I’ve been pondering about my presence on social media lately. Interestingly it was the Women’s March that prompted it. I did quite a bit of thinking before attending the march, sorting out my thoughts. On the way to NYC my 17 year old daughter, along with some of the other people we went with, asked, “Why aren’t you wearing your [clerical] collar?” I answered, “Well, I’ not going to this march as a pastor. I’m going as a ‘regular’ person.” They responded that they thought it would be a great message to wear it and show that the Church was supporting people, but I told them that I didn’t think it would be appropriate. If I were going with a church group that would be different, but in this case I just didn’t think it was right. Not for me anyway. (I saw many pictures of pastors at the marches and I have no judgment about the decision they made – I did what was right for me.)
Since then I’ve had a few occasions to reflect on the distinction between what I do as a pastor and what I do as private person separate from my calling/occupation – as well as my presence on social media as a person and pastor. The United States’ 2016 election has especially brought this to the forefront since I have become more vocal than I have probably ever been in my whole life. My mother has reminded me a few times recently that I’m a “pastor,” and although I’m not quite sure what she means when she says this, I guess she means that as a pastor perhaps I shouldn’t be so loud about my political views.
There are no clear-cut rules for what a pastor can and cannot do or say politically, although there is a LAW regarding non-profit organizations (which churches are). A church cannot endorse any political candidate or party, which I wrote about in this post before the election. As I wrote then, I completely agree with this. But other than this law, there isn’t a lot of guidance. Through my years in ministry (this year I’ll celebrate the 22nd anniversary of my ordination), I have come up with some guidelines for myself, which, like all things in life, are still a work in progress.
1. I will never stand in the pulpit and endorse anyone EVER (even if it wasn’t against the law I’d still think it was wrong).
2. As a pastor I’m called to serve people of all political leanings. I have parishioners who are solidly liberal and those who are firmly conservative. I know there are people in my congregation who voted for different parties. I am pastor to all of them. And as their pastor I love all of them. Even if we may not always understand one another perfectly we ARE called to love one another. And on the personal side I am not one who lives in an “echo chamber.” I have friends and loved ones who vote and think differently than I do. This is good for me and them. Being with and relating to people who think differently than we do helps us clarify what we believe and at the same time learn from each other. I have been challenged at times, made to expand my thinking, and even proven wrong and admitted it. Sadly, I think this kind of give-and-take is sorely lacking in our current political climate and both the left and the right are to blame. We have to find a way to talk WITH one another instead of “over” and “past” each other, and foster relationships rather than making excuses to not like each other. I take Jesus’ call to love my neighbor seriously, and that includes my liberal neighbor, my conservative neighbor, my socialist neighbor, my libertarian neighbor and my non-political neighbor.
3. As a “regular person” I am, however, entitled to have political/personal opinions/beliefs and express them. For me, it is ALSO the case that my opinions/beliefs are grounded in my faith in Jesus. As a Christian, Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, care for the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, provide for the orphan and widow etc… (John 13:34 and Matthew 25:31-40). Sometimes these issues are brought up in our national life as Americans – and when they are, I will do my best as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor to stand for what he has taught and commanded. To say as a “pastor” I shouldn’t speak up (or get political) when I see injustice done to my neighbor is to ask me not only to neglect my vocation as a pastor, but my call as a Christian.
4. Social media is great and awful at the same time. For example, when I set up my Facebook account there were very few guidelines for pastors and professional people on how to do this. Now, my denomination (ELCA) gives very helpful guidelines, but it’s hard to go backwards. My denomination recommends that pastors not “friend” people in their congregations, and I understand that completely. Sometimes social media is a good outlet to vent with friends (especially those far away) – but parishioners may not feel comfortable reading their pastor’s rants or not want to know so much about their pastor’s political or personal views. I haven’t really gotten any pushback from my congregation because I have been with them for a long time and I (hope!) they know I love them and that our relationship is based on more than posts on social media or political/personal views. But I would’ve done things very differently if I had known then what I know now. If I go to a new congregation I will create separate professional social media accounts to give both my parishioners and me some space from each other while still cultivating a supportive sharing dialog. It’s a new world that we’re all still trying to maneuver, me included.
I have a feeling this isn’t the last time I’ll be pondering on these things. I think everyone could stand a little reflection on where our views/beliefs come from, how we can best live them out, and how we relate to those with different views. How do we proclaim what we believe in love? How do we love our neighbor with whom we disagree? What are the lines we cannot cross? And even then, how do we love our enemies? I’m still working on this, sometimes getting it right, sometimes failing. That’s discipleship.