I’m about to lose about 60 friends on Facebook.
Or am I?
After six years as an associate pastor, I recently took a call at a new church. The last few weeks have been filled with all that betwixt-and-between stuff. I slowly began telling people who needed to know, swearing them to secrecy. The resignation letter to the congregation, written before everything became official, sat safely in a drawer until the new congregation voted, then we kicked the photocopier and postage meter into high gear. I have a list of items on a special “transition” to-do list, even as I’m writing a pastoral note here, making a home visit there, to members of the new congregation.
However, Facebook has added a whole new layer to this process.
For one thing, it has provided a more permeable space between the present and the future than I’ve had in “real life.” During the interview process, I found myself posting status updates that would be clear enough to family and friends who knew what was going on, but probably seemed cryptic to members of the current congregation. (“MaryAnn had an important phone conversation today.”) A few members of the church figured out what was up, though. This was not exactly a bad thing…when it came time to break the news to them, their ability to read between the lines made for an easier conversation. Two days before I was to tell our church elders, I wrote that I was “writing a letter.” Several people applauded me for reclaiming a lost art, but a particularly wise elder began our conversation by saying, “I knew exactly what that was about. I’m ready…lay it on me.”
I’ve done some soul searching about this. Was this wrong of me, to hide in plain sight? Should I have avoided any hint of what was going on? Would that have even been possible? Though I fully understand why a pastor should not make it known that he or she is looking, the secrecy is awkward. I could not tell some of the most important people in my life what was going on. Facebook became a way to tell them without telling them, to loosen the pressure valve on the secret a little. For better or for worse, I still cannot say.
When it came time to make the announcement to the whole congregation, I knew I needed to get out in front of the news… “control the message,” so to speak. A friend of mine who’s also moving into a new pastoral position had her news break on Facebook. Friends and well-wishers started congratulating her on her wall, while her letters to the congregation sat at the post office, waiting to be delivered. So I decided to post my letter as a note on Facebook the day things became official. This meant that a whole swath of people in the church found out a day or two before the non-Facebookers, but this seemed better than risking the news coming out in dribs and drabs on my wall. As my friend said, “This is a whole new world, with a whole new set of issues!”
But what to do with all these Facebook friends who are part of the current congregation? The question has come up recently in other places, including on the blog of our denomination’s current moderator. The consensus, such as it is, is to be as transparent and open-hearted as possible. Fair enough. But the problem for me is one of metaphors: is being someone’s Facebook friend like running into them on the street, or is it like all being together at a party? If it’s the former, then of course we can still be friends. I’m not going to ignore former parishioners at the grocery store. If it’s the latter, then things get trickier. I even had one person say when I gave her the news, “I guess I’d better get on Facebook now,” just so she could continue to be connected to me.
A pastor I respect, who’s done the leave-taking thing countless times by virtue of being an interim pastor, said, “Of course you can still be their Facebook friends… and yeah, it will be hard when they mention a death in their family or other crisis. You can respond to those things, just don’t respond to them as a pastor.” I know what she means—and since I am not The Pastoral Care Person at the current congregation, I will probably feel less of a reflex to pick up the phone. But on another level I have no idea what she means. What does it mean to respond as a pastor? If I don’t mention God, am I OK? And does the suggestion that there is a non-pastor part of myself from which I might respond just perpetuate the fragmentation that I believe our generation of ministers is wanting to do away with? I’m all for boundaries, but I want to be a whole person too.
For now, I am keeping things as they are. Once a new pastor comes, I might have a conversation with him or her about what would be most helpful and appropriate. I do wonder whether I will feel awkward posting “OMG I LOVE MY NEW JOB!” messages…will that be seen as rubbing salt in the wound? Or will I avoid venting about church annoyances in some neurotic desire to prove to everyone that I made the right decision? Time will tell.
I recently heard a story on the NPR program Radiolab about a young man who died while serving in the Peace Corps. He’d been a blogger, and rather than take the site down, his mother started posting to it, writing notes to her son in the comments, as if he were still alive. It was clear that posting to the deceased’s blog helped his mother remain close to him. The relationship lived on in this peculiarly 21st-century way.
Leaving a church is not the same as dying, but there is grief involved. I’ve had people say to me, “At least we can still keep in touch with Facebook.” We won’t see one another on a daily or weekly basis, but I will exist “virtually” for them. And they for me. And we’ll just figure it out as we go.