Guest commentary by Kim Douglass Marin
When my grandfather accepted a new call 75 years ago, the goodbyes and welcomes were private. Probably both churches had cake and punch in their respective fellowship halls. If anyone was upset by his departure, those feelings were expressed in quiet narthex corners or in late night phone calls. If anyone was thrilled that he was joining their congregation, those joys largely would’ve been shared privately as well.
Not much had changed by the time my college bestie accepted a call 20 years ago: As she put it, “You left a church, and someone in that congregation might visit the other town and stop in at your new church and report back.” But the congregations largely were separate: The grieving, gossiping and giddiness stayed local.
That’s not the case anymore. Social media has changed how churches share and process news of transitions. And like everything related to the internet, this has presented great opportunities as well as troubling obstacles to effective ministry.
The church I serve is in the middle of a transition: Our beloved married co-pastors accepted a new call earlier this spring after nearly six years of ministry. Our pastors had not been looking to leave; they were approached by the church where they met 20 years ago as college sweethearts, and where they both had discerned their call to ministry. In many ways, it is a dream job for them.
The news caused gasps across our little corner of Northern Virginia when we announced it – first in the form of an all-church email and then over Facebook – following an early afternoon session meeting. As the communications director, I was grateful for these tools. They ensured that a solid majority of our members would learn the news at about the same time. The news was entirely unexpected, partly because of the way the Presbyterian system is structured, and partly because we are breaking ground in a matter of days on a major building project that these pastors helped shepherd.
On social media our church page (and personal pages) lit up with reactions. The church our pastors have been called to generously placed a social media embargo on their congregation, asking people not to comment or post about the news for several hours. And then their pages lit up as well.
The grief, gossip and giddiness — all out in the open.
One well intentioned soul wrote on our pastors’ personal pages within hours of the news that it had been “well played” on the part of the new church to draw our pastors. He was referring to that church’s long-ago investment in college ministry that had helped shape and offer vocational direction for many young people, including this outstanding pair of preachers. But that word choice was arguably unfortunate, and might have been a little too closely timed to the “Game of Thrones”finale. A few of my church’s members – already feeling raw – read it as a pat on the back for a successful poach.
“Just a reminder that your joyous gain is our devastating loss,” one parishioner wrote in response to a series of congratulatory comments. “This wound is fresh for us and social media’s arms stretch wide as does God’s love for his children.”
This exchange was on the pastors’ personal Facebook pages, remember, which may not have been modified for visibility with privacy settings. (Something to consider, pastors on social media.) It was not part of the church’s official pages, although those screens emoted heavily in those first few days as well.
It would be easy to extend a great big eye-roll to these exchanges – because of a general disdain for or wariness of social media, perhaps – or to chalk it up to just another casualty of an increasingly digital world that feels out of our control.
But I think we have an opportunity here.
If we are going to use social media – and I would argue the church of tomorrow will for certain use some version of it even more heavily – then we’d better think about what we want it to look like. If we want church to extend beyond walls, then that goes for wireless walls too. Are we thinking before we type? Are we imagining the whole body of Christ standing before us to accept our words? This is not to suggest that we never express an emotion that isn’t shared by others, but rather that we prayerfully assess the environment. Is the timing right? Who is my audience? How might the pastors at the heart of these exchanges be affected?
I would argue these are discussions that should be happening at presbyteries and within transition teams denomination-wide. Some of the comments we have received on our church page in regards to our pastors’ departure have come from the church they left years ago for us. “We know how you feel,” someone wrote. “We feel your pain.” That makes me wonder how we articulated ourselves online years ago, and it makes me wonder what we might want to do differently in the years ahead.
The truth is, the transitions process for Presbyterians is natural, orderly, well-structured and deeply flawed because each of us is. It’s messy, particularly when it’s deconstructed online. That is the new beast in this centuries-old process for the church to wrestle with.
KIM DOUGLASS MARIN is the director of communications at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia. She was a newspaper reporter and magazine editor before transitioning to church work. She and her husband, Geoff, are raising two little Presbyterians.transitional ministry