Public Leader: Now More Than Ever

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on August 15, 2011. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

Over the past few years, the world has seen the unprecedented growth of social media and has watched as society has reoriented itself around the rituals of tweeting, friending, and liking. Social media are also shaping each of us in the way we communicate, the way we consume information, and the way we define our relationships. On Facebook, for example, the complex personal relationships of everyday life are now defined by one simple category–friend. So how do congregational leaders make sense of their webs of relationships when social media has become so entrenched in society?

Kelly Fryer draws attention to the complex issues at stake for ministry leaders in her blog post, “Pastors on Facebook: Get Real.” Her post questions pastors who elect to create two Facebook profiles–one for personal use and one for professional use. Fryer’s concern is that, in adopting this practice, pastors are not allowing themselves to develop authentic relationships with their parishioners.

Clark Olson-Smith responded to Fryer with his post, “Be real, and, if you want, be friends,” in which he tries to distinguish between being “real” and being “friends.” Olson-Smith raises two interesting points. First, he suggests that, since people enter into relationships differently in their “offline” lives, we should allow that they may enter into relationships differently in their “online” lives as well. Second, Olson-Smith questions if being friends with parishioners is really required for effective ministry—a question that has been asked in seminaries for many years before Facebook’s inception.

It’s becoming clear, however, that social media has elevated the challenges of being a public leader because of its sheer ubiquity. I decided to explore these challenges more deeply, so I interviewed five pastors who had created two Facebook profiles and were willing to talk about what led them to this decision.

While the details differed, the recurring themes of control and trust emerged again and again. These pastors were hesitant to bring all of their offline relationships together into one online space. With their reputations and, perhaps, their jobs at stake, could they risk one of their friends posting something that might jeopardize their relationship with a parishioner? Of course, creating two profiles does not guarantee that this won’t happen, but it does provide some level of control.

But what role does trust play in these relationships? Robert C. Solomon, professor of business and philosophy at the University of Texas, writes in Ethics, the Heart of Leadership that “leadership is an emotional relationship of trust.” While the role of the leader is typically to earn trust, the role of the led is to give trust. Accordingly, Solomon argues that “it is those who would follow, not those who would lead, who are the ultimate power in any leadership relationship.” If this principle translates to our online personas, we must consider how our attempts to control our social media (by maintaining two Facebook profiles, for example) may not engender the kind of relationship of trust required for effective leadership. Without this framework of trust, both leader and follower are left to struggle with the fear and doubt that can arise from issues of privacy and control.

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