Clergy Accountability Online

June 16th, 2011
Image © Spencer E. Holtaway | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Should churches monitor the online activity of pastors? At least one conference in the United Methodist Church thinks so, and is now requiring pastors and ordination candidates to sign a disclosure agreement (downloadable below) covering clergy activity on social networks and other websites.

The policy was implemented by the Kentucky Annual Conference and applies to “any and all MySpace, Facebook, or other blog and website accounts.” (MySpace? Really?) By signing the agreement, clergy are agreeing to allow the conference to “examine” the accounts. Clergy are required to add the KAC as a friend on each account, and by signing, they demonstrate an understanding 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.”

The document goes on to say that officials will regularly check their accounts and that they will be held accountable for “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.”

I’m glad there’s growing concern for clergy accountability, but this policy seems like overkill to me. And it’s actually unnecessary because there’s already a natural accountability with social networks. To some extent, we’re all held accountable for the things we post online, by our friends, family members, co-workers, and employers. For example, I’m friends on Facebook with a number of my co-workers, including the president of the company I work for. But I didn’t “friend” them to comply with a policy, I did it because I wanted to. And when I post anything, I’m always conscious of what I write. My rule of thumb is not to post anything that I wouldn’t be comfortable putting on a billboard next to the interstate.

I understand why the policy was implemented, but it doesn’t even address the biggest dangers of social networking for clergy-- the stuff that can go on in private messaging. No one would stalk someone, initiate an affair, solicit a minor or do something illegal on a Facebook page-- these things only take place in the shadows. And this agreement can’t reach that far. The only way it could would be for pastors to keep their account passwords on file with church officials, and that’s not going to happen. While that level of accountability might be necessary for some people, it should happen voluntarily in the context of a close relationship (e.g. spouse), not under a “Big Brother” mandate.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the agreement is the part that attempts to enforce the Doctrinal Standards and Social Principles. Now I’m all for confronting heresy when necessary, but the United Methodist Social Principles have no legal binding power. Yet this document seems to be threatening to withhold ordination from those who post something “questionable” in light of those principles. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding a major point, but doesn’t that mean that this conference is holding its not-yet-ordained clergy to a higher standard than it’s holding its elders?

This is not the way to attract younger clergy. With what seems like an increasingly complicated and grueling ordination process, is it any wonder that more potential pastors are going the non-denominational route?

Questions: Should pastors and church staff be held accountable for what they post on social networks? If so, how should this be done?


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