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August 17, 2012

James Howell: Indecent exposure, the clergy edition

I found myself in a conversation with some younger and some older clergy the other day about Facebook exposure. Do we have FB friends in the congregation? What do they see online about your personal doings? What would you not reveal? I’ve encouraged young staffers to avoid the profile pictures featuring martinis.

To me the Facebook question feels old, pre-technology: for all my ministry, I’ve tried to negotiate that quirky boundary around privacy, being public, what people know and see of my personal life, and what I need to shelter.

It’s not simply the way laity in our congregations respond to things, but even fellow clergy. Recently our family took a vacation to Switzerland, and in fact we’ve travelled abroad quite a lot. When people (my church members or other clergy) hear about this (and it’s impossible to cloak the fact that you’re in Europe for eight days), some celebrate, some raise an eyebrow, some speculate about your salary and feel resentful, some question the preaching angle you raised just the week before about denying yourself and a life of abandoned giving to ministry with the poor.

Outsiders, be they fellow clergy or church members, cannot know all circumstances: how you budget, what you don’t spend on that they do but they can’t know that, what bargain deals you might have unearthed. I serve a fairly affluent congregation, and I wonder if at times, when they see me do something like flying the family to Switzerland, they breathe a sigh of relief, as what they perceive as my hifalutin lifestyle thus lets them off the hook for theirs. Others will occasionally make the kind of remark that makes me want to scream -- like “Whoa, we must be paying you too much,” this lunatic notion that clergy should be saddled not too high on the lifestyle ladder, either for moral, spiritual reasons, or simply a need to keep the clergy in their place.

So I am not merely interested in whether people see my private life or not. I am part of the family of God, I want them to see and know me, I feel it humanizes the ministry and abets deeper connections. What bugs me are the judgments that are made, how those impact the pastoral and collegial relationships – and my prickliest issue may be how I handle their delight or their discomfort over my taking something like a vacation. Should I pop down to the in-laws’ and hang out free for a week so no questions are raised? Do I fly to Paris – but secretively?

There are other decisions I make that are evident to onlookers, and the kind that might have a spiritual dimension. Do I mention a hilarious episode of “Family Guy”? I posted on Facebook that we’d gone to see “Ted,” and got the usual “Gosh, I can’t believe a minister would see that!” I am afraid I’ll lose my ordination if, just one more time, I find myself in the wine section of the grocery store and somebody makes a scurrilous remark -- and I vent my pent-up exasperations on the unwitting remarker.

I’m not trying to prove “Ministers are human too.” Who ever thought we weren’t? But I do continue to wonder, after 31 years of this, how to navigate those fine lines around being public and private, being open and simultaneously taking very serious not just my need to be a moral leader but also my garden variety responsibilities as a Christian to be holy. Facebook poses, not new issues, but something I’ve never quite figured out.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.




Thank you so much for this. I

Thank you so much for this. I refuse to be other than the person that God called. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be so closed that God can not shine through. I want to be able to celebrate the One who provides as well as the provision. If our lives are pleasing to God, why will we be so concerned about the opinions of fickle people. Praying that the person that people see is the one that God exposes. That person will be decent. Praying that the perception of that person will be filtered through the eyes that Christ gives to those who accept him. Perfect? Nope. Working to perfection? Everyday.


This is actually quite a serious issue. The dating scene for a young single clergyperson is pretty traumatic anyways, but becomes more so when you run into congregants while on a date.

Also, this is a huge issue for LGBT clergy and other church professionals (youth workers, children's ministers, etc.) who REALLY have to navigate the boundaries of private vs. public, or their credentials WILL be on the line.


I appreciate your candor. I was raised as a PK in the Southern Baptist world. The need for privacy ended up making my childhood self believe that our family had secrets. Even when there was nothing to keep a secret about. We had one family in front of the church and one at home.
Clergy become frustrated by the comments made by the congregation about what type of car you buy or where or how often you vacation. Imagine how this feels to your children. They know what is being said and they know that you struggle with it, but they interpret all of this with a child's mind and emotional development. As an adult, I now recognize my resentment against the church for what it turned my family into. I don't have an answer for this, but we have to pull back another layer to this issue. The clergy person has a Facebook page, but their older children do as well. How much will you ask your children to hide and how will this change their belief in the church?

Identity in a Social Media World

James I share your anxiety.

I do a lot of social media, particularly Facebook. I'm careful what I put there. For example, I rarely say anything about my family. For me, I have created a Firewall of information between me as a person and me as a member of my family. In fact, I have a separate FB account just so I can keep in touch with one of my children. Another has no FB account.

My decision about all this has to do with the nature of influence. I want who I am, what I believe in and what I do to be influential in the lives of people. I want to celebrate and mourn with people. I want to promote more than I criticize. I want to be a contributor, not a taker. And that purpose guides what I do online.

