Dear Pastors: Guard Your Online Pulpit

December 20th, 2013

My news feed has blown up over the last two days over two stories about the same thing: human sexuality. Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson was suspended from his reality TV show for expressing his views on homosexuality and Frank Schaefer, former United Methodist pastor, was defrocked for officiating a same-sex wedding and refusing to repent for it.

One thing this entire fiasco has highlighted for me is the need to carefully discern not only what we say but how we say it, and to whom.

Power of Words

As pastors we have a huge responsibility and one that we must not take lightly, particularly with regards to our speech. James warns that we who teach others will be judged with greater strictness and what we say matters a great deal because we are steering the ship (the church) with out tongues (James 3:1-12). James felt that our words could set a whole world on fire back in the 1st century when word traveled at a snail’s pace. I wonder what analogy he would use today with social media being what it is!

With so many words being flung far and wide, particularly from pastors (myself included) who can’t resist sharing their personal views online about controversial topics, I can’t help but be reminded of a painful time in my own ministry not so long ago. I was a student pastor of a rural United Methodist church and an avid blogger. As my readership increased so did my pride. My focus over time became less and less on ministering to the 60 people who called me “pastor” and more and more on impressing my readers and scoring blog hits. Had my focus been on my flock, I would have known that the increasingly progressive views I was publicly espousing were alienating the very people I was called to shepherd. I would have known that the reason attendance was dropping and people were not inviting people to church was not because they were unexcited about their faith but because they couldn’t trust their pastor.

I was naive about the sort of authority I carried by virtue of having the title “pastor” and was blind to the fact that they were reading everything I posted online. I was foolish to think that if any of them disagreed with my public positions they would say so and we could talk the matter out like I would with my fellow seminarians. The truth is, many people sitting in our pews do not feel comfortable confronting their pastor and rather than do so, either online or privately, they will choose to protect themselves and their faith by avoiding the matter, and the pastor, altogether.

If you are heavily involved in online discussions about “issues” and your church members are not sharing your remarks with their friends or joining in with an “amen” chorus, then chances are good they are upset that they cannot connect with their pastor nor trust him or her to lead them where they need and want to go. Do not make the mistake I did and assume their silence means either they are not watching or do not care.

Since my dismissal from that appointment over my online discussions, I have since realized a few things that I feel could be helpful to others who are called “pastor.”

First, I have been called to be pastor to the people in my own parish, in a particular place and context. Period. I am here to serve them, to shepherd them. My responsibility is to point them to Jesus Christ in everything I say and do. Folks online take a backseat to the folks in my pews.

Second, “issues” are secondary to matters of the heart. I spent a lot of time and energy arguing online about issues. As I look back on that time I see now that what I should have been doing is focusing on holiness of heart and life. My own first, then my congregation. The Scottish preacher Robert McCheyne once said, "The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness."

Third, I won’t say anything online that I would not say from the pulpit in my local congregation. As pastors we have a greater responsibility with how we wield our words and must realize that our authority does not end at noon on Sunday but is something we must use wisely throughout the week, in whatever venue we speak and act.

Finally, if there is an issue that matters to you, one that could be controversial in your context, and you think it should matter to the church, Facebook or a blog post is not the place to hash it out. Take it to your church board or council, begin a small group within your parish, bring it up in Sunday school. Your church will respect you for respecting their beliefs and values and might be more willing to listen to you over coffee than they would if you sound off on Facebook.

As pastors we carry a great responsibility and will be judged more strictly, both here and now and when we stand before God. May we be found to be faithful in stirring the hearts of our community unto holiness rather than stirring up drama and discord online.

This post was originally published at the UMC Holiness blog. 

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