A pastor’s privacy boundaries are hard to find

By James Howell, Special Contributor…

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.

James Howell

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.

Dr. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., and author of several books, including the recent What Does the Lord Require?—Doing Justice, Loving Kindness and Walking Humbly and The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching. This essay appeared earlier at www.faithandleadership.com.

UMReporter Staff

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