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7 Ways Pastors Fail at Social Media

Want to know where the people we lead are during the week? Online—Facebook and Twitter, specifically.

These two social media platforms are larger than anyone could have imagined only a few years ago. Consider these facts about Facebook:

  • Facebook currently boasts more than 600 million users.
  • More than half of all American adults use the site regularly.
  • The average Facebook user spends 20 hours a month on the site.
  • While Twitter’s numbers are lower, its influence is still massive:
  • Twitter has more than 200 million users.
  • In an average week, 1 billion tweets are posted.
  • Twitter has been cited as inciting protests and revolutions in Egypt, Iran and other places around the world.

It’s clear these platforms are some of the world’s biggest. So why are Christian leaders sometimes so bad at using these powerful tools?

Digital Literacy

We don’t spend a lot of time debating the use of pens. We don’t get concerned when someone starts taking notes during a worship service or a staff meeting. Pencils and paper are scattered everywhere, and we don’t give a second thought to writing things down any time of the day or night—in fact, it’s usually encouraged!

Now, what if someone came up to you and said: “Please don’t send me any notes or expect me to give you any written information. I’m just not into reading and writing.” Or: “Reading and writing? I don’t have time for that!” Or: “I don’t get the whole writing thing. Those little things—letters, yeah, I don’t understand what they mean.”

Ridiculous, right? Yet, that’s exactly the mindset many Christian leaders have regarding social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

In an always online world, digital literacy matters as much as traditional literacy. Knowing how to use Facebook and Twitter may be as important as knowing how to use a pen.

People often talk about how much time people spend online versus offline, how relationships online compare to those offline, how to communicate with people online versus offline, but I think those are the wrong issues to focus on.

The Internet, communication and social media are ubiquitous. People are always on, always connected. We are well on our way toward a blended reality where there is no longer a line between the online and offline. We can meet with one person via Skype while another is sitting in the same room with us. We see pictures from a co-worker’s vacation on Facebook, and the next day they fill us in on the details at the water cooler.

7 Ways Leaders Crash and Burn on Facebook and Twitter

All forms of communication have rules—some explicit, others implicit. Break the rules and you risk alienating yourself from the very people you’re trying to connect with. Writers do this when they use poor grammar and punctuation. Speakers do this when they fail to make eye contact or ramble on endlessly.

Unfortunately, many pastors and Christian leaders don’t understand the unwritten rules of Facebook and Twitter. As a result, they crash and burn. Don’t be that guy (or girl).

The big thing to remember about Facebook and Twitter is it’s all about relationships. It’s not about amassing the most friends or followers. It’s not about getting your message out or promoting your ministry. It’s about loving and caring for people.

Here are seven things you want to avoid doing while on Facebook and Twitter. (Just to be clear, this is regarding your personal Facebook/Twitter profile, not a Facebook page or Twitter profile for your church or ministry.)

Embarrass yourself. Many leaders have gotten themselves into trouble by forgetting that what they post to Facebook and Twitter can be seen by everyone. Don’t post when you’re angry or frustrated. Don’t criticize. Don’t post something that might embarrass you, your family or anyone else. Don’t criticize other churches or ministries in your community.

Only talk about your ministry. When people “friend” or follow you, it’s because they want to engage with you—a real person—not a spokesperson for your church or ministry.

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Only talk about yourself. When you go to a social event, do you like hanging around with people who only talk about themselves and never stop to ask you about you? Don’t be one of those people online either.

Be unresponsive. Failing to check phone messages and call people back is rude and damages relationships. The same principle applies to Facebook and Twitter. If you only check your social media accounts once every two weeks, it’s going to hurt your relationships. If you don’t reply to private/direct messages, don’t comment when people post to your Facebook wall and don’t respond (even with something short) when people reply to your Twitter updates, people are going to interact with you less or may even assume you’re ignoring them and take offense.

Wear a mask. Christian leaders sometimes think they have to be perfect. The truth is, nobody is perfect, and everyone knows it. If you act like everything is good all the time, you’ll be perceived as inauthentic. If you act as if you never make mistakes and know all the answers, you make it harder for others to talk about their mistakes and be honest when they’re experiencing doubts and uncertainty.

Act like the language/morality police. Your Facebook friends and Twitter followers are not perfect. They are going to swear, post questionable pictures of themselves and share things you don’t agree with. If something is really bad, consider contacting the person privately about it, but don’t call people out publicly for what is, unfortunately, common behavior in our culture.

Debate and divide. Online (and offline) debates rarely cause anyone to shift their position on an issue. Discussion is great, but if things get heated or personal, it’s time to lighten up. Political issues can be particularly divisive. It’s one thing to talk about the way our faith impacts our view of issues, but when discussion drifts toward specific leaders, candidates and parties, you run the risk of alienating half your congregation (not to mention the risk of losing your nonprofit status).

Sound like a virtual minefield? It can be, but remember, relationships have always been risky.

When using Facebook and Twitter, be prepared to make mistakes. Be humble, apologize when you hurt someone and learn from your own successes and failures as well as those of other people. 

Want to learn how you can succeed with social media? Read this article in entirety in the June/July 2011 issue of Neue Magazine.

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.com, which provides web design, hosting, search marketing and social media consulting services to Christian organizations. Paul lives in Safety Harbor, FL with his wife and three children.

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