You(th) on facebook


Here’s a great email from Jed Koball, an Interim AP at Larchmont Avenue Presbyterian:

I’m writing with an inquiry of sorts. First, I want to state clearly that there is no particular incident or situation of concern that has prompted this inquiry — only my own wild imagination and perhaps paranoia. My inquiry is with regard to ethical standards/codes of conduct that are (or are not) being taught/advised to ministers, churchworkers, seminarians, etc. with regard to one’s behavior and interaction with minors in the virtual world.

As you’re probably aware, facebook is all the rage among teens and twenty somethings. And, within the past six months it has become a growing medium for youth workers in the church to interact and communicate with the youth. There are hundreds and hundreds of Presbyterian ministers with facebook pages. Here at LAC, we have clearly identified facebook as the best method to communicate and relay information to youth…and with that, to interact on some level…i.e. wish them well on midterms…happy birthday, etc.

My approach to any encounter with youth in the “virtual world” has been to follow the same code of conduct and ethics for how I have been taught to interact with youth in the “real world”. Basically, I keep it as public as possible. Where I would do everything possible to prevent myself being in a place alone with a youth, I now do everything possible to prevent myself from “interacting” with a youth “alone” in the virtual world. To that end, on facebook, I will make comments to a youth on their “Wall” where anyone can see it. If I send a message, I send it to a group and never to an individual. Thus, any communication I have is seen by others. And all communication that I send or receive from youth, I do not delete.

Still, I’m finding there is some gray area in this unchartered water of facebook. One such example (outside of interacting with youth on facebook) is observing youth on facebook: I am now privy to lots of “inappropriate behavior” as pictures are posted by youth on their facebook pages. I see pictures of underage people drinking, and now I wonder what responsibility I have to say something. To date, all of those pictures have been of college kids, and so I have done nothing and can’t imagine that I ever would do something. But, if I were to see pictures of a 16 year old completely wasted, I’m not sure how I might react. Or, if I were to see pictures or read comments about illicit drug use, I’m not sure what I’d do either. I feel like I’ve gained access to something that I’m not entirely sure how to handle…as if pandora’s box is slowly being opened.

In the end though, I believe facebook is a cutting edge medium for SUPPORTING community — (not REPLACING community) — however, I see potential for trouble ahead if some ethical guidelines are not encouraged somewhere and somehow — especially as this younger generation who is being raised with facebook eventually grows into leadership roles in the church. Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe I’m being paranoid. Mostly, I feel like I’m navigating new territory with an old map…and, I’m wondering if there might be a need to begin drawing a new map.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Please discuss.

photo’s by laughing squid

27 thoughts on “You(th) on facebook

  1. I wrote about this for Christian Century’s Theolog a bit ago. But not as thoughtfully. My take on the privacy thing is this: I don’t friend students. I accept their friendship offers, but I don’t friend them, and I don’t read their pages (even if they don’t restrict who can read.) This way, by asking for my “friendship”, they’ve made the choice to let me into their private online world. And if they’ve done that and I saw something that worried me, I’d say something–because they let me in. But so far that hasn’t happened, and I think that’s because the only students that friend me are the ones that are comfortable with me seeing their pages. I work with college kids, so the stakes aren’t as high.

    I actually mostly message and rarely write on walls because I don’t want my words to be misinterpreted or exegeted. But I save all the messages. And I don’t do super pokes or anything like that. I find some of those things to be borderline suggestive and just don’t want to go there.

    I think facebook has been very helpful, but you do need to make some decisions before you go into it–have a policy in mind.

  2. Susan O, may I ask what kind of work you do? In my experience, Presbyterian female pastors have very strong boundaries.

  3. 20-something,

    “yikes. Lighten up. Just let ‘the youth’ and ‘the next generation’ handle this one”

    Jed’s not old.

    And, my own initial reply to Jed’s question was pretty heavy. I’ve never been a “Youth Pastor,” but I’ve pastored a lot of youth, and been very involved with their lives. And there have been times when our teenagers were in some life-and-death situations. I was holding their hands, praying that they would make it through the next couple of years. So, I could certainly understand J’s concerns…

    It’s not just teenagers on facebook. We are too. And that’s the issue: since we’re in the room, we have knowledge. And in our profession, whether we like it or not, knowledge comes with responsibility. We’ve got to hash these things out. Talk about them.

