Should Annual Conference Ministry Boards Require Access to All Your Social Media?

Facebook logoImage via WikipediaI was chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry in Alaska for a couple years.  We don't call it the "Board of Ordained Ministry" because we're not actually able to "ordain" anyone up in Alaska.  But, we had oversight of professional ministry issues and were called "The Professional Ministries Unit."  Catchy, huh?  But, as clergy came up to serve here they were already ordained somewhere else.  It was Indiana for me.  In other words, the folks in Indiana gave their official "stamp of approval" to all the papers I had turned in and the interviews and everything else.  They prayed about my potential for ministry.  They sought guidance.  And, in the end, determined that I was "fit" for ministry and that God really had called me to this grand adventure.

That was then.

What about now?

See, I'd still have to turn in all of the papers and do the interviews and enter a period of discernment.  But, now there is a lot more information about me and by me that persons could potentially have access to.  I've posted over 1000 posts on this blog.  (And, let's be frank, not all of it is wonderful).  I have Facebook friends who make occasionally rude and inappropriate comments on my posts and whose rude and inappropriate comments show up on my Facebook page.  While the blog is public and I knew that getting into it, I've always kinda' thought I didn't have to let everyone have easy access to my Facebook stuff--not that I'm ashamed or embarrassed, but because I figure I don't need the whole world knowing I'm going on vacation and will be gone or that I'm a lousy fisherman or am just having a bad day.  I know, believe me, that Facebook isn't private.  And, Lord knows, I have "Facebook Friends" who are merely acquaintances and I really don't know and probably don't trust (although if you're reading this because you came to it through my Facebook Page, please know I'm not talking about you).  That's what all of those so-called "privacy settings" are for.

But, what if, as I went through the ordination process, the Board of Ordained Ministry had full access to, yes, all of my blog posts but also everything written about me or by me on Facebook?  Have I said anything that painted too politically liberal or conservative a picture?  Did I express doubt?  Have I shown myself to be careless with words or insensitive to the needs of others?  Did I "like" a comment that someone else might find offensive?  And if I didn't do this all the time, did I let something slip once...or twice?  Or are my friends on Facebook too liberal or conservative or hedonistic or do they use foul language?  If so, why am I friends with them?  Why, someone might ask, would a person with these friends see themselves as a pastor?

In our family, we adhere to the notion that "you shouldn't do something unless you'd want to shout it from the rooftop."  That's a great rule of life.  And yet I know my life has had many an exception to this rule.  And I'm not going to get into the details here.  There are things in my life...things I've said and done that, while I know God knows, I don't really want EVERYONE to know.  And I wouldn't want folks assessing my ministry to know...particularly know out of context to the entire picture of my life.

Which is why I'm uneasy about some news I read last night.  I found out about the actions of the Kentucky Annual Conference from Jeremy Smith's Hacking Christianity blog.  He got his information from a post from Rob Rynders' blog, which is so good I subscribed to it on the spot.

Rob notes that there is a "sign in" agreement for social media for those persons seeking ordination in Kentucky.  It goes as follows (italics mine):

I, ________________________, agree to allow the Kentucky Annual Conference to examine any and all MySpace, Facebook, or other blog and website accounts that I may have. I have added the Kentucky Annual Conference as a friend on these sites. If I do not have a MySpace, Facebook, or other website account at this time, if at any time I should create one of these accounts, I agree to add the Kentucky Annual Conference as a friend. I agree that access to any part of these accounts will not be blocked to the Kentucky Annual Conference. I understand that any information of a questionable nature on these sites that are written and/or posted by me, could affect my status as a Candidate/Resident in the Ordination process with the Kentucky Annual Conference. Further, I also understand that my Barnabas Team will regularly check these sites for inappropriate content. I agree to and understand that material that would be deemed questionable in light of the Social Principles and Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church or that would show lack of judgment in understanding the standards and ethics of a United Methodist clergyperson will be determined by the Board of Ordained Ministry and my assigned Barnabas Team.

Wow.  That's quite a response to social media.

Jeremy posts some follow up thoughts that I think are important to understand:

  • This is not a “policing” effort because it is an impossible request to police. The privacy features of Facebook means that you can hide individual posts from individual people (click the lockbox at the bottom-right corner sometime and play with it). Thus, you would still be able to have private thoughts from a BOM account and they would have zero way of knowing.
  • This is not an “online awareness” educational effort because people already know. Looking at the last 10 people the account has friended, every single one of them has their privacy set so that non-friends can’t see their wall (or at least status updates/links). Smart and appropriate…clearly at least those clergy don’t need education on “what not to put on Facebook.” So education of “watch what you write” is not the reason.
  • This seems to be an effort to exert control and instill fear. It really seems like a power-trip OR a policy set in place because of a candidate who flamed out fabulously because of online writings (Chad Holtz-ish?). Either way, it feels too overbearing to let slip by.
Look, I am sure that in this world of social media, of YouTube views, of comments on blogs, of wall posts, and "likes," and "posts" and "retweets" how persons called to ministry behave in these settings and in these forums is not unimportant.  I would hope, however, that interviews with those I have been in ministry, with answers to questions where I have applied care and consideration, and personal conversation with me is a much more honest reflection of who I am and the legitimacy of my call to ministry.

If you take one word (or tweet...maybe even one sermon) out of context you might fail to see the great spiritual gifts coming through in the whole person.

As I close this post, I'm reminded of my own ordination interviews where we spent far too much time on one sentence in the pages and pages of documents I had turned in.  I had said in answering one question in the papers, "If the Bible is only partly true, then perhaps we're only partly saved."  This was in the context of stating the importance of Scripture.  However, one person in my interview kept hammering me on this, telling me that it wasn't "Wesleyan."  I don't remember where the quote came from at this time, but I kept thinking that there were other important things to discuss.

As I left the interview, I spoke with a pastor-friend who was on the Board of Ordained Ministry for the North Indiana Conference and told him that my interview was taken up on tiny issues, out of context, and I shared the Scripture discussion with him. His response was, "That's good.  That means they didn't find anything big."

My sense is that, policing social media isn't really going to find anything big.  The BIG stuff will come through in other ways.  My fear, however, is that some ordinations will never happen because of the SMALL stuff that gets found and one of the members of the board latches onto it and can't let it go.
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