In this first session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish, we’re taking our first steps into the practice of digital ministry. Our host, Rev. Ryan Dunn, shares the practices that yield results in his efforts to meet people in digital spaces, like social media, and invite them into relationships with churches and faith communities.
In this session, we’re introduced to the ideas of personal branding and the ways in which other people formulate opinions of us and our ministries through our digital representations. Do the people who meet you online really know you? Do they know what you value or what your values are? Can you be a positive force for good in notoriously negative spaces?
We explore all that and more!
In the episode, Ryan mentioned posting a branded banner on his personal social media pages. Here’s an example of one of his branded banners:
Let’s see what you come up with! Share your personally-branded banner in our Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook Group.
Welcome to session number one of Pastoring in the Digital Parish!
This is our first session — our first episode — and we’re going to take our first steps into digital ministry in this episode.
My name is Ryan Dunn. I am a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. A few years ago, when I started in this position, I had to spend several minutes explaining what that job title meant. I would have say “you know, I create online content — like Instagram posts and blog articles… and these are ways to connect with people and start conversations, but my real goal is to provide points of invitation for people to get in contact with local ministries…”
Things have changed pretty quickly. In church world, if I drop the job title of Minister of Online Engagement, I get a sense that people will get it. We have a sense now for what that job title entails. Unlike when I was hired, when I was told that I might be the only person doing this kind of work at a denominational level. That may have been true. Because when I first checked out this job I looked for training resources that could help me wrap my mind around what all is involved in digital ministry. There wasn’t a whole lot out there.
Over the last couple years — and especially since early 2020 — a whole lot of new resources have been introduced providing training and insights into digital ministry. Thank goodness, right? Because most of us who are now engaging in digital ministry received next to no training for work like this.
And, let me clarify that… because, really, just about everyone who is in ministry is now engaged in digital ministry — like it or not. We are living in a digital first age. And in order to meet people in this age, it is necessary for ministers and ministries to have a digital presence.
I attended a conference for the Online Church recently. During one of the sessions, the moderators took a poll of conference participants. A majority of the participants were solo pastors. So these were not individuals who were specifically trained and raised up into positions for their digital savvy or know-how. These are individuals trained for traditional parish ministry who now find they need to acquire new skills and support in order to effectively engage in ministry in our new age.
Does that resonate with you? Sound like a familiar story?
If so, you are in the right spot. We are going to offer training, support and community to successfully engage in digital ministry… starting right here and now.
In this podcast, we’re going to pull some practices from the secular world that are going to prove effective in our own efforts to build communities of discipleship in digital space.
In the marketing world, we use the term “branding” as a way of referring to our values, vision and perception. You have a personal brand. Did you know that? In fact, you’ve been flexing your brand your entire life; you just may not be aware of it. In the digital age, personal branding should become a deliberate focus of pastors and ministers. A minister’s personal brand will be an individual’s first impression of our ministries. Therefore, cultivating a personal brand online is a valuable first step into digital ministry.
They used to say you could tell what’s important to a person by what they had hanging on their walls. Do you think that is true for you? If someone walked through your home today could they tell what you value or what your interests are?
Some people value family — so they have pictures of family all over their walls. Others value beauty, so they put wonderfully colored paintings on their walls. My wife and I decorated our eating area with posters from concerts we attended. I’m not sure what kind of value that reflects — I’ll let you read into that.
You may not feel like your walls really represent who you are, but that doesn’t change the fact that other people are going to make assumptions about you based on what’s hanging up there.
Remember when our Facebook profiles were called “walls”? That was wayyyy back in the ‘00s. We posted the stuff that was important or interesting to us on our virtual “walls” just like we posted things representing our values on our home walls. Cool pictures, interesting articles, funny jokes — they all became useful for creating our walls. They were also being used by people who viewed our walls to create an impression of us — who we are, what we’re like, what we value.
Today we call our Facebook representations “profiles” instead of “walls”. But people still view our profiles much like they view the walls in our homes or the old “walls” in Facebook — they’re checking them out to see what’s important to us.
Personal branding is a means for digital ministry
If you did a quick audit of your social media profiles, what would you see revealed about your ministry? Many of us prefer to keep a well-defined line between our professional lives and our personal lives. Therefore, we feel reluctant to share much about our professional ministries on our personal spaces. It’s definitely beneficial to keep some healthy boundaries between our personal and professional lives. But in a public space like social media, we miss opportunities to bring exposure to our ministries by keeping them separate from our personal profiles.
Christ made a distinction between the public and the personal and retreated for prayer and rest when he needed moments of privacy. But when Christ was in the public space, he was “on”, wasn’t he? This comparison is a bit hyperbolic. But it truly serves as a reminder that social media is public space — like it or not. And when we engage in public space without sharing about our ministries in personal ways, we’re missing valuable opportunities. Your ministry should have a place on your “wall”. It should be a part of your personal brand.
When engaging with digital content, people act selfishly. Essentially, they engage with digital content to satisfy one of two urges: 1) to feel like a hero in their story, 2) to connect with real people. It’s tempting for professional ministers to keep their ministerial lives separate from their personal lives in digital space. But when we do that, we set up an unintentional block to allowing potential constituents to engage with a real person. It pays to remember this: people aren’t looking to connect with your institution, they’re hoping to connect with you.