  4. Liberal traditionalist,

    “In my experience, Presbyterian female pastors have very strong boundaries.”

    It probably seems creepy to a lot of people, and I was going to be defensive about this too… but you’re right… We hear an awful lot. We see an awful lot. We have strong boundaries.

    I.e., I was looking at a report on women pastors recently, researching why such a high percentage of women leave the parish. Under the reasons, one ex-pastor wrote, in a clear, matter-of-fact manner, “I was raped in my office.” And I thought, I’m pretty sure that would be my last day in the office as well.

    Now, I’m not saying that’s the norm… I’m just saying, you hear stories of violence. Then, you get hit on more times than you ever care to admit. And, since many of us are solo pastors, we’re in an office alone most of the time. Then, you start realizing that you don’t have some of the professional boundaries that counselors, therapists, social workers have, and you start developing personal boundaries.

    Add to that, we’re in the unique position of not only being vulnerable, but because we’re clergy, we’re also treated (by our insurance companies, denominations, etc.) as potential predators. So, we have to be careful on that end as well.

    This probably deserves a post in itself. I guess, I just hope that people can understand the awkward positions that we’re often in….

  5. There are some good issues here my wife and I talk about often. When I first got on facebook I got all excited and invited a number of my ‘youth’ to be friends, but none of them actually accepted! To date, I still don’t have any of my high school kids as Facebook friends, though some of the kids at my wife’s church – where she works more directly with youth than I do as a solo pastor – have invited me. The interesting thing? It seems once they get to college it’s ‘ok’ for me to be their FB friend.

    Recently I had a conversation with one of my parents with 2 high school kids. We were talking about getting some information out to our youth and I said we could create a facebook page. Her response: “My kids aren’t allowed to have a facebook page.” A quick search on FB reveals however that one of the kids does in fact have a page with 546 friends…what am I to do with that??

    As for inviting kids, I have now decided that I will not ask anyone who is minor to be my friend on facebook. If they invite me that’s a different manner, but even then I will encourage them to limit their profile. I like the suggestion too of only posting stuff publicly.

  6. When you are dealing with youth perhaps there would be times when information on facebook or other social networking sites would fall under the same guidelines you would use for mandatory reporting. In those cases I can how it would be appropriate to act based off of the knowledge gleaned from one of those sites. However, if the person isn’t planning on harming themselves or others, I personally don’t think it is appropriate to intervene (though if the youth themselves are inviting you onto these sites perhaps they really ARE inviting you to intervene in other things as well). It is a more complex issue than I gave at first glance. Whatever you decide I think it is important to make your policy clear to the people you work with. Good luck to you and your colleagues as you struggle with this issue.

  7. Also, I feel like I should apologize for my original flippant remark. I can see that it is a serious issue.

    I hope through collaboration you can develop a policy that is considerate of both privacy/confidentiality issues yet one that also serves to protect and care for the people all of you work with.

  8. 20-something,

    “if the person isn’t planning on harming themselves or others, I personally don’t think it is appropriate to intervene (though if the youth themselves are inviting you onto these sites perhaps they really ARE inviting you to intervene in other things as well).”

    Both very good points.

    No problem about the remark. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve responded to someone else’s post and then wished I could edit it somehow. And wow. A blog apology’s a rare thing… thanks for bringing civility into the sphere!

  9. Liberal Traditionalist, I work (part-time) as a college chaplain. And yes, I am female and Presbyterian. But if I have tight (too rigid? good? who knows?) boundaries, it’s probably not due to my denomination, but due to working in a college my whole ordained life. Colleges are quickly sued, and while I’ve never been sued, or even threatened, I have friends (coaches, professors) that have been. So, I keep boundaries and good records.

  10. Susan O., I have to say that males who belong to other confessions of faith have much more permeable boundaries. I guess the issue really is with minors, because some of them are anxious about this. Its not really my issue, so I shouldn’t get involved, save for the fact that Presbyterian female pastors seem to have “better boundaries” then some of the male laity in the confession of faith I belong to. Its kind of frustrating.

