Thursday, December 1, 2011

Does leaving as Priest require "Unfriending"???

Episcopal Cafe continued a conversation started on Twitter including The Rev. Dan Webster at Church Social Media Blog.  The entire Tweetchat is here.  On his blog, Webster wrote:
Last week’s chat focused on professional and personal boundaries in social media. I mentioned how when I left a congregation as vicar, I would "unfriend" parishioners on my Facebook page. “When you leave, you leave,” I tweeted. 
Webster recommends a helpful guideline put forth by The Episcopal Diocese of New York, which contained many fine suggestions.  

But is the severing of all relations (including Facebook friend status) the way to go?

A countering response was made by Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of on his blog:
I believe our difference of opinion about what to do when a minister leaves a church stems from different understandings concerning the relationship between ministers and laypersons.

Rev. Webster seems to view his role as priest as being purely professional. He’s not there to be anyone’s friend, but rather to perform services for them. In that context, when the professional relationship is over, the relationship is over.

My view of minister/layperson relationships comes from observing the way Jesus related to his disciples. Jesus did not separate himself from disciples. Not only did he teach them, but he also lived with them, ate with them and did everything else with them. This was not merely a professional relationship. He loved them and they loved him.

Steinbrueck is careful to say that the relationship does indeed change:

I do think that when a minister leaves a congregation, the relationship with people in the congregation will change. He or she also needs to be careful not to undermine the leadership of the new minister. But a mass unfriending on Facebook?

Clearly I agree more with Steinbrueck here.  I think that some connection in today's digital world is normal.  Relationships continue beyond the end of the time as priest of a particular community, and Facebook is an obvious way to continue.  

What HAS to be clear that there is a change in the relationship.

When I left Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland (granted, as Canon of Congregational Life), this was what I said in my final sermon:

Tomorrow will come:  and I will no longer be your priest.
I have been honored and blessed to have as my vocation the sharing of all of your hopes, dreams, and fears.  I have Celebrated the Eucharist, proclaimed the Gospel, preached sermons, baptized new members, prepared and presented Confirmants, presided at marriages and unions, and have mourned at funerals with so many of you.  Those are the big celebration moments.  What has been even more sacred is the laughing and crying we have done together.  I have spent the last six and a half years in some combination of talking and listening with all of you, and there is nothing I would trade for these moments.
This is the role of Priest.  I have been honored by your sacred trust, in the willingness to enter into the relationship that is priest and congregation member.  It’s a strange, complex, multi-faceted, and uncertain relationship:  started by some life transition, developed in unexpected moments, nurtured by gentleness with each other, damaged by assumptions and unattainable expectations; and marked by grace and the opportunity for unexpected new life.
It is a fragile yet surprisingly resilient relationship that mirrors our very humanity.  
And, like our very lives, the time passes.  During our Healthcare forum series, Jeffery Spiess offered us the inspired title, “Dying is not an option.”  This is true of the relationship of Priest and the Gathered Community:  at some point, it always ends, sometimes by members of the congregation moving away, sometimes by a priest moving on, sometimes by retirement, sometimes even by death.  Priest is a relationship that always transforms into sometime else.
I will no longer be your Priest tomorrow.  That’s what we’re saying goodbye to today.

What are your thoughts?


LKT said...

I'm with you. I also think there is a difference between "leaving" and "severing". It's odd because many of the ways we are present to each other now has to do with virtual spaces. But I do think Dan's statement was extreme.

Penelopepiscopal said...

This is a thorny issue and I can appreciate both sides. Dan's statement may have been extreme, but it probably doesn't help to present the "other" side as being more like Jesus.

I remember, during seminary, being friended on Facebook by a couple of administrative staffers who then unfriended me when I graduated. It felt as if they were just "friends" in order to monitor my page or have a particular kind of access to me. ICK.

Personally, I don't unfriend anyone except for in an extreme circumstance. I may hide their posts so I am not constantly seeing things I don't want to see, and I certainly refrain from interacting with people I think I need to leave alone (or want to leave me alone).

I like your letter, Kurt, and I think making such a statement plainly to the congregation is best. And I think it may be incumbent upon the priest who leaves to make sure he or she keeps appropriate boundaries on Facebook, perhaps by not commenting or posting on former parishioners' walls except for saying happy birthday or some such. And maybe being willing to reiterate to someone who isn't getting it that the relationship really has changed now if need be.

Thanks for bringing this up. It's a good conversation to have.

Kurt said...

Thanks Penelope. I agree with you on the Jesus point...