social media + ministry: seven practices
1. Rhythm of life. If you use a smartphone, and spend a great deal of time with a laptop, you soon find yourself being accessible to a much greater extent to people. I learned over time that I needed to create boundaries for myself, so here they are: I do not look at my smartphone early in the morning or late at night; in fact, I try to read email or facebook and twitter updates only after I have been awake for about thirty minutes. This allows me to spend time first in some kind of spiritual practice---this year, I am reading four chapters of the Bible each day and 15 verses of the Koran. Then I make the coffee. Then I turn on Morning Joe or Up With Chris. Then I look at the smartphone. I have also come to the sense that it is not productive to respond to email later at night; I am not rested, and this is prime time to encounter the frustrations of others. I would rather read and respond in the morning, when I am mentally fresher (and perhaps they are as well) and when I can follow up with a phone call if needed.
2. Facebook. I enjoy Facebook. For me the positives far outweigh the negatives, and I can discipline myself to spend brief amounts of time there. FB has allowed me to reconnect with friends from almost every season of my life: high school and college, seminary and graduate school, each congregation along the way. Along the way I have come to a few boundaries that work for me: I don't have FB friends who are not adults, I don't ask to be FB friends of persons I am supervising, I hide the posts of people who are blatantly, consistently and harshly political (the culture wars wear very thin after awhile) and I don't play any of the games or join any of the lists that require the sharing of private information. Given these guidelines, I enjoy connecting with people who have all kinds of interests. It is a great way to point readers toward blog posts, or books or music or restaurants; it is an easier way to come to know more introverted people; and it is a wonderful way to wish friends a happy birthday.
3. Twitter. It is easy to ridicule Twitter, but again the individuals shapes his or her use of this tool. Here is mine. I follow people and sources that interest me: my feed is eclectic, from the Atlanta Braves to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times to Partners in Health in Haiti to Chris Thile. It is a great way to find resources that are helpful, interesting and fun. If I stay away for awhile, no problem: the feed simply flows along and I catch up to it, and contribute to it, as I am able. I would also add that Twitter is perfect for an event that is in process, like the United Methodist General Conference or an Atlanta Braves game. And it is amazing what you can communicate in 140 characters!
4. Blogging. I have been blogging for several years. When I served as a local church pastor I would post my sermons; now I write more generally about the church and culture. I have learned over time to keep blog posts to a briefer word length, and I use Twitter and Facebook to alert folks to new blog posts. As an intellectual exercise blogging has helped me to clarify my thoughts on a number of issues and point friends and readers to a variety of resources that are worth knowing about. I have also blogged intentionally within a few distinct communities: Christian Century, Day 1, and No Depression (a roots music website). It is a nice form of self-expression, and I should note here that I enjoy reading the blogs of a few others.
5. E-Mail. My general rules: I don't feel compelled to respond to e-mail to which I am copied; I assume that if I write something by e-mail it may be shared without my permission with a crowd of people; briefer is better; e-mail is not a helpful method for dealing with conflict; and most e-mail is not urgent. For younger adults text messaging has replaced e-mail.
6. Generations. I realize that different generations use social media in diverse ways. Most people my age (54) who are parents go on Facebook for one primary reason: to see pictures of their children. At the same time, I know that our children restrict our access to their sites, and that is fine. It is their world. I did not ask either of our children to be FB friends; they offered. FB and Twitter were first inhabited by younger adults, and then over time boomers have entered in (this is not so different from so-called "contemporary worship"). And so younger adults will likely find new spaces to create and inhabit in the world of social media.
7. Connecting and Disconnecting. I close with a reference, again, to boundaries. I find that it helps me to have particular times when I disconnect from social media; for example, when I am driving and when I am sharing a meal with someone. When I served local churches I disconnected from the smartphone on Sunday afternoons, and I would recommend this (at least for significant stretches of time) on sabbaths and days off from work. Disconnecting from social media does create time and space for other pursuits: reading scripture or novels, writing in a journal, having a conversation with family or friends. I know that iPads and Kindles are the media for reading books, and iPhones are tools to have conversations with family and friends in other places. I am supporting the general principle that disconnecting from technology creates space for our attention to the wider world (creation) and time to pursue hobbies (like gardening or playing music) or simply being still. Connecting is fun, and perhaps even essential if we are going to be a part of the conversation, but disconnecting, on occasion, is necessary.