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10.27.11

Social Networking Guidelines Critiqued

On October 6th, during their Fall 2011 Session, the OCA Synod of Bishops adopted and approved “Guidelines for Clergy Use of Online Social Networking.” The Guidelines (read them here) acknowledges both “the popularity of social networking and digital communications” and their exponential growth. Thus, the Guidelines state: “the Church should not shy away from these new forms of media, but should be actively present in them”. The hierarchs stressed the importance of maintaining “healthy boundaries to digital, online, and social media communications and relationships.”

Inherent Contradiction

The “Guidelines” have received mostly bemused reviews since their publication. A senior OCA priest, who wishes to remain anonymous, offered this critique to OCANews.org:

“The OCA’s new social networking policy is self-contradictory and is already obsolete. At the outset it states we should not “shy away” from participating in these new modes of communication, but should be present in them - yet it contradicts that further down in the policy by saying clergy should not send a ‘friend request’ to a parishioner, on the grounds that because of the disparity of power, the parishioner might feel he cannot refuse to accept your friend request. Yet “friending” is the essence of social networking - if you can’t “friend” your parishioners, you are not using the core function. Why be there at all? Thus the policy contradicts its own preamble.

This guideline also assumes that for a parishioner to accept your “friend request” means they have to share with your things in their life that they’d rather not share. But that is not so. Being a “friend” does not mean you share everything - or even anything - in your life with them. The Facebook site has now been changed so that, for example, someone who wishes to post something to be seen by his spouse or close friend or family but not seen by others, can easily do that. One can easily exclude a person, or several people, or a group of people from seeing individual comments, links, pictures, etc. that one posts. So, being friends with your priest does not mean you have to share things with him that you’d rather not. That removes a lot of the concern parishioners might have about friending their priest.

Further, the newer social networking site, Google+, does not require that you send a “friend request.” You simply add someone to one of your “circles” - your circle of “friends,” “acquaintances,” “parishioners,” or any other circles you may have defined. They receive a notification that you’ve added them, but they are not told which “circle” you’ve added them to - i.e. whether you’ve deemed them your “friend,” “acquaintance,” “parishioner,” etc. They may then choose to add you back, to one of their “circles,” or not. But again, “adding you back” (as Google+ calls it) doesn’t mean they’re going to share everything, or even anything, with you.

The policy states one should not friend anyone except those one has previously met in person. Again, this defeats the whole purpose of social networking and raises the question, why be there at all?

At least one bishop of the OCA obviously violates this, since he has 3500 “friends,” most of whom he has probably never met in person. I, too, have many friends whom I’ve never met personally. Unquestionably I’ve been able to help some of them, with the result that they remained Orthodox, or returned to the Church, or were otherwise helped.

A more reasonable approach is stated in the policy’s introduction, which reads: “In the virtual world, ‘friend’ can mean anyone with whom you are willing to communicate through that medium. In the physical world, friend can mean much more in terms of intimacy, self-disclosure, mutuality and expectations for relationship. The difference should be recognized and respected.” Indeed - being a “friend” on Facebook is not the same as being a “friend” in the physical world. If that is understood, then why is there a problem with having “friends” online whom one has not met in person?

Another provision of the policy says “Digital communications are appropriate for communicating basic factual information such as the time of an event, agenda for a meeting, text of a document, etc. but it is not appropriate for matters that are pastorally or legally sensitive, emotionally charged or require require extensive conversation and explanation.” Part of that seems prudent, but it seems to be saying I can tell someone that a lecture will take place at 7 p.m., but I cannot have an online discussion about a theological topic!! That seems very strange. To be sure, some things are best discussed in another medium. But this is best decided on a case-by-case basis. (By the way, this provision also seems to be contradicted by another provision that states “All transcripts of on-line text chats, video chats, blogs or video blogs should be saved when possible” - these words seem to allow for online discussions.)

Finally, the policy states one must break all electronic ties with anyone from a former parish assignment. Priests who have moved to a new parish assignment or ministry “should remove [former] parishioners as “friends” or contacts in all forms of digital communications.” I know a lot of people would be very upset about that - people I chrismated, etc. I use Facebook just to keep a minimal contact with them (again, this is something the new medium offers - why be there at all if we are not to make use of it). I have no wish to continue to guide them spiritually. And generally I hardly ever communicate with them or post anything on their “wall.” I don’t have the time to....

