Setting Social Networking Boundaries

May 28th, 2012

One of the criticisms ministry people have with Social Networking is that it can be addictive. It is always there, it is hard to get away from, and it can be exhausting.

I’m not going to lie. All this is potentially true.

I say “potentially true” because it has happened to me—and to my friends. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have also learned ways to protect ourselves and to make sure we are in control of the technology and not the other way around.

I was not good at this early on in my Social Networking escapades. My Twitter account and my Facebook account were set up to send me e-mails and text messages on my iPhone at all hours of the day. It was superfun at first. I heard from a ton of people I hadn’t talked to in a while and met many new people from church. It was exhilarating. Then it got tough.

All of a sudden, I was always available. Always. And with messages and updates coming to me at all hours, I found myself asking questions in a way that I had never had to ask before. “Do I really care about this need?” “Do I know this person well enough to muster up sympathy?” “Is it my role to respond to this or to someone else’s?” “How important is this thing that this person is making out to be an emergency?” “Do I send a message now or wait until morning?” “If I open this door, am I inviting this person to contact me at home like this all the time?”

At the church office if someone has a financial need we put the person through a process. There’s an application, an interview, and a series of questions the individual must answer in order for us to best help her or him. There are certain days on which we look at these applications. There are people dedicated to it. These processes and boundaries are the same with many things at the church office: counseling, crisis management, staff meetings, which days reimbursements are made, days off, and what we can and can’t do on a Sunday, for instance.

In the early days of Social Networking, everyone’s role, the processes, and the boundaries all got mixed up. It was no one’s fault. It was a learning process. Those who joined Social Networking platforms saw me as available to answer anything and free to meet any need at any time of the day. And they took advantage of it.

What do you do with the mom who sends you a Twitter message saying her baby has no food and Dad just walked out? What about the guy who is contemplating suicide and Facebook alerts you in the middle of the night? What about the person who just realized his need for Jesus and wants to talk to you about baptism at 9:00 p.m., when you just sat down with your spouse after a hard day?

Let’s first realize that this is not a problem of the technology. The technology presents new questions that we have to answer for ourselves about time management and responsibility, for sure. But the issues of time management and responsibility stand on their own in multiple venues and stations of life.

There are boundaries and safeguards you can set up in Social Networking platforms, and preferences you can set in smartphone apps, to help minimize potential unhealthy fallout. And you need to know it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. You have choices. You have routines. You have commitments. It’s important to learn to manage Social Networking so that it doesn’t manage you.

Here are some things to consider:

You may want to set up a time when you plan on checking your Social Networking platforms and limit yourself to that time. I do this in many areas of ministry. I only counsel on Wednesdays. I only allow myself to run one satellite group at a time. I don’t answer my phone after 5:00 p.m. I don’t talk church business with staff once I am home. Some limit their Social Networking to certain days or to only so many minutes a day.

If you have an addictive personality, take drastic measures to set boundaries. If you have decided to get started with Social Networking and you are easily distracted and addicted, or if you are currently swimming in a Social Networking whirlpool that sucks all your time, you might need some disciplinary tactics:

  • Leave your computer at the office at night.
  • Turn off your smartphone.
  • Set your preferences in Twitter to only notify you during certain hours.
  • Don’t allow your tweets to go to your SMS on your phone like all your other text messages.
  • Don’t allow Social Networks to alert you through e-mails when you receive new messages.

You may want to create proprietary spaces. These are the spaces dedicated to engaging in certain activities and only those activities. When I was growing up, I could not bring my toys into Grandpa’s den. That was the spot where he unwound, smoked a pipe, and watched TV. It was dedicated. Pick an area (a desk in the lobby, a coffee shop, and so on) as the place where you engage in Social Networking. Sometimes when we limit ourselves to spaces, it enables us to create other sacred spaces that become an important part of our ability to disconnect, meditate, rest, breathe easy, remove distractions, study, pray, and so forth. If you sit at your office desk and have a hard time knowing whether to do the schedule, make the call, read the book, do the follow-up, or check your Facebook, you may need to create proprietary spaces.

Communicate with your church and let them know your boundaries. Get good at telling people you only answer your phone until 5:00 p.m. Post messages on your Facebook status letting people know that you are having quality family time. Tell people you don’t do Social Networking while on vacation. Whatever your particular boundaries are, communicate them and stick to them.

It isn’t always urgent, and it isn’t always your emergency. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you have to answer everyone’s theological query. Don’t believe for a second that God wants you to answer every need or drop what you are doing to respond to everyone. The nature of Social Networking is such that at any given time there is something that begs for someone to address it. That doesn’t mean it’s you.

Set your Facebook chat status to “offline.” At the bottom of your Facebook page, there is a chat box that allows people to see when you are online. This means they can interrupt you at any time. It may not be a pressing need. Most of the time it isn’t.

Sometimes Social Networking is like going to a missions conference where presenters talk about the particular horrific situations and needs of their country and how you can help. I sometimes leave those conferences feeling like, if I am going to be a good Christian, I have to buy all my fair-trade coffee from this vendor, buy my shoes from that vendor, support this child in Uganda, buy this freshwater drinking straw, and purchase this whole video series that funnels profits into an organization to combat the sex trade.

But if I left those conferences responding to every need, I would soon be out of a job for lack of time and focus; I would lose my home from spending too much money; and I would eventually lose my family because I was a bleeding heart who couldn’t take care of needs at home while I tried to save the world.

Yes, we have a responsibility to one other. This is why we got into ministry in the first place—to love the unlovely; to spread hope; to tell people there is good news; to make room for the stranger. Managing our involvement in Social Networking does not negate these things.

When we set up Social Networking safeguards and boundaries, we aren’t ignoring people or abandoning them. We aren’t saying they don’t matter. We are being proactive and smart so that we have the energy to focus on the specific things God has called us to do with the time, energy, and resources that we do have.

This article is an excerpt from Follow You, Follow Me: Why Social Networking is Essential for Ministry by John Voelz.

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