the source.” Well, yes but…not always when we are dealing with published documents. It speaks for itself. All in all, the article was pretty snide about how bloggers’ rants are “not necessarily grounded in concrete information” even though none of us claimed to be investigating the origins of such a policy but rather the ramifications of it. Sociology not archaeology.
  • The article seemed to play down the ‘controversy,’ saying that none of the KY candidates complained and that it was enacted three years ago. Let’s laugh at the bloggers making up a controversy. I think the article reflects a common misconception that the ordination process is logistically and spiritually rigorous but not political.  Of course one wouldn’t complain to the board: we have a laundry list of things to do and we have to do them. Candidates and provisionals have no power to change or challenge the system so why complain? We don’t want to be labeled as “difficult” and only talk about the bad stuff years later. I have clergy friends that signed “I am not a homosexual” or “Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven” documents in order to be ordained (seriously!), and only talked about those statements years later. Heck, even I haven’t written about my own process much…it’s just too political. Just because there are no reported complaints (reports that made it to the BOM chair, that is!) doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with the policing policy.

I’m leery of stories that play down a controversy and seek to give the official stamp of approval on the Board’s actions, saying it is three years old and no problems. The article consistently used the term social media “monitoring” rather than “policing” even though the Board obviously has punitive powers and thus policing is more appropriate IMO. It feels like a chilling effect on this very conversation and this blogger will not play along, even if it keeps me from UMR interviews in the future. Fine.

While the article didn’t need to focus on me, my primary expressed concern is of a chilling effect on theological conversation and personal integrity.  In other words, does one ask the questions of the heart when they are being constantly recorded? This was barely addressed with the following exchange:

Many bloggers wondered if the policy could discourage candidates from engaging in honest debate over hot topics.
“Some of the best theological and moral discussions I have had of late have been on Facebook.,” wrote Mr. Bevere. “Such a policy will ultimately have a chilling effect on serious theological and ecclesial discussion and debate.”
“This policy has very little to do with speaking prophetically,” Mr. Grieb counters. “What this policy does speak to is the sort of speech that is flippant, degrading and not becoming of a United Methodist ordained clergy person.”

If that is the case, Rev. Grieb, then why does the document itself read (h/t Rob Rynders):

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.

The latter half clearly speaks to the issue that KY originated the document with (a pastor writing dumb stuff online), but the former expands it to include doctrinal musings. The policy, as written, could easily (1) misconstrue online posts written to one’s pseudo-public circle of friends and (2) prohibit honest conversations about doctrinal or theological viewpoints because it’s all “on the record of the BOM.” We won’t know if this policy has been used to ask doctrinal questions of candidates because candidates likely won’t talk and the BOM won’t publically report such things (thankfully).

I personally think that there are times when being able to ask questions is healthy. I ran a pseudonymous religion forum for 5 years. I asked lots of questions and had vigorous debates with people of all walks of faith and no faith. I was able to post “here’s what I’m struggling with” theological questions without fear they would be traced back to me or affect my ordination process. I would not be at the level I am today without being able to ask questions on that forum without worrying they would impact my real-life identity.

Since my original blog post, I was contacted by one young clergy candidate in another tradition who told me privately that they would not consider ordination in an annual conference that had required monitoring. Here’s a quote:

If I had to show people from my [district] everything on my page it would look very different because I would – like so many certified candidates and provisional elders/deacons already do – live in fear of everything I posted ruffling the wrong feathers.

Ruffling the wrong feathers? What does that mean? Does that mean they are objectionable or lewd or the candidate above is afraid of integrity? No. It means that words have different meanings in different contexts and one’s voice and tone comes from a relationship with that person.

For example, I have youth and pastoral acquaintances as friends on Facebook and I don’t allow them access to my wall. Why? Text does not always convey emotion, sarcasm, or irony. A digital native like myself who grew up online is better able to express and sense emotion than digital immigrants who are not as experienced. I wouldn’t want either of those groups to misunderstand me, especially my youth who may be digital natives but not mature ones.