That knowledge carries with it two implications. Firstly, it implies that pastors and ministers should be deliberate about the image they cultivate in their personal spaces. That may be an unpopular opinion — as many of us want the freedom to be authentic in our personal digital spaces. We don’t want to cultivate an image — we want to freely express who we are. At the risk of doubling down on an unpopular opinion: if the personal opinions you express detract from the message of your professional ministry, then your job probably isn’t aligning with your values and it’s time for a change.
The second implication relates to our outward behavior. Ministers have a calling to be accessible. In fact, in the Christian tradition, our calling isn’t simply to be accessible. Our calling is to go. We’ve been sent on a mission. Digitally speaking, we have a mission to offer grace to others. We may do that by intentionally looking for opportunities online to represent grace.
Often when we think about sharing our ministries, we entertain an idea that we should be inviting someone to an event. But, instead, when we’re digitally sent, we allow our grace-filled digital presence to do the inviting.
When we talk about engaging people in digital space, we often get caught up in thinking about content: what kind of content can we post in order to get people talking?
I’m going to be honest: the content is secondary. Content is not the big deal. It’s not the key. Presence is the key. Without presence, no one is going to see the great content we create. The toughest part of digital ministry is getting our content in front of people.
A platform like Facebook is not set up for institutional entities, like our churches, to reach a lot of people without us investing advertising dollars. So you can create a really awesome piece of content and then only five people see it.
The problem isn’t necessarily the content.
The problem might be that the system is made to prioritize your entity. Facebook particularly wants people interacting with people. So that is what we must lean in to…
I once attended an evangelism training where the leadership encouraged the participants to assign themselves “fishing ponds.”. The “ponds” were spaces where we could offer presence. For me, the pond became a local coffee shop and bakery. It was my third space (my home and my office being my primary spaces). I got to know the staff there. I had a number of impromptu conversations with people there. I met friends of friends there. I spent so much time there that one church member said “if I didn’t know better, I’d say we’re paying you to drink coffee here all day.” He was kind of right. I purposefully inserted myself into that coffee shop for the purpose of meeting new people and sharing a message of kindness and hope with them. I was there to be a ministerial presence.
I couldn’t go to the coffee shop today. Even if I could, people wouldn’t have the same openness to stopping and engaging me in conversation. I hope that time returns — but it will take a while before we’re all comfortable doing that.
However, people are hanging out in digital spaces more than ever. They are more ready to engage in conversation in those spaces more than ever before. They are connecting with real people through those spaces more than ever before. And it seems that many are going to continue using virtual means to form connections.
So here’s what hanging out at a fishing pond looks like today:
I joined 25 Facebook groups. Most of them focus on interesting topics to me, personally: parenting, men’s fitness, my neighborhood, and podcasting. I intentionally check into these groups every day looking for opportunities to represent grace. I’m looking for posts where I can respond with a word of encouragement or advice. Sometimes I have a legitimate question to pose to the group: “Where can I find a basketball court open to the public near our neighborhood?” With enough engagement, other group members begin to remember me — and they do so recognizing that I’m an encouraging, safe person.
I never post in these groups with invitations to ministerial events or to “listen to my podcast” (unless asked or invited to do so). Instead, I post in order to invite curiosity. I believe that when group members start seeing me as a friend, then they will drift over to my personal profile. There, they will see all the things I’ve posted on my “wall”.
Your first step into personal branding
It’s time to get branded. It’s time to publicly embrace your ministry. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to begin re-posting every post from your church’s Facebook page. Instead, this is an invitation to audit your ministry’s presence on your personal “wall”. If someone new were to view your profile, could they quickly and easily tell that you are involved in a particular ministry that they might become a part of?
One quick way to do that is to include the logo or an image of your ministry in your Facebook profile’s banner image. Hang that ministry right there at the top of your “wall”. If possible, include your ministry’s web address in the banner, too. You might consider building a similarly branded image to your Twitter and LinkedIn profiles.
I’ll throw an example up on the show notes — which can be found at resourceumc.org/digitalparish
Anyways, show your relation to your ministry...
Then start sharing content from your ministry. Ministry content does not have to be the only content you share. Just be mindful about how much of your ministry is hanging on your wall.
This practice carries with it a warning: you are now publicly linked to your ministry. What you say online can now be linked to your ministry. Really this was already true for anyone who knows you in real life — the people who are involved in your ministry linked your statements with the ministry from the beginning of your relationship. Now those who meet you online are going to apply what you say to your ministry as well. If you fear that some of the material you post might reflect adversely on your ministry, then it is wise to assess whether it’s important to post that material and whether or not your values are aligned with your ministry’s values.
Ready to give this a try? Let’s see your banner image! Join the Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook group and share the image there. We’ll give helpful feedback — and more than a few people will probably check out your ministry, too.
So that’s our action step: brand yourself with your ministry in your personal space.
We’re going to have way more on personal branding in our session with Sarah Heath. So go check that one out. I mean, really, I hope you check out all of our sessions.
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had so much fun and learned so much in doing this podcast that I’d hate for you to miss any of it.
So let’s wrap up session one so you can get on with it, shall we?
How did I do? If this was informative for you, the best thing you can do right now is leave a positive rating and review. Then you can click on over to Episode 2. BUT, I’ll tell you this… insider tip for the special person who listens all the way to the end: it doesn’t matter what order you go in. All the episodes were assembled independent of each other, so just jump into whatever interests you the most. And then keep watching for new episodes… because they’re coming.
And with that last bit of advice, I’ll bid you a good day! Find more tips and training at resourceumc.org. And hit that subscribe button. Peace!
On this episode
Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.