  11. Susan works at Yale.

    If I worked at an ivy league, I’m pretty sure I’d be one of those really annoying people who slips the name into the conversation at every possible point.

    I can just imagine it. “My name is Carol, and I work at Yale. Here’s my business card, with those four letters, Y-A-L-E right on it. Aaah Yale. You know Yale? Let me just tell you who’s graduated from Yale in the history of our country…I just happen to have a detailed list Yale graduates here in my pocket…”

  12. Sorry to say — but I know of TWO youth pastors who had huge boundary violations like this. In fact, put it this way –the two youth pastors I know both had these problems. Both left their jobs because of it. This is nothing light or irrelevant. in fact, Carol, maybe THIS should be your next book!

  13. I’m 25 and joined facebook back in its infancy while I was in college. Then very few friends were out of their twenties and we treated facebook as an extension to college social life.

    Now, as I’m facebook friends with my seminary professors and future colleagues in ministry, I treat my page quite differently.

    This all falls under a larger umbrella of ministry in a world in which privacy is increasingly less common. Overall, this move is mostly good, I think. But, it does present new issues.

    For example, as I’m currently out of the country for a year, I regularly learn of big life changes in my friends through facebook–big changes like a new baby, a divorce, a friend coming out. Sorry to broaden the conversation, but in a world in which pastors can learn of parishioner’s broken marriage through facebook, there’s a lot to talk about.

    (I’ll post something this week here: A Wee Blether)

  14. Ah Carol, you have confused working at Yale with going to Yale. Working for Yale, plus about 3 bucks will buy you a coffee. (I guess. I don’t actually drink the stuff. )

    20-something, I think, yes, if I was on the page of a student that I didn’t know, and saw something that was not harmful to self or others, but was worrisome, I wouldn’t do anything, but that would never happen. I’m only on the pages of students that I know, and students that have ASKED me to be there. Here’s an example. One of my students had “status” statements for 3 days running: Susie Q is sad. Then Susie Q is bummed, and finally Susie Q hates her life. Did I call her? Heck, yes. When I called (on day 2), she said, “I knew you’d call.”

    And now, can someone try to explain to me why Jesus said no to my friendship request? Cuz I’m seriously bummed about that.

  15. Ruth,

    I’ll have a bit about these issues in the next book. I’m writing an article for my seminary’s journal about it.

    Although…I realized the problem with going too in-depth about technology with Tribal Church. I wrote something about someone drinking a glass of wine and visiting By the time it was published, everyone had gone from classmates to myspace to facebook. (Obviously, I’m not as cool and cutting-edge as Adam…)

    I remember opening the book for the first time and yelling, “CLASSMATES?!?!” Needless to say, I changed it to facebook for the second edition. It’s just that by the time the book gets through editing, the technology’s dated.

  16. Susan O, I agree with TC in her comments about Yale. However, your entry about working AT not FOR Yale changes NOTHING in my mind, except to emphasize your humility. I have found that AT sometimes means that you are able to minister to everyone, including people who would be off limits if you were a FOR staff.

    I also caught your comment about your article. Yet, I got so caught up in the rest of the entries that I didn’t check it out. Thanks for reminding us.

  17. Susan,

    Great article! Loved it.

    My CC links are somewhat suspect. I mean literally. They accepted me as a CC blog (thus the logo), but it’s been over two months, and they’ve never linked me on their site. I’m debating whether to take it down….

  18. I’m on FB and am friends (sometimes initiated by me) with a number of youth from multiple churches I’ve served or had contact with. I also exchange personal messages to them on occasion. If one on one conversations are now off-limits then let’s stop youth ministry. This isn’t the same as having a one on one conversation with no one else around in your office or the youth room. I see it more like talking one on one in the Fellowship Hall at a lock-in with people playing dodgeball 30 feet away.

    We have to be able to talk with youth individually, and we have to be able to talk to them in ways that they are willing to talk.

