Now, it’s no secret that I have a shady past with Facebook, and I’m no longer the best person to invite to your Ministry Team to explain to you why you need to use Twitter and Facebook in order to be in ministry but I wanted to continue exploring ideas around Social Networking and Safety, especially with leadership in mind.
I’m very certain that people have not connected the dots between their public ministry (or even life) and their online persona, but in a world where it’s increasingly becoming pretty obvious that you ARE your online personality it’s about time that we help our leaders begin to consider how their online profile connects with what they do after they shut down the computer.
Is it appropriate to friend young people you are in ministry with?
I would hazard to say that it is not appropriate. I believe in a school situation it would be inappropriate for a teacher to friend a student, that in a Youth Service position it would be inappropriate to friend a client and, more to the point in any other professional relationship it would be inappropriate to friend a client.
Sure, one may say that we’re developing relationships, that this is about friendship and that, as people from the church youth ministry this is not going to be an unsafe online relationship, but I’d still draw the line this way, one should not friend young people that they’re in a professional relationship with. If only to make sure that there is some kind of transparency in the relationships and leadership roles this is something that I’d make compulsory for all leaders.
How does my online profile connect with my public life?
Now, I don’t want to come across all strict and grumpy here, nor do I want to say that leaders are supposed to be “beyond reproach” but I do want to explore a few situations that may help leaders connect the dots.
You’re fairly conscientious about what you publish online, you’ve thought about your photos that are on your profile and have thought a lot about what you post as your interests, music tastes and personal profile. One night you head to a party where you drink a little too much, perhaps you get on stage and sing some Kareoke, maybe you do a bit of a dance and, before the night’s over you kissed a few people of the opposite sex.
You wake up with a massice hangover the next day and all of your friends (and some people you only met that night) have posted a number of images of you in different situations and “tagged” those images to your personal profile.
One of the kids in your youth ministry catches one of the images in which you’re obviously getting really friendly with his sister, and her best friend.
Chk chk chk boom!
You’ve just started dating someone, it’s a long distance relationship (perhaps it started at a camp) and you really miss this person. You do all the online romantic things, send her a gift of a bunch of flowers and a teddy bear on Facebook, change your profile to “in a relationship” and link to her profile.
You start messaging one another over time on your walls, “I miss you so much” / “I love you oh so much” / “I can’t wait to spend the night with you again” / “I miss your touch” / “You’re so cute smoochie woochie woo”
And what you don’t realise is that every time you post on each other’s walls each message is being published to every one of your friend’s message inbox.
Chk chk chk boom!
Imagine the previous example being a really messy breakup, you’re hurt, they’re hurt and you say things that you will regret later, they say things that are hurtful (but are promoted to all your friends anyhow) and you say things that really show how raw your pain and anger is.
And what you don’t realise is that every time you post on each other’s walls, or each time you change your status to “Thinking of ten great ways to kill my ex” each message is being published to every one of your friend’s message inbox.
Chk chk chk boom!
So, these are just some examples that I know have happened, or, let’s face it aren’t that hard to imagine happening, and I’ve not been considering the small things, like your constant status changes during times you’re being flippant, or rude, or funny (or you think you’re being funny) that could be taken out of context. Let’s face it, it’s fairly easy for our online persona to become an issue in your work, or your ministry. These are just some of the issues that need to be considered.
What are some ways that I can keep these kinds of online relationships transparent?
This is a tough question, how do I continue to make sure that my online relationships with young people in my ministry do not cross over any ethical lines? The answers are actually not that easy.
The first way is to make the decision that you will not friend any young people in your ministry, be it campers from camping programs, youth group members, school religious classes, baptism classes, church, children of church friends etc. This would certainly draw a line that would make your relationships online to be transparent. That being said, issues around online chatting and messaging be it text or video are also issues that you need to consider as well, how do you make sure that you’re honest and transparent in those relationships?
Another way would be to make a decision as a ministry team that sets you up with standards and procedures for online relationships. Can you set up a group instead of friending people? What do you do if something about you gets posted that you would prefer not be passed onto kids (or anything else?), what are the correct ways to handle live chats or online games? What are the correct procedures to follow when something is disclosed by a young person online? What do you do if a young person develops an unsafe attachment to you online?
The third way is to ignore all of this and fall into a messy heap when a young person sends you some virtual flowers to your Facebook account with the words “i love you” written on the card, or when a night that you got a little tipsy at starts to haunt you, or when a friend posts a photo or a story about you when you were touring overseas together…
One of the easiest ways to keep things transparent is to make the decision that noone will friend any of the young people in their ministry but the team will set up a church/youth group “Group” on Facebook. People involved in a group do not have to friend one another and everything that goes on inside the group, be it conversations, messages, activities, posting urls, adding photos can all be moderated so that the group remains a “safe online space” for leaders and young people to connect.
These are all important issues, and I’d encourage you to sit down with your ministry team, your leadership team and talk through the issues, because I’m quite sure that 70% of you out there haven’t given any thought to this at all which can leave you in a very messy situation.
Once again I would like to point you towards this article on the YouthCulture weblog: Safegaurding Young People on SNS
If you’re keen on thinking more about the use of Social Network sites and Youth Work check out the full “Youth Work and Social Networking – Final Report (PDF)” by the Youth Work and Social Networking Research Project