To all this, I have to fall back on my original comment: organizations work best when they have a release valve, a water-cooler where employees can complain, an online space where clergy can let their hair down and not have to have on their clergy face. This does not mean these people do not have integrity…quite the opposite! Integrity is having a space where friends and family can hold you accountable. I truly don’t think digital immigrants understand this. A water cooler is where employees hold each other (and the management) accountable. A closed facebook page allows for those conversations with trusted friends. Read the comments on my original blog post and they explain better than I can. As Debra Avery comments:

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…all kinds of behaviors

In conclusion, though it is a bad analogy, I think our approach to sexual harassment in the workplace and social media policy have parallels. We do not tap phones or record clergy at their homes to monitor sexual harassment…we offer required education and followup procedures and accountability, not only to cover our due diligence but also to open people up to the scope of the problem and protect our clergy from being thoughtless or malicious. Why then do we police social media instead of take the time to be educators? Because it is easier to read a website or a facebook page?

Perhaps those of us who are in this field need to step up and start offering our expertise. Oh wait, I already have:

I do not believe social media policing is effective. I do believe social media education is effective.


Thanks for your comments and welcome to our visitors!

*Note: I keep on referring to digital immigrants and digital natives and realize that could be construed as ageism and generational critiques. It is not…I have friends my own age and younger who are digital immigrants and I have the most contact with them, actually. But it is a real conflict.
**Note on the note: Did I really just do the “I have digital immigrant friends” excuse? For shame!
(Photo credit: Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Spanish Inquisition” sketch…it’s NOT the real Spanish Inquisition! Sigh.)
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  1. Susan Buchanan says

    I think you’ve done a great analysis. The only thing I would add is that the UMR is advocacy journalism. They may publish critiques of church through opinion and quotations, but their mission is support of the UMC. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but to offer my understanding of the perspective of the article. It’s also clear that there’s a bias toward “real” journalism over bloggers.

  2. says

    Yes, the “digital immigrant label” is problematic — it feels polarizing when that’s the opposite of what we want.Really enjoy this article and appreciate how you and others are contributing to this important conversation.

  3. says

    I do think the UM Reporter was trying to shut down the debate in a way that came across as protecting the Kentucky BOOM and smearing people who use social media making them seam illegitimate. You are dead right education is far more effective and productive then monitoring. You can’t watch your kids their entire lives, that is why you must educate them so that they can autonomously do the right thing in good conscious not out of fear only when they know they are being monitored and the rebelling when they know they are not. Monitoring instead of educating is a bad Hack.

  4. says

    Hi! I agree with you 100% on the need for education instead of monitoring. Thanks for your public voice on this.

    Education is sorely needed, even (especially?) in the cases of people who have “nothing to hide and nothing to lose.” For example, clergywomen in my conference recently started a facebook group for networking and support, and then we had a heated discussion about whether it should be Open, Closed, or Secret. The “Open” people prevailed because they did not want the group to seem exclusive; some of the women who felt this way had battled for acceptance and networking when they started in ministry in the 1970s and to be “closed” would seem to take them back to that time. I honestly think that more people would have gone for the “Closed” option if they had just *understood* what it was — but the name and *idea* of being exclusive was too threatening. “We don’t have anything to hide, so why would we want to be a closed group?” was the general idea. (My guess is that many of the people writing the Kentucky policy have similar (mis)understandings).

    Unfortunately, the group I’ve described has quickly begun sharing prayer requests and laments (e.g., disorganized/unwelcoming church buildings) that I would never feel comfortable sharing knowing that it could be seen by any of my parishioners (or worse, strangers who may or may not have malicious motives in learning about your children’s ministry or when your parsonage is left empty b/c you’re on vacation, etc).

    I’ve also noticed that many of these clergy have their entire profiles available to the world to see. My hope in the educational offerings that the UMC will develop (or that we as digital natives will have to do ourselves!) is that we will highlight SAFETY.

  5. says

    Also, to jump in on your and Heather’s conversation of “digital immigrant and native” terminology. Having worked with Hispanic-only, Anglo-only, and bilingual churches, I am worried about the negative baggage associated with both “digital immigrant” and “immigrant.” Neither U.S. immigrants nor new digital users are looked upon with much favor in our society.

