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.”