In the back of my mind I have two lingering thoughts. One is, what would my very proper grandmother say if she saw my Facebook feed. In many ways, she has always been a moral center for me, God rest her soul.

The other is that I want to be proud of what I contributed if every bit of my Facebook timeline, every Tweet, every LinkedIn and Google+ post, and everyone of the posts from the six different weblogs that I have done over the past eight years were read at my funeral. I know it would be boring, but that is another issue. I'm thankful for God's grace which is greater than my social media life.

Your post really goes to the issue of the perception of the roles that pastors have in the church and in society. That issue is really about the larger problem of personal identity in a digital world. We are increasingly becoming role players in these social media contexts, not real people. And if someone doesn't participate, it isn't that they are some how noble and resistant to the trivialization of modern relationships, it is that they are isolated from the very contexts where relationships take place. And in those places, people are seeking to establish some kind of identity, something that is authentic and real, and the very digital context makes that almost impossible. I recommend reading Albert Borgmann to delve deeper into these issues.

Sorry to go on, but one last point, our lives are not our own. They are gifts of our Creator, given with intention for us to live out what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, "For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." If we pursue this purpose, our social media presence will be a redemptive expression of it. That I am confident and certain of.

Thanks for saying what many of us discuss, but only privately.

A fishbowl observation

A close friend in ministry bought a 1974 Mercedes during the energy crisis. He, too, served a downtown church with affluent members, many of whom drove similar cars. His motivation was simply that he wanted a car that got excellent mileage and that would last. He shared with me in 1985 that his prayerful decision to buy the car that, at that time, had carried him more than 200,000 miles had upset some of his leaders. "How dare you spend that kind of money on a car?" He and I agreed that perhaps their question was "How dare you drive a car like I drive?" instead. His motivation to be a faithful steward was grossly misunderstood.

May We Live To A Higher Standard

I understand the desire for some privacy. I share it myself.

I wonder why we bristle so when we are held to a higher standard than congregants. Is it so wrong?

We do serve as individual, flawed, human beings; however, we also serve in the name of God and on his behalf.

I hope that this writer and his readers will be patient with those who might offend us clergy type people. They may have real wisdom for us if we don't let pride get in the way of hearing what they may have even caught from us!

As a young clergy member in

As a young clergy member in the UMC who has done a large amount of social research in the realm of how people relate themselves and present themselves on social media, this is a topic I consistently think about.

I also grew up a preacher's kid in a different denomination who was aware how people watched our decisions regarding purchases and behavior and saw both positive and negative reactions. I was horrified when I saved my allowance for 6 months to purchase a pair of Reebok "pumps" and a church member told me to tell my Father I shouldn't have such expensive shoes. It embarrassed me and was a horrible situation to put a 5th grader in.

As far as my own social behavior, there have been times I thought "I hope no one tags me here" or "please don't put this picture of me with a beer in my hand on Facebook."

I realized then my own "social" fears might be an interior holiness check. As clergy, to what level should I use my "I'm only human" excuse when I do something that might horrify congregants. But I also have been told on multiple occasions how folks are glad "I am a real person" and how that helps them understand the spiritual life.

Over the last 6 months or so I have rethought how I use social media and realize it functions as an extension of the incarnational ministry of Christ. Yep, sometimes I have to be careful, especially in this political season. But I quit worrying about my church knowing I only drink Miller High Life. Yes, I am a real person...but in their eyes I am an example of what it means to live a life with God...flaws and polish exist together.

example issues

I don't mind setting an example, and I'll take a holiness check any time I can get it. The problem comes when one person's holiness standard is alien to mine and judgment is passed, or a remark made - or the other person can't know how I came to vacation where I did and makes assumptions that aren't made about any other profession. If the lawyer buys wine or vacations in Switzerland, who cares? For me wine is within the realm of holiness, but not for some others...

private vs. public

I'm glad you've raised this issue, James. When my children were young, I promised them and their mother that they would never be used as illustrative material in any sermons, articles, etc. I also told my congregations that my personal and family life was my business and that unless they wanted me to sit at their breakfast table seven days a week to listen to all the "stuff" they were going on about in their turf, they would extend the same courtesy to me. The fact is, however, that the institution we call the church is peopled with sinners, some of whom are seeking sainthood, but many of whom are not. Consequently, the ones who are not care not one whit whether they say things that are scurrilous at best and scandilous at worst about the preacher and his family. It just goes with the territory. I am happily retired now...and some of them still are nosy about my business.

I think the point is not to

I think the point is not to hide one's true self, but to be aware that not every medium is appropriate for church-wide consumption of your life. Social media is a snapshot of real life, and that is what makes it risky for people who are leading the church. Most of my lawyer friends do not post pictures of themselves drinking on Facebook. It is unprofessional 'looking'. Social media allows people to make a snap judgement which is not necessarily accurate or fair. If someone sees you in the supermarket buying wine, you will probably know, and can speak to that person's concerns directly at some point. Until of course they upload your picture on Tumblr.