    That said, if I can tell some of my Anglo congregants that their experiences with “learning a new computer language” and “not being able to type fast enough” and “wanting to communicate with my children/grandchildren but not being able to” make them *digital immigrants,* then perhaps I can help them cultivate some compassion for real immigrants.

  6. says

    Excellent work and analysis as always. If I were policing– er, monitoring– your blog, I’d give you good marks. 😉 [note the emoticon– tool to communicate humor in case “some of my best friends” who are new to the digital world are confused 😉 😉 ]

    Yet again, this is one of those things where your mileage may vary depending on geography and affiliation. In the Conference where I was ordained (the late great Troy Annual Conference), I never thought twice about what I posted online. I mused openly and honestly, and welcomed debate from all over the place. In chat rooms and forums, I was my usual, searchable self. On facebook I had and still have a pretty open wall. I’ve had to contact (and in some cases unfriend) a few people who were prone to inappropriate language and explain that my colleagues and congregants read my wall, but on the whole it hasn’t been an issue (now, my spouse wisely keeps a more private wall, being a public school teacher, and does not friend students, parents of students, and most members of the congregation where I serve).

    That said, I have an online journal with a pseudonym. Yes, I sometimes use it for rants of both the personal and professional (no names included) nature, but on the whole, it exists because I don’t think my professional contacts want or need to hear of my deep and abiding love for Ewan McGregor, or read my David-Tenant-inspired (mmmm, scotsmen) Doctor Who fanfic.

    And, I had my lesson about blog content several years ago, at a very painful Conference session when we voted to dissolve the conference, and there were many tears and much nose-wiping in public, and much blogging while exhausted, and I did happen to mention that we went out to a bar after the session and that helped tremendously. Anyone who was at that conference session had no objection; most of them, including half the Cabinet and most of the BOM, were sharing a round. I changed the post later, but not before some more conservative Methodists from across the connextion got wind of it and used it as an example of why women shouldn’t be ordained. Yeah, I don’t really get the connection there, but anyway. In the end, I chalked it up to being tired and short on judgement, and made a mental note that my words can be hurtful, confusing, or cause others to stumble no matter where they are written, so I should exercise just a dash more restraint. Lesson learned.

    Finally, a story of what could be. I participated in a pilot program, which was part of the Doctoral thesis by my friend, colleague and clergy mentor, the Rev. Dr. Michelle Bogue-Trost. She was examining the development of relationships between clergy candidates and members of the BOM, and we participated in online chats/video conferences centered around a book and discussion of postmodernism and its communication (The Millennial Matrix, by Rex Miller I believe. I confess I didn’t read the whole thing– too modern for me). Through this, I developed relationships with half a dozen members of the BOM, most of whom were new to digital stuff. I was part guinea pig and part tutor, nudging them toward facebook and web 2.0 applications. When it came time for my ordination interview, I sat down with some friends who knew me well, who had asked me questions online and been facebook friends with me for some time. In the context of that relationship, I felt my interview went better, and some of the interviewers knew where I was coming from and had met me as a whole person. It was a beautiful thing. Some of those same clergy are still my close friends, and at least one digital immigrant the same age as my parents has fully integrated facebook, church website and facebook page, blogging, and podcasting into his ministry. While I can’t claim full responsibility, I did help a lot with setting those thing up, and was definitely part of the conversation in explaining why and how they are important.

    So, to your call for education, I also add an invitation for relationship. We *should* be good at that, and it makes the context of what’s written more clear and the education more shared, and both inquisitor and inquisitee feel less at odds if they’ve met before the fluffy pillows come out.

  7. says

    A problem I have with the way the statement is worded is that if you don’t support the Social Principles as they are (you know, they change at least nominally every four years) you aren’t supposed to post it. In the SEJ people seeking to change stuff to be more open to queerfolk would be a lot more policed, I’d bet, than people complaining about UM environmental and/or economic policy.

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