With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: I’m a not-quite 30, pretty tech-savvy pastor who makes abundant use of social media sites like Facebook. I’ve been troubled by recent lack of common-sense etiquette I’m seeing from fellow professional church workers.
After offering two examples that trouble him, the writer continues that he has a growing concern with how not just people in general use Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc., but how professional church workers like pastors and DCEs are foregoing common sense and broadcasting sensitive material, as well as hurtful and/or potentially reputation damaging information through the use of social media.
While swaying hearts and minds of workers already in the parish setting to appropriate boundaries would be difficult, it occurs that stressing the importance of this with seminary or college church-work students would be helpful.
Has this been on the radar of anyone at the seminary, in terms of discussing appropriate communication for seminarians in social media? Is it something you’ve heard discussed in Synod [or] in the larger academic world? Are you familiar with any church bodies, congregations or schools that have guidelines on how their workers should conduct their communication in the electronic mediums?
In any case, I think responsible interaction in social media is certainly an item worthy of inclusion of discussion at some level for seminary students.
A: And I’m a not-quite 70, lacking a great deal of tech-savvy pastor who makes little, if any, use of social media sites (at least up until this point). So, I’ll respond to your query with caution, and hope that other readers will join in the conversation, especially in pointing out areas of concern and resources that are available. Without a doubt, this is a significant and very important arena worthy of considerable discussion.
Perhaps marketers and journalists are further ahead on the development of ethics guidelines for social media than we are in the church. As examples only, perhaps readers would be interested in checking out — as I have — the ethics code for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association at /wp-content/uploads/2010/12/ethicscode.pdf, a suggested blogging code of ethics for journalists at http://ethicaleft.blogspot.com/2005/05/ethicaleft-blogging-code-of-ethics.html, and the Yahoo! Personal Blog Guidelines at /wp-content/uploads/2010/12/yahoo-blog-guidelines.pdf.
Considerable work in this area has been done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I suggest two good background resources — Pontifical Council for Social Communications The Church and Internet, available at http://www.usccb.org/comm/churchinternet.shtml and Social Media Guidelines for church personnel at www.usccb.org/comm/social-media-guidelines.shtml#personal.
Ken Camp of the Associated Baptist Press says it well in “Google Thyself: Christian ethics and social networking,” at http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/4934/53/. He writes, “A student’s Facebook entry chronicles the painful details of a romantic break-up. Or describes an ill-spent weekend partying with friends. Or scathingly blisters someone who holds differing political views.
“Fast forward a few years. That same student sits in a job interview — or maybe a conference table with a church search committee — and has to answer uncomfortable questions about those entries.”
“Aptly chosen words effectively communicated can build group cohesion and foster cooperation. … At the same time, ill-chosen words can rupture relationships and damage character. … The anonymity online community offers can contribute to a ‘sub-Christian’ incivility and crudeness that develops through social-media culture.”
I have noticed several themes laced through a lot of the discussions about this topic. Among these are that social media, including blogs, should have articulated ethical policies that need in some way to be enforced; congregations should consider clear social media policies for their workers, especially when the workers are communicating about church matters; general conversational decorum and avoidance of personal attack is a central ethic to guide all communication; and personal revelations should be thoughtfully considered, as this communication is now a public document that has the potential to live forever.
At a recent dinner party, I asked if any of our guests were familiar with a social media ethics policy in our church body, thinking ahead to writing this column. One of our guests said, in effect, “We have an ethic … the Eighth Commandment.” Perhaps that is a beginning place for this conversation.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Dec. 21, 2010