Be Authentic!

The question for me in the realm of social media is…. What does it mean to be authentic?

God has called each one of us to a vocation albeit pastoral ministry, legal justice, or wiping butts at the local hospital. (I say that with much love and admiration as having seen first hand as a Hospital Chaplain, the extraordinary love and compassion a health care team give to a patient.)

How will you choose to be authentic in social media, or in a social setting? Do I choose to hide, in order to be accepted or not judged? Face it; a call to pastoral ministry is not an easy one. Jesus knew! Was his life easy? No. So what makes any pastor falsely believe her/his life will be different?

If one choses to drink a beer, drink responsibly. If one choses to walk around in boxer shorts or naked, make sure the drapes are drawn. If one choses to fart in public accidently, make sure to say excuse me. Heaven for bid…we are human. We poop, we pee, and we even fart. And you know what…. so do the parishioners and others who pass judgment or condemnation. We ALL represent humanity. The good, the bad and the ugly. And then…there is GRACE

Will grace be offered, if you use your Facebook, Twitter, or other social media to be prophetic, or use it to vent your frustration? Would you say what you say on Facebook, or Twitter in the pulpit? Do you use the pulpit with privilege or with prophetic voice? So not only are pastors called to be authentic, we are called to respect boundaries of the “cloth or collar” to that of others.

In the long run… Be authentic. Be yourself. Because that is who God has called you to be and created you to live and love.

Indecent exposure

James, well said! I too get frustrated when members make comments about my minister husband's love of rock music and when we bought a new car. But he also gets comments about how I have a good job with travel perks! Thankfully he handles those remarks much better than I...with grace. I just order another glass of wine!

Thought Provoking

As someone who has only served small churches with small salaries, our family has been one of those in the "barely making ends meet" categories and I confess to feeling envy over friends and colleagues' vacation trips, new cars, new furniture, etc. It's not pretty. I don't like myself when I do, but there it is.

That being said, I wonder if this opens the door to a bigger conversation - one that addresses not only congregational ethos regarding money, but salary equities among colleagues and congregations. There are clear gaps between haves and have-nots among clergy serving differently-abled congregations. Between men and women, too (as in "real world" jobs), we see disparity. It's also seen at the judicatory level among positions where power and skillset are differently perceived (investments, pension management, loan-making vs. evangelism, mission, social justice for example).

What does ministry mean? What does it mean to "sell all you have and follow?" Have we considered contributing everything to the common good? Do we tithe? Do we live Christlike values? I know I don't all the time, but more and more I feel that the same questions we ask of our congregations, we would do well to ask of each other who get salaries to "do church."

Oh yes!

Thank you for speaking on somewhat uncomfortable issue. I purchased a car right after my compensation package was set one year, and although it had nothing to do with my salary, but a need to change vehicles, I also heard comments about being paid "too much."

I think the reason congregants feel free to make such comments is because they have a sense of ownership over us. I was told at my first pastor/parish meeting that they didn't have to pay my health insurance if they didn't want to.

Clergy face that walk on a fine line between friendship and professionalism, and it's a lonely place to live your life. Who do you trust, completely? Who can you confide in and not alienate?

I've tried to explain why self employment taxes shave a great portion off of my salary, only to hear that I have free housing, so why should I complain?

I'm sure the early church never had these problems because the notion of church supported clergy was simply a matter of everyone sharing what they had.

Seeing everyone as family

What one has to remember is that even when you think you are family, clergy are really only hired help. Therefore judgment is always appropriate from your employees--that means the congregation. And since you are on 24 hour call, everything you do is part and parcel for evaluation. Of course this is tongue and cheek but it's how many see yours and their position.
As a clergy spouse who has given a lot personally and professionally and felt the brunt of many comments from not only congregation but clergy too I have learned to have no opinion but expect many in return.

other people

James: my philosophy is this : What other people think of me is none of my business. Makes for a peaceful life.

Witness Matters


Thank you for this very helpful reflection. I will be sharing this our candidates for ministry as well as our Board of Ordained Ministry in the hopes of producing fruitful conversation about healthy boundaries, teachable moments, and our witness as clergy.

Excellent points

It is hard to separate the private from the public persona. I think about what I post on facebook and twitter. I do post personal things like what I am cooking for dinner, a bike ride with my husband and things about the church. I do not post which wine I am serving for multiple reasons. Most if not all my congregation KNOWS I drink wine and have 2 sons in the wine business. However, I am followed by youth and people with substance abuse issues, I don't have to make it harder for them. I don't post political tirades or inappropriate jokes. Now that I am in an urban setting, I think it is easier. It was much harder for the 24 years I spent in very rural settings. The public/personal was much harder to separate. Thank you for posting what many of us deal with.

I appreciate your perspective

How refreshing it is to find another clergy who is NOT a digital native recognize that this is not a new or a technology issue.

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