On rare occasions, some of them will write me with questions, but for an Orthodox Christian to write to a priest who is not his own parish priest for advice - or to visit and speak in person to a priest other than his own priest - is nothing new in Orthodoxy at all. It is not something I cultivate at all, but when people approach me, I try to help them. Some clergy (including saints) in the past spent much of their time corresponding with people. By the way, this rule seems to completely outlaw the custom of keeping the same spiritual father even at a distance, which is quite common in some Orthodox traditions. That’s not something I seek to be or do, but a few people prefer to maintain the contact.

The policy’s introduction states “It is important to always keep in mind that clergy are often assumed to be authoritative representatives of their church and diocese.” But the policy does not consider the fact that most people realize that one’s personal profile on a social networking site is not the same as an official church forum, like an official parish website or addressing the parish after the liturgy from the ambon.

Quite simply, doesn’t a priest have the right to have and to express personal opinions in a personal forum?”

International Reaction

The contradictions inherent in the Guidelines are being questioned internationally as well. In a harsh posting on Pravmir.ru, an Orthodox website in Russia entitled: “Guidelines for Priests Concerning Internet Communications: The Best Way To Destroy - To Organize And Lead”, Archpriest Igor Prekup reflects: “ (These Guidelines) do not come from living experience and (they) are not guided by a desire to create - but an attempt to prevent “accidents at work.” At the heart (guidelines) should always be creative, and then safety will not be so depressing.”

Fr. Prekup’s criticisms center on the inherent contradiction of the central purpose of social networking and the Guidelines admonition as a priest not to “friend” parishioners, past and present. He asks: “ Is it worth it to try to hold a dividing line between parishioners and “others”? And if some of my parishioners are my friends? That is, it so happened (my friend) trusts me as a priest, he wants to go to confession to me, to pray in the church, to take communion?”

Fr. Prekop suggests an alternative guideline: “ To unite us just a little, I will say this: we should not dictate how things should be. Better to recall the ideal, to identify desired behaviors, considering specific audiences and indicate the limits beyond which (behaviours) become invalid. The ideal we all know: it is woven into the image of the Gospel of our Savior. Desirable features are in line with the ideal, with an emphasis on sincerity, naturalness, a quick mind, good style, delicacy, sensitivity, patience and forbearance to the weak ...” (You can read the original in Russian here.)

An Internet Expert Speaks

Less critical, but no less questioning is a response by Fr. Oliver Herbel, an OCA priest and academic who teaches “Ethics in the Information Age,” (Computer Science 316) at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, MN. Fr. Herbel writes:

“This is an interesting statement by the Holy Synod. I find it intriguing that, in the midst of all the various discussions within and without the OCA about the OCA, the synod took time to address the issue of clergy using social networking sites. I, myself, am not on Facebook, nor any other social networking site, except inasmuch as SOCHA and Prairie Parish Press have institutional presences, which publish informational pieces concerning American Orthodox historical work. That said, I do plan on assigning this statement as required reading on future syllabi. For starters, any church making any such statement provides good material for discussion in an information ethics class.

Moreover, this particular extended statement has some markings of a document that needs further refinement. Many points are good while others are sure to raise questions within the OCA itself and perhaps by those observing the OCA. I will certainly be interested to learn what the ultimate ramifications of this turn out to be. For example, would some take a jaded look at this and dismiss it, thinking that since some of our bishops don’t appear to be savvy with web 2.0 technologies, it is hypocritical for them to tell others how to use such technologies. Perhaps more importantly, some might wonder whether a priest would be censored or suspended for not ‘unfriending’ a parishioner at his former parish after he takes a new assignment? Or, others may wonder how many resources would be devoted to policing social networking sites for wayward clergy? It is good that the bishops see the overall topic as germane to their ministry, but I suspect this will not be the last clarification on such issues. As technologies develop, the OCA may well need some consultants on these sorts of issues.”

Consultants?

The Guidelines themselves do not state who, if anyone, advised or consulted with the Synod on this issue, or from where it arose, before it emerged from the Synod, full-blown. According to OCA sources there was no official OCA committee of practitioners or experts from which advice was sought, or opportunity for review or comment offered by staff, before the document was released. It appears to be adapted in large part (and in places word for word) from a 2009 document published by the Office of Pastoral Response of the Episcopal Church. (That would explain the outdated nature of the Facebook guidance.)You can obtain that document in pdf form from the Connecticut Diocese website here. That document, which encourages others to use and adapt these guidelines, was not specifically aimed at clergy, but all adults working in ministry.

- Mark Stokoe



 
 

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