This is the second in a eight-week series on Youth ministry and social media.
When I left my first post-social-media call, where I'd served for nearly five years as the minister of children and youth, I was faced with tricky questions about how to handle my social media presence with soon-to-be former congregants. I crafted a responsible policy and explained it well to colleagues and congregation before I left. Without going into every last detail, I placed boundaries around our communication through careful list and posting management, especially on Facebook.
I was strict about those boundaries with youth in particular, waiting for my eventual successor to have time to bond with his new youth group. I’ve been 90 percent faithful to this pledge. But not all ministry decisions are black and white. In the nearly two years that have passed, I’ve allowed the boundaries to blur some.
I’ll confess that in one case, I caved to concern laced with a strong thread of curiosity about one of the more difficult pastoral care issues I'd faced and checked how a family was doing by peeking at their public posts. The minute my old anxiety on behalf of them rose, I realized that this had been a mistake: it was no longer my business or my role, and, even if my peeking happened unbeknownst to them, it was voyeuristic and unhealthy for my soul.
But in other cases, social media, within the boundaries, has become something that ties me and my former congregations together in ways that reflect the health of the gathered saints.
A few months after I left, I continued to quietly follow the progress of those who'd graduated from high school before the end of my time at that church. About a year after I left, I allowed myself to occasionally interact and engage with those college students who initiated some contact with me. The reality is that most of them will not return to the church where they grew up, and the new youth pastor isn't exactly their pastor if they are living a couple of states away. And there has now been the occasion when someone in that age group has reached out to me with a specific question or need. Their generation lives out relationship in cyberspace, for better or for worse. I hope that we nurtured them in a congregation in such a way that they will see out Christian community that is geographically based, and I would never want to replace that, but I would never want to deny them the threads of community that they are still grasping.
Getting a glimpse of the lives of those I ministered to and with also builds me up in my vocation. I don’t see it as feeding my ego, so much as a reminder that there is a mutuality of blessing in ministry. I am in a season where my call and career opportunities have taken a slower path in response to the needs of my spouse's career, and reminders of good work that is bearing good fruit remind me that my call is long term and will extend beyond this time in a new place. Clergy of a previous generation tell me stories about the letters of affirmation they get years later. That process has sped up for me: a young woman who was in a high school religion class that I taught in my first call updates me on her progress through seminary on Facebook and Twitter. A woman from my last call includes me in a message to the current pastors at the church telling us the story of something transformative that happened between her two sons during a youth group trip and detailing how she feels like this was the result of years of mutual work between pastors past and present. A former youth group member discovers that I've now moved across the country, a few hours away from where she now lives, and tells me about her career decisions and asks if we might get together when she visits my new city.
When people from my former church reach out to me on social media now, I reconnect in a new way (as long as they are not asking me to step in and pastor them again). I can pray for people who have shaped who I am as a pastor and as a Christian. Most amazing to me, I am now in touch, via social media, with my successor. I don't communicate much with him, but I pray for him, and his posts remind me of the times in the yearly cycle of church programming when I most needed prayer...who better to understand those times than someone who's been in the same office?
A hard cut of all ties to a former congregation does not necessarily come from a position of health. Even in our ministry, we are, appropriately and incarnationally, human. We desire connection with the body of Christ. And ultimately this is what my experience of keeping in touch does. When done with discretion and thought, it allows social media to become a way that we experience the Church, of all times and all places, a foretaste of the feast to come.
Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian pastor. After ten years of ministry in a variety of churches and settings in Chicago and its suburbs, she recently relocated to the San Francisco Peninsula, where she is engaged in writing and intensive parenting while she waits for the next chapter of ministry. She blogs at Don't Flay the Sheep.
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