My Double Life on Facebook

The Ones We Love

I was a relative latecomer to the Facebook phenomenon. Many of my friends joined in college or not long after, but right up until the middle of seminary, I remained vehemently opposed to the idea. I thought that it was a senseless waste of time, and that if I joined, I would never get any work done again. Then one day, my partner gave me her password so I could look at some photos a friend had posted, and before I knew it, I had caved. I have never become a true Facebook addict, but I do rely on it more than I ever thought I would to stay in touch with friends and family—especially those who live far from me (which is just about all of them).

So when it came time for me to graduate from seminary and move to a new city to start my first church job, I found myself facing an unexpected but very common question: how would I relate to parishioners on Facebook? I knew that many of my new parishioners were in their 20s and 30s, and I soon discovered that a Facebook group for these “young adults” already existed. It didn’t take much to see that Facebook was going to become a part of my ministry whether I liked it or not, and that I’d better figure out in advance how I was going to handle it.

Navigating Facebook effectively is really all about setting boundaries. I knew from our conversations in seminary that good boundaries are vital for parish ministry, so this was my first chance to test it out. I wanted to keep using Facebook for maintaining personal relationships, but I was also very certain that I did not want parishioners trying to chat with me if I happened to be online at 2 a.m. I decided to create a separate “work” profile for myself. I imagined this profile would function much the same way as my “work” email address: I would use it to connect with parishioners and to do church business, and I would endeavor to check it only during work hours. At the same time, I would carefully protect my personal profile from work-related contacts, so that I could continue to use it freely for socializing with family and friends as I had before.

The first week at my new job was surprisingly quiet, so I had plenty of time to get my new profile up and running. I became an administrator for the parish’s young adult group and sent a friend request to each person who was a member of that group. I also started a new group for parishioners of any age, since I had come into contact with several who were clearly not “young adults.” I tried to update my status regularly, occasionally posted on parishioners’ walls, and skimmed their profiles to learn more about the people I would be serving. It all seemed to be going very well. And then, things got complicated.

First, there were the friend requests to my work profile from people I knew in high school or college. Each time, I had to ignore their request, explain to them about the two separate profiles, and direct them to my personal profile instead. Then, I began finding out about other clergy in the area who were on Facebook, and I had to decide whether to friend them and with which profile. I settled on using my work profile, since these were people I didn’t know well, and wanted to interact with them in a professional way. So far, so good. I was managing to keep my life neatly divided into those two categories: work and home. I prided myself on what good boundaries I was keeping. But, I was only postponing the inevitable.

Not long after I started my job, another brand-new clergyperson came to work as the assistant at the next closest Episcopal Church, only a few blocks away. He and I hit it off instantly, and it became clear that we would be good friends as well as colleagues. Naturally, we wanted to connect on Facebook, but the question arose: which profile should I use to friend him? My new friend and I already had mutual Facebook friends on both my personal profile and my work profile. No matter which profile I used, some of my friends from the other profile would be able to see the existence of a second Diana Carroll, and they might try to get in contact with that other profile.

By this time, it was already becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with two separate profiles. Now I was beginning to feel as though I had a split personality to boot. My dilemma with the other new assistant revealed the obvious flaw in my plan. The Episcopal Church is not very large, and sooner or later, my personal and professional communities were going to overlap. Moving to a new place allowed me to temporarily believe that I could keep my work life and my personal life completely separate, but Facebook helped me to realize that such a sharp division was neither possible nor desirable. I could not divide myself in half. It wouldn’t be good for me, and it wouldn’t be good for my ministry. Boundaries—even good ones—have their limitations.

I was starting to discover what people meant when they said that ministry is a 24/7 job, or that you never really take the collar off. It didn’t mean that I would be working constantly, or that I should be putting in hours that were unhealthy and unsustainable. It meant that in the end, I am only one person. Who I am as a priest can never truly be divided from who I am as a private individual.

