How do we as young adults and church leaders engage with social media sites? While this might seem like an innocent enough question at first, with seemingly easy answers (I use site x not site y, etc.) in actuality it’s much more complex.

I was recently at a local blogging workshop where they were discussing institutional involvement in social media (aka social networking). The presenter was speaking out of his experience working with colleges and universities that are trying to be more active in connecting with prospectives, students, and alumni using current and emerging social media sites. One example that he gave was how the chancellor of our regional campus of Indiana University (IU East) is using Twitter to make a personal connection with people, in addition to several other IU East-related Twitter feeds.

While I was impressed by how well IU East has integrated social media into their public relations, I immediately I started thinking of how different this is from how I use social media on a regular basis.

Whereas chancellor Paydar maintains his single social media identity through his role with IU East, that model isn’t remotely appealing to me (and I imagine the same is probably true for others of you in my generation.) For me, such sites are enjoyable and meaningful because of the opportunity they provide for near-instant, authentic, personal connection between me and others who know me. In these spaces (as in the rest of my life) I am not first and foremost Pastor Matt, but rather Matt, who is a pastor. A subtle but important difference.

Obviously, the struggle is that while I maintain a personal presence on several social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, etc.) there are times that I do connect with people primarily through my role as a pastor and representative of the “institutional church.” The reason it’s such a struggle is because of the ever-present tensions between authenticity and appropriateness, intimacy and identity. On social media sites these desires get all mashed together in a way that is more difficult to manage than interacting with people in other ways.

I am like many folks who fall into the more post-modern mindset in that I have a deep desire for authentic, intimate connections with others. However, if I am to be truly authentic in such interactions then what happens when my personal thoughts, feelings, and actions are at odds with those of the institution I’m seen to represent? For someone whose primary online identity is institutional (like chancellor Paydar), this decision is easy – the institutional image always wins. But as someone who wants these sites to also be a space where I can truly be myself, the answer isn’t so straightforward.

The two options I’ve come up with both leave me feeling less than satisfied:

  1. Maintain separate identities or sites for my different roles, i.e. a persona to use as an institutional representative and another solely for personal use. While this would seem to go with the “clear boundaries” approach to ministry, my lifestyle and self-perception are much more integrated than this would accommodate. I am not two persons, but one complex, multi-faceted person, which is how I would like others to see me and how I hope to represent myself.
  2. Maintain my own personal persona and an identity for the institution itself. Instead of trying to be both “Matt” and “Pastor Matt” in two separate accounts, the other option is to give the church itself its own distinct social-media identity. I like this possibility because it takes some of the online institutional representation pressure off me, but at the expense of a somewhat less personal (less authentic?) persona for the church. While the church is an institution, it is also a community made up of real people, and our online presence should somehow reflect that.

Thus far my approach has been along the lines of option 2, with making a Facebook “fan page” for our church. I’m still debating what to do about other sites like Twitter and Flickr.

It’s safe to say that social media sites like this aren’t going anywhere, and that more and more of us will be using them with at least some frequency in the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections on how you’re navigating this digital dilemma, as well as what suggestions you might have for the rest of us as together we make our way through this brave new (online) world.

(This post also appears cross-posted at my personal blog)