The Diocese of the Internet: the ministry of bishops in the social media age

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The Anglican Journal, the official newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) published this week an article entitled, “Episcopal leadership in the age of social media” examining the ways bishops in the ACC view social media use in relationship to their ministry.  At a time when social media and digital communication are increasingly prevalent, organizations, businesses, and even churches are having to grapple with how to use social media and technology to further their objectives and, in the case of churches, their ministry.  Meanwhile bishops, as leaders of dioceses, are learning how social media and other digital platforms can enhance their leadership and connect them with their flocks.  Unsurprisingly, there is not a consensus about how bishops should use these media for ministry.

In the minds of some, the use of social media gives bishops a fantastic public venue for ministry.  According to the article in the Anglican Journal, several recent public relations studies, each examining senior leaders and their relationships to the public, revealed that large numbers of respondents found it important for those in positions of leadership to communicate directly with their public.  Although these surveys were not directly focused on church leadership, many believe the findings translate well to the church, with bishops functioning similarly to  CEOs and other high-powered leaders.  Many bishops seem to agree with this assessment.

The Rt. Rev. Susan Bell, Bishop of Niagara, sees social media use as a way of reaching new people and noted, 

“For Anglicans in particular, the Reformation taught us that communicating the gospel in the vernacular was a core value…Well, social media is the vernacular now, and we are bound by our polity, tradition and the Great Commission to preach the gospel to the whole creation using whatever tools the Lord makes available to us.”

The Rt. Rev. Michael Oulton, Bishop of Ontario, sees communication as being the top priority in the ministry of a bishop and sees social media as helping him do that work more effectively.  Oulton, who regularly shares reflections and photos from his visitations and other events, stated, 

“Social media has allowed me to put a human face on the office of bishop each and every day…Social media has also allowed me to stay connected with the folk among whom I minister, the communities I serve and the church, both nationally and internationally, in ways that were not available to my predecessors.”

Unsurprisingly, though, not everyone is in agreement about social media’s place in ministry.  The Rt. Rev. Greg Kerr-Wilson, Archbishop of Calgary, worries about depending too much on social media in ministry, expressing concern that over-reliance on social media and digital communication detracts from in-person communication.  Despite his use of social media for ministry, Bishop Oulton agreed that caution is important, noting the importance of having clear policies and procedures for social media use.

Of course, the Anglican Church of Canada is not the only part of the Anglican Communion where bishops are figuring out the best ways of using social media for ministry.  Dozens of bishops from around the Anglican Communion are active on a variety of social media platforms.  Both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, have active social media presences.  The official Archbishop of Canterbury Twitter account, @JustinWelby, has more than 133,000 followers while his official Facebook public page has more than 169,000 followers.  The official Presiding Bishop Michael Curry Twitter account, @PB_Curry, has more than 67,000 followers while his official Facebook public page has more than 52,000 followers.  Both his Twitter and Facebook pages include posts about his public events, videos of him speaking, and reflections on what is happening in the Episcopal Church and beyond. 

Yet, episcopal social media presence isn’t just reserved for those on the national or international stage.  Many diocesan bishops maintain active social media presences where they share what is happening in their ministry and interact with those in their diocese and beyond, and not only through personal or diocesan Facebook pages.  Twitter, in particular, has become a place where it is common to see bishops with a regular pattern of posting and interacting.  For some, like the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Knisely of the Diocese of Rhode Island who tweets as @wnknisely, Twitter is a place to share not only posts about church but about other interests and passions; his Twitter feed includes things ranging from diocesan news to a retweet of an article from Physics Today (Knisely is also a trained physicist).  

For others, such as the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle of the Diocese of Texas who tweets as @TexasBishop, Twitter is a place for simply sharing news of what is happening around his diocese; his 7,500 followers see frequent posts of sermons, pictures from around the diocese, and information about events.

Although individual bishops vary in the ways they engage in social media use, it is a growing opportunity for engagement with the public.  A recent study from Pew Research confirmed previous trends in social media usage, with all age groups growing in their social media use, although age groups vary in which platforms they use.  Facebook continues to be a growing platform for older adults, with 68% of U.S. adults having Facebook accounts.  Meanwhile, platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter are growing in use among younger adults.  Regular use of an array of social media platforms offers bishops a way to engage with people of a variety of ages, including those from demographics whose church attendance is waning

Ultimately, there isn’t one single correct way of using social media as a tool for ministry but the Diocese of Toronto’s digital communications coordinator Martha Holmen summed up the situation well, concluding, 

“People in general are on social media— that’s where they gather to talk to have conversations about any kind of issue, including religious issues…So having a bishop on social media gives them access to people who are already there and lets them speak directly to them.”

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Eric Bonetti
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I agree with the underlying thrust of this article, and see it as applicable to parish clergy as well. Indeed, I get considerable amusement from clergy who claim their passion is outreach, yet haven’t posted to Facebook in seven months. Less amusing, but sad, are churches that think that social media consists of announcing on Twitter that a new sermon has been posted.

Of course, if you really do have an online conversation, you have to be prepared for some rough and tumble. Church Twitter accounts that block critics, for example, will inevitably fail. Similarly, you may wind up discussing issues that are edgy or uncomfortable. That’s all to the good, as the gospel is not always a message of comfort.

And, if like a certain church in Virginia, you go to court to shut down criticism, it’s a pretty safe bet that 20-something’s are going to take a pass, and that it is placing its future in jeopardy. Just sayin’....

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Kenneth Knapp
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Kenneth Knapp

I have not generally been impressed by the depth of "conversation" on social media. I suspect that bishops on Twitter will soon come to sound as shallow as politicians and celebrities.

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