So, only a few months after bringing her into existence, I pulled the plug on my work profile. I committed Facebook suicide.

It was messy business. I had to begin by carefully adjusting my privacy settings so that the people I placed on a new parishioners friend list would have only very limited access to my profile. Then, I had to message them all, explain what was going on, and send them friend requests from my personal profile. In a truly strange twist of fate, I briefly had to make my work profile and personal profile friends with each other—so that I could give the personal profile administrative privileges on the two parish Facebook groups.

At length, the day came to bring my experiment in boundaries to an end. I took down all of my pictures, erased my personal information, removed all of my friends, and deleted everything from my wall. Finally, I clicked the button to de-activate the profile and confirmed that I really did want to leave Facebook. It was a strangely sad moment, but I also felt relieved. I didn’t have to divide my life up into categories anymore. I could be a whole person again.

After a few minutes, I logged into my profile (my only profile) and wrote on my status update (my only status update): “The Facebook profile is dead. Long live the Facebook profile.”

11 replies
  1. elle
    elle says:

    I deleted (not just deactivated, but actually had them delete) my Facebook account after my first year of seminary. I was also trying to navigate between that layer of professional life and friends (and people from my past with whom I had no meaningful relationship but who had friended me). I’m a very private person and I tend to keep a small group of tight friends, and I didn’t know how to navigate the chaos of Facebook and how to deal with people I just didn’t want having that information about my life versus the group I really wanted to keep in touch with. I’ve heard many arguments for Facebook, but in the end my for privacy and authenticity won out. I’d be glad to know how other readers have dealt with this tension, though.

  2. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    I really enjoyed this article–I’ve found that I just do it all from one Facebook profile, too. Both with Facebook and with my blog, I write in such a way that I assume my parishioners (or bishop!) could see anything I write. It does not stop my new friends from seeing the goofy high school pictures others post, but it gives me a sense of a coherent self, at least! And Facebook has great privacy settings that help with the parishioner situation just in case. I’ve found Facebook has helped me form deeper relationships with parishioners since it enables me to get to know them as people and vice versa.

  3. Laura S-R
    Laura S-R says:

    The facebook issue is so complex. The pressing question for me, now that I think I have the privacy settings somewhat figured out, is what to do when I change positions. To de-friend or not to de-friend former parishioners?

  4. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your process, Diana. You write with such humor and humility. It’s amazing how much technology has eased our lives as clergy… and how much it complicates, as well!

  5. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Have the same situation as you wondered, Laura, and decided to keep my old parishioners for a time. After a few months in the new parish I will de-friend those who I don’t feel related to any more, and who hopefully don’t even notice that I de-friend them after all…
    I’ll see how this is gonna work out..

  6. Joy
    Joy says:

    Diana, now I can look you up and be-friend you on FB! Hugs from DOHIO–and well written–what bizarre boundary overlaps are presented by FB!

  7. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I was clear that I wanted to remain authentic and accept friend requests from parishoners using my personal profile I have had since the early days of facebook. This was fine and dandy- until I went on vacation. My email auto-reply indicating that I was gone meant that one of my parishioners decided it was appropriate to contact me via facebook regarding some committee business that she felt superseded my week’s vacation.
    That absolutely infuriated me that of all the many personal things I have had to be willing to give up (from itinerary to simply have a social life on Saturday nights) I now felt like facebook was yanked away from me! I can’t even use it on vacation without having a parishioner demanding attention?
    It did prompt me to create a Pastor account. However, I’m not de-friending people from my personal account- yet…
    On the positive side, the work account also helps me be in better contact with church people because both my senior pastor and I find out all sorts of pastoral care issues (hospitalizations and deaths!) via facebook statuses, and those were getting lost on my regular friend feed.

  8. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    What a fantastic illustration of dividing your life a a minister and an individual.
    Thank you for sharing that!

  9. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. I think Facebook is not so simple. I deleted my account after so many parishioners wanted to be my friend. I have to say I am relieved not to be on it anymore.


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