Sheryl Fancher likes to tell social media nightmare stories that make ministers cringe.
Like the one about a pastor who posted derogatory remarks about church members on his Facebook page without realizing his account was set to public.
Fancher has been hired by the Center for Congregational Health to lead a workshop where she’ll share those cautionary tales to Cooperative Baptist churches and, hopefully, nudge them toward adopting social media policies before they become the embarrassing focus of such cautionary tales.
“There are all kinds of boundary issues around social media networks that we don’t even think about until we begin encountering them,” said Fancher, director of ministry development with the Presbyterian Samaritan Center, a clergy counseling service in Charlotte, N.C.
The Sept. 27 workshop reflects a slowly growing awakening among religious groups that policies should govern their online witness.
Churches ‘behind the trend’
Statistics show that relgious Americans have adopted social media at roughly the same rates as non-church going citizens. According to the 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Project, 79 percent of those active in religious groups use the internet, and 46 percent use social media. That's compared to 75 and 49 percent of non-religious Americans, respectively.
But Flancher and other experts say convincing churches to adopt policies governing online activity is an uphill slog. Either they are unaware of the need for guildelines, or oppose them outright.
Others avoid the issue altogether by staying offline, which also is a mistake, said Natalie Aho, a social media adviser and consultant for Associated Baptist Press and for a number of CBF state organizations and congregations.
“We need to be a voice for reason and Christ, and that’s why we need to be online,” Aho said. “But if you are going to be online and connecting, you need to have policy guiding that.”
That approach is modeled in the business world, where social media is being maximized for its marketing potential. But most companies are also adopting rules to minimize the lapses in judgment or civility that can bring embarrassment and legal consequences.
Aho said she worries about how slow churches are to follow suit.
“The church is always behind the trend,” she said. “They wait until something happens.”
Someone in charge
A lot of it comes down to common sense, said Lauren Hunter, founder and chief blogger at ChurchTechToday.com, a California-based Christian blog site that monitors technology and internet trends.
Not bashing church members on Facebook or making outrageous statements on Twitter should come naturally for those in ministry. But sometimes it doesn’t and a policy can to caution against risky online behavior.
Plus, a thoughtful policy can underscore the church mission by keeping different ministers and members on message when posting pictures on Facebook or using Twitter, Hunter said.
“A church is like a mini company and social media plays into how you promote your church,” Hunter said. “You wouldn’t try to market your church without some plan and monitoring what goes on.”
Hunter also recommends churches appoint someone to keep an eye on all church-related communications online.
“Even if a church’s only social media tool is a page on Facebook…someone could spam it or put an insult or negative remark on it, and then it’s out there,” Hunter said. “Someone must be given the responsibility to monitor it.”
These issues gain a sense of urgency when youth are involved, said Brian Foreman, president of b4man Consulting, a ministry coaching and consulting firm working with the Center for Congregational Health to develop social media guidelines for parents and youth ministers.
“Parents need to know about best practices,” Foreman said.
One of them is setting rules for how social media is used by their kids, he said.
“My children aren’t going to have Facebook accounts if I don’t have access to it,” he said. “They are going to have to add me as a friend.”
Churches should encourage Sunday School teachers and youth ministers to use online communications as a way to enhance “indepth, real life conversations” while avoiding inappropriate communications, Foreman said.
“There are some real dangers in online conversations – you can flirt online as well as offline,” Foreman said.
But some have yet to be convinced policies are better than self policing.
Youth minister Gavin Rogers, 30, said he avoids social media gaffes by following the same rules he has for personal contact with teens at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas.
Just as he wouldn’t call or visit a teen at odd hours or be alone with them behind closed doors, he doesn’t send them private messages online or via text.
But it’s important for him to be Facebook friends with them, Rogers added, so he sees when cyber-bullying or other dangerous behaviors are occurring in their lives.
“Sometimes I have to say to a kid, ‘let’s talk about how your Facebook (presence) reflects your Christian witness,’” Rogers said.
Besides, Gavin said he’s hearing more complaints from teens about their parents’ online activity than the other way around. “They say ‘hey, my parents are driving me crazy on Facebook,’” Rogers said. “They are posting pictures and talking about me.’”
Rogers said he leans away from policies if they go too far, such as in banning online connections between ministers and church members.
“I don’t know what a policy would look like,” Rogers said. “If it says ‘no contact on Facebook,’ then that causes more damage than good.”
Getting in trouble
Aho said she, too, advises against such absolutes when considering social media policies.
Even so, she encounters a lot of resistance to any rules, especially from younger pastors because many of them grew up using Facebook and other online outlets and detest limits.
But older clergy sometimes balk out of concern they’ll lose what they consider to be a new-found avenue of unfettered expression, Aho said.
“Younger ministers have a greater chance of getting into trouble, but older ones do, too, when they think they have this freedom they’ve never had before,” she said.
Rather than seeing policies as a hindrance, they should be viewed as tools for setting healthy boundaries that protect rather than restrict all parties.
Policies should be flexible and revisited regularly so they can be amended to reflect experience, Aho said, adding there is no one policy to fit every church.
“We’re all pioneers in this,” she said. “We’re figuring it out together, and that is where policy comes in.”