Importance of Transparency in Social Media for Pastors and Church Leaders

The first post in a five-part series for my seminary course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg on Media and Religion.

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No one likes being duped.

Wile E. Coyote never seems to learn, does he? The Roadrunner beats him at his own game every time and inevitably in every episode there will be that famous scene where Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, spinning his legs in the air for a few seconds before falling. That doesn’t actually happen in real life, though. I mean, perhaps coyotes pursue roadrunners in the wild, but as for any animal failing their legs, defying the laws of gravity as they are suspended in air for a good few second…well, we know not to try that at home. But the thing is we aren’t upset about these “lies” of sorts because we know it is not meant to be realistic. We expect what we see in cartoons to be beyond our experience; we are willingly suspending our belief. We find joy in the absurd antics of Bugs Bunny or Larry the Cucumber because we understand how cartoons works.

The same goes for one of my favorite tv shows, Once Upon a Time (ABC). It has “real life actors” but it’s a fantasy drama. I expect it to have real people (most of the time), in a physical setting that is more or less similar to what we know or could image, but I also expect there to be magic that defies our laws of gravity/time/space, magical creatures, and an occasional talking puppet. What wouldn’t make sense is if it started acting in ways that did not align with its genre– like if all the characters suddenly broke out into song, or if the characters suddenly started talking into the camera to address the at-home audience. Those things wouldn’t make sense because they don’t fit into what we have come to expect as the reality for this show.

These seem like no-brainer ideas. Of course we don’t expect a mockumentary (think: The Office) to act in the same way as a PBS special on the “Making of Downton Abbey” or the same as a primetime drama like Gray’s Anatomy.

But we aren’t as good at keeping genre in mind as we’d like to think we are. It happens with the Bible, it can happen with books (“I don’t like Harry Potter, it’s so unrealistic”), and it happens a lot with various forms of media.

After all, how many times have we seen someone outraged about the contents from an online satire news website like The Onion? Sometimes we assume (or are led to believe) that certain media are conveying factual truth, when in reality they never intended to in the first place. It’s the difference between watching Looney Tunes and seeing Wile E. Coyote get smashed into a rock wall, only to walk away bouncing like an accordion vs. watching the NBC Nightly News and having Brian Williams tell you, deadpan, that scientists have discovered the necessary flaps-per-minute needed for humans to fly with only their arm, thus creating an economic implosion because of the sudden independence from fossil fuels. While the latter would get my arms in awesome shape for my upcoming wedding, it would both confuse and then disturb us because the nightly news is expected to convey fact (allowing of course for the acknowledgement of the limits of perspective and slant of agenda). When go in with expectations that something is true only to find out that it was not, we’re not happy campers (check out the MTV show Catfish). (The exception to this, for some, is with situations where one is misled for one’s own entertainment, such as with movies that have surprising twists or when one is pranked. Even then, many do not like this plot elements.)

That’s why transparency is important. For many, there is a feeling of violation when we find out that that which we believed to be true is, in fact, not.

How much more important, then, is such transparency when we are dealing with people’s faith lives and their trust in us as pastors? 

As leaders in the church, we hold positions of power because people trust us. They trust us with the intimate details of their lives, both good and bad, and expect us to hold onto these stories with care. When it comes to leading them, the people we serve expect and quite often assume that we are tellers of truth. That’s why stories of clergy abuse (in whatever form) often elicit more of a sense of broken expectations than the story of some random person who does the same thing. Both are seen as wrong and sinful, but as leaders in the church we are expected and assumed to tell the truth. Whether you agree with it or not, we are held to a higher standard.

So what does this mean other than we should be truthful and never knowingly mislead someone into believing something false for the sake of their harm? I think it means that we need to be transparent, especially when it comes to our presence on social media.

We may not get a direct response from folks, but people notice what we post on Facebooks, what we tweet in Twitter, and what we share with them in person. If we, when we represent ourselves and not a larger group or church, are only sharing the good things going on in our lives, what does this say about us? For some, the feeling behind this is that it is the professional response. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your boss seeing, is the normal mantra of anyone posting anything online.

Obviously, there is a need for tact, wisdom, and appropriate boundaries, but we’re human. Not everything in our lives is perfect and to portray it as such– well, I wonder if this is a way of misleading people. Of presenting more of a fictional account when they are assuming/expecting a real person. Could our inability to authentic portray on social media who we are (read: sinners and saints) harm our ability to lead as pastors?

While social media is used in a variety of ways within the life of the Church, I think we need to pay attention to how we, as church leaders, engage with people electronically. There is always the caution for people to reflect on what appropriate boundaries are best kept, not sharing every intimate detail of their life. But being scared of sharing anything, especially that which makes us human (our mistakes), can cause unhealthy expectations of perfection and ultimately lead to a sense of betrayal when people realize the genre they came to believe (non-fiction) is closer in truth to the antics of Wile E. Coyote.