ASHEVILLE, N.C. (ABP) — Social networking tools using the Internet through computers and smart phones are powerful aids for communicating, but churches should have policies in place governing their use before problems arise, a computer programmer advised in a breakout session at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina annual meeting.
John Vestal, a member of Greystone Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., said during a presentation March 24 at the meeting held in Asheville that social networking in itself is "ambivalent" and "not a threat to the church." Still, Vestal said, it creates potential for offending people that churches should be aware of as they find ways to embrace it.
Vestal said it is common for Sunday school teachers, for instance, to "friend" each of their students. Comments between "friends" on Facebook and others made in haste through Twitter can unintentionally offend, Vestal said, so churches using that technology should have a process in place to resolve misunderstandings.
"It gets a little dicey," said Vestal, whose wife, Cindy, is associate minister of youth and college at Greystone. While he would not advocate that churches put into place policies that make them "fuddy duddy," he said they need to be ready to respond if a youth thinks an adult has said something inappropriate or posted an inappropriate "status update" or if a youth makes a comment about a teacher that can hurt feelings.
"Think about them before there's a problem instead of reacting to them afterwards when everyone is emotional and heated," he said.
Unfortunately, Vestal said he was not aware of any specific church with policies in place that he could offer as a model, but he said suggested a few policies helpful to protect staff.
— Force users to "think about the possibilities before they happen." A church can state up front that social networking by staff or members is a personal prerogative and "the church is not going to be responsible for what's out there."
— Rather than simply "friending" all their students, teachers would be wise to tell students they would like to be friends on Facebook and let students decide whether or not to friend them.
— Of course, the simplest way to deal with people who make statements that offend is simply to "unfriend" them, Vestal said. Each user controls his or her Facebook space and Vestal took pains to explain the mechanics of privacy controls.
Vestal reminded participants that social networking is not a "balm for keeping people in the church," nor is it an effective advertising vehicle for people not already connected to people in your church. It is not a replacement for taking the effort to meet people face to face.
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.