You've probably already implemented a safe sanctuaries policy to ensure your church is a safe place for children, youth and elders to experience fellowship and the abiding love of God. Consider developing a complementary social media policy.
The questions below will help you get started by guiding you through the process of discerning exactly which boundaries are most appropriate in your context.
1. Should social media platforms be treated differently?
Though they are all grouped together, it doesn't take long for users to see that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others are unique services. Where Twitter has a completely unfiltered feed focused on short “updates,” Facebook shows what it thinks you want to see hoping you will engage in more relational activities. On the other hand, Pinterest drills down into idea sharing and engagement around those ideas.
Beyond the technical distinctions, depending on your context, each social media platform can be perceived and engaged with differently. That is why is it important to think through this question at the outset. Are these services used or perceived differently enough to deserve unique consideration, or is it safe to link them together?
2. Who initiates the network connection, and are any off-limits?
With words like “follow” and “friend” used to describe these connections, it is easy to see that people can have strong real-world parallels that might color, for example, how they see an adult volunteer connecting online with a teenager. If this is a sensitive issue in your context, require any connections to be initiated by the younger party. Afterwards, you might require the adult to ask permission from a parent. Depending on the social media platform, you might even make connections between adults and kids off-limits. For instance, there is no reason an adult and child could connect on Snapchat. This is a service that allows users to send messages that vanish. Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their message, after which it is hidden from the recipient's device and supposedly deleted from Snapchat's servers. You can see how Snapchat could quickly become the center of a scandal.
Think about these types of scenarios and realize that Churches must be careful not to over-limit online interaction as the Internet can be a powerful tool for ministry and a way to be seen quickly by those who never come to church.
3. What types of communication should and should not happen privately?
Most online network platforms have both public and private ways to communicate. Some areas of concern could be sharing medical information via a prayer request, giving negative feedback, and disciplining inappropriate behavior. Some churches make the rule that whatever is appropriate in public in the physical world is appropriate in the virtual world, while anything that calls for a private conversation should occur in person, which is then subject to the standard safe sanctuary policy. That is simple, but you will likely want to give specific guidance based on your church culture.
4. What sorts of images are OK to post?
There are tons of issues around posting images of minors from events, as well as what parents may think of how volunteers spend their free time. This is a good time for you to talk to a lawyer regarding media releases, what boundaries you must enforce legally and what is your prerogative to decide. Likewise, it is equally important to think through the types of character traits you hope to see in volunteers.
It can be as simple as saying that staff can only post pictures of kids for whom you have a media release and that all images posted by volunteers should illustrate the same standards of behavior you expect from them in the rest of their life. Depending on your location, it may be important to talk about what sorts of images from the weekly beach devotion are within the safe zone in regard to the apparel people wear in different contexts. Whatever you decide, know that images are a place of particular concern for many.
5. When should something be deleted?
With the advent of auto-deleting services like Snapchat, this may be difficult to define globally, but it is important to consider when deleting a post could make an act better or worse. The perception that people are covering up something may be far worse than the post and an apologetic comment ever could be. Some churches ask volunteers not to delete posts until a staff person has approved it, and some leave it to the volunteer's discretion. The goal here is to make sure you think through how you deal with the perceptions created by deleted posts.
6. What privacy settings will we use?
For groups that will deal with children, setting the privacy to “secret” instead of “closed” will ensure they do not show up in search engines. Location settings should also be private so locations of children are not shared inadvertently. Privacy is key, but it extends beyond the settings pane to the content being posted, especially when names are used. As a rule, the names of children should not be posted.
Most people have a strong, gut-level reaction to many of these questions, but they are far from universal. When you assemble your team to look at these questions, make sure you have diverse representatives that include young people, adults/parents and older adults. You may be surprised at how differently these groups perceive what is happening online and will come out with a much stronger policy as a result of this diversity of input.
Once you consider these questions, it is time to create the written document. Get some tips by looking at the following sample social media policies:
- Guidelines, samples and links from Discipleship Ministries
- Sample policy from the Virginia Conference
- Sample policy from the North Georgia Conference
Social media is more than being social. It’s a ministry. United Methodist Communications is using social media to inform, encourage, motivate, inspire, and engage followers of Christ--and we are resourcing churches to do the same. These efforts require financial support. If you believe in our mission, consider a tax-deductible donation to the work of United Methodist Communications through its Foundation at ResourceUMC.org/GiveUMCom.