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  20. This is a very interesting conversation. I’m a Youth Minister and in the ordination process in my church. Our Church School director sent me to this article – for which I am grateful!

    Like many of you, I have found Facebook to be a really effective communication and marketing strategy for my youth. It’s a great way for me to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in their lives, and to keep them up-to-date with what’s going on in the church.

    One of my guiding principles in this process has been this: they’re on Facebook anyway – to the degree that we can make the church an aspect of that very real part of their lives, I think it’s a good thing.

    I do, however, recognize that there is some measure of liability involved in this new way of commuicating. As such, I’ve set up a few “controls” for myself in my interactions with them.

    First, I’ve set up a separate Facebook account, using my work email address, that is distinct from my “real” Facebook account that I use to communicate with my own “real world” friends and colleagues. I also keep my “real” account as private as possible, such that only friends can view it. Occasionally I have had youth contact me with friend requests on my “real” account. I always write them back from my work account, thank them for the friend request, and send them a request from my work account. I’m very honest about it – that I have this account set up just for my interactions with them. So far they’ve been very understanding.

    Also, I’ve set up a Facebook Group for our Youth Group. On that page, I’ve kept it as private as possible. I want the youth to feel free to write whatever is on their minds on the wall, or post whatever things they’d like to share with the rest of the group, but I didn’t want us to become a target for predators. As such, that group is by invitation only. But I also recognize that I can’t be the only adult in that “room”. So, with his permission, I’ve put a member of the clergy staff of the church as an administrator of the group, and I also encourage adult volunteers who work with our youth to join the group. When they do, I also set them as administrators. I try to share the responsibility as widely as possible.

    I have had occasion to have private emails and text messages with members of my youth group. I really don’t see how this is avoidable. In fact, from a pastoral perspective, I think it’s necessary. But I do keep all interactions. And in my writing, I always try to remember how easy it is to share electronic communications. I try to avoid saying anything that I wouldn’t want broadcast to the entire parish.

    I do struggle with the issue of seeing evidence of inappropriate behavior from my youth on FB. I certainly don’t look at their pages (unless I’m just on briefly to send birthday greetings, or things like that via the wall), but I have stumbled across information that I know the youth wouldn’t want me to see. About underage drinking and the like. I have not known how to handle that and I’ve asked other youth ministers their opinions (with no results). So I’d appreciate more conversation from y’all about that!

    There’s my two cents… Thanks for the venue to discuss this important topic!

  21. I have been in full-time youth ministry for roughly a decade and the electronic communications avenues continue to expand every year. It is essential that youth workers are connected to their students in that world, or else we are neglecting seriously large opportunities for ministry with them.

    I don’t know how I feel about hard-and-fast rules about online interaction. My initial thoughts, though, are that there are far too many variables from ministry to ministry and group to group for there to really be any, other than the obvious moral issues that apply the same way to in-person interactions.

    The main thing I wanted to comment on here was the seeming reticence of some posting here to even LOOK at what our people (be they young or old) are putting out for public display on their Facebook, Myspace, etc. The fact is that if someone has a public profile, then that is what it is–public. If we actively avoid looking at their PUBLIC profile, or even fail to actively observe them, I feel like that is a failure of pastoral responsibility.

    If we were at a youth lock-in and two of our students were making out in one corner of the room, we would certainly step in and offer some instruction and redirection of their behavior, would we not? The digital realm is EXACTLY the same thing. Some people may want to say that if it’s online, it’s not real life, but that is a dangerously slippery slope of excusing & compartmentalizing life.

    If we see an inappropriate picture, comment, blog, etc. of a student of ours that they have posted on their public profile, I believe that we are obligated, as their spiritual directors, to enter into that situation with counsel and direction. If they are minors, it may even be appropriate for their parents to be alerted to the situation. To fail to do so would be the same as turning a blind eye to the couple making out at the lock-in.

    I regularly and actively peruse the MySpace and Facebook pages of my students, my volunteers, other pastoral staff, my friends, my family, pastors I know from other churches, etc. It is just another window into who people are IN REAL LIFE. Any information that I come across about any of those people in any digital format is fair game because it’s REAL.

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