Monday, October 15, 2012

A Response to Bruce Reyes-Chow on Social Media Use by Clergy

A few days ago, progressive Christian blogger, Bruce Reyes-Chow, published "An Open Letter to Pastors About the Dangers of Using Social Media," highlighting some of the pitfalls he believes clergy have experienced in trying to stay current and participate in social media platforms, such as blogs and Facebook.  It is an interesting and intelligent piece, and yet I found it unsettling.  Although Bruce's observations are useful as cautionary notes, I am concerned that they may serve to discourage or frighten clergy from expanding their ministry beyond the bounds of the parish to other places it may be needed.  Episcopal clergy are informed by the bishop at ordination that we are to participate in the larger Councils of the Church, as well as to care for all people through our engagement with the world, which may take the form of community activism, education, a regular column in the Huffington Post, and yes, even updating our status on Facebook.  What follows is my response to Bruce, but as I say to him, I encourage you to disagree if you think I'm off base or delusional.  It's been known to happen ... on occasion.


Dear Bruce,

I am a new priest in the Episcopal Church, and although I appreciate the dangers to which you have alerted us--which are very real--I think that your letter is a bit more alarmist than it may need to be.  A lot of what you talk about hinges on perceived distinctions between the ordained person's pastoral identity and his or her "real" identity, as well as between the cyber-community and the specific congregation to which the minister has been called.

I'm glad you used the word "integrated," because I hope that I live out my ministry in a way that integrates my parish ministry within my larger vocation and my professional identity within my larger self.  My own experience is that many of the people with whom I engage on Facebook, YouTube, and my blog are already members of my parish, and those beyond our parish membership are often folks from neighboring Episcopal congregations and other Anglicans around the world, among other important personal networks.  Perhaps one might say that members of my parish are nested in the center of a series of concentric circles that emanate from my fundamental work in the parish. 

So, in many ways, the core to whom I minister online are already my own parishioners (or denominational tribe), and so I can teach, reflect theologically, encourage, foster amity and community, take risks and be creative, and a whole range of things I don't have the space or time to do in my traditional role in the church, such as in preaching or the liturgy.  And as for the bifurcation of my professional/private self(ves), my hope is that social media allows me to model more faithfully for my parishioners that clergy, like all people, are complex beings that resist idealized stereotypes and one-size-fits-all thinking.  Before I sign off, one small confession.  I have vented online from time to time, and in retrospect there were moments when I was undoubtedly in error, but the experience of being networked through social media platforms has been instructive, because I have been called on my mistakes by well-meaning people and have thereby grown more responsible in what post and share online.  I always try to make space for people to disagree with me or correct my errors. 

Again, thanks for your call for all of us to be vigilant and self-reflective as members of the online community and to avoid common pitfalls.  I don't think we can or should avoid social media, but I think we can do it better.  And, in keeping with that sentiment, here's a link to a recent video I made on why I think the Church needs to be on YouTube

Your brother in Christ,

The Rev. Ethan Alexander Jewett
Curate, St. Clement's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

1 comment:

  1. I agree that a judicious use of social media is necessary for reaching out to potential new members and continually engaging those who already belong to the Church. This is especially true for reaching the younger generations, as they are, of course, the future of the Church. Regardless of one's politics, most political analysts agree that in 2008, the Obama campaign's savvy use of social media outlets gave them a big advantage for winning the election.