Like, Repost, Tag: Ministry in a Digital World

March 17, 2017

I am so grateful for technology as I am sitting on the train halfway between the two unique and lively Chicago congregations I serve. While listening to an insightful lectionary podcast I’m scrolling through my social media feeds, and catching up with students, parents, and colleagues alike. Liking posts and commenting with encouragement or fun emojis. Between my calendar, my email, texts, Facebook and a host of other apps- let’s just say, my phone and I are tight. I have that in common with many of my students. (Phone break after cooking and serving a great community meal.)

Of course there are times when the main focus of my attention is with the people I am with. Relationship building is at the core of all effective ministry. Technology is a tool we can use to strengthen and extend those relationships in amazing ways not available just a few years ago. Yet all tools can be weapons when not used as they were designed. Therefore I try and revisit how my use of technology is effective and safe by researching, talking with colleagues, and connecting with the young people in my life.

My name is Erin Simmons. Known to many in my life as Deacon Erin and I serve at the Chicago Temple as the Minister of Children, Youth, and Families as well as serving at United Church in Rogers Park working with After School and Summer Kids Camp over the last 5 years. These two unique congregations each have their own wow factors as well as their own challenges. I love them both dearly. Just check my camera roll…

Here are some of our best practices, born from intense trips, not so flattering pictures, tons of laughter, and a lot of grace and love.

1 – If you can’t do it safely, you shouldn’t do it.

No joke- safety first. I function online as I do in the church- as @DeaconErin, which comes with responsibility and authority. Yearly we look over our Safe Sanctuary policy and update it. We keep track of photo and video releases and renew them yearly. I love using photos with our folks, especially over stock photos, so we talk with the kids and families. A big rule for us is no names with faces- not even first names. We find most families appreciate the clear emphasis on safety.

2 – My Grandma Rule

My grandmas all have their own cool traits- and I had one who has always been up to date on technology. My rule is – if I wouldn’t want my grandma to see it, I shouldn’t post it. I talk candidly with the young people- high school and middle/elementary students about respect, privacy, and the permanence of the internet. We can be silly and be bold! There is still a line of what is okay though.

3 – Beware of the 1 on 1

Technology is of course evolving faster than safe policies with minors- so the best we have is our Safe Sanctuary policy. If we can’t be one on one with a student at church, we need to be careful about being 1 on 1 through a screen. For everyone’s protection, I often text two youth who are friends to check in or ask about who’s coming to an event. For more serious conversations, I have trusted, trained, background checked adults who are ready to be added into a group chat. Being upfront with students helps them have trust in the faith community.

4 – Be honest and consistent – online and off

Social media can be a great way to build relationship and get to know others better. So it’s important to be honest, not perfect. I show my students and anyone my cooking successes and failures, my struggle with weight, as well as how I live out my faith. I have to be the same person or it’s not really getting to know me.

5 – Engage

Comment. Reply with a thanks to those who follow you. Like. Tag others in pictures. Take tons of pictures and video. Use consistent hashtags with your ministry. It’s great fun. Oh- and engage with colleagues, speakers, other organizations you like! 

6 – Know your platform

  • Facebook is where the parent type people are. They like pictures, videos, relevant articles.
    Twitter is for conversation, especially about trending topics. Living tweeting = great sermon notes. A great way to talk to important people. \
  • Snapchat is silly. Oh the filters. 😆
  • Instagram is all about the pictures. And hashtags.
  • Pinterest is great for planning and sharing boards together! So many awesome things to do!

You should share your content (blogs, announcements, highlights from events, links to your website) over all the plate forms you use- just create slightly different posts! It can be a lot, check out Hootsuite or Buffer to plan it all out. 

7 – Let them come to you.

All my students know that I use these platforms, because I talk about them. I also make it very clear that it is always their choice if they want to friend/follow me. I never request a minor as a friend. If they follow me, I’ll follow them. We talk at the beginning of the year especially about agency, and I feel very strongly that their engagement should be their choice.

These are the cornerstones to how I use social media as a way of investing in relationships across my ministry. I am in touch with volunteers from summer camp, high school students at my church who might disappear for a while, some of my younger After School students, and more. I can encourage them personally, model taking a stand for justice issues, and just share some fun and love in the world. Connection and relationship are at the core of our trinitarian God, and what it means for us to be human. Technology helps me maintain and build that connection and therefore the kingdom of God.

From one millennial disciple to the world–may God’s peace be with you and yours.

Erin M. Simmons, Minister of Children, Youth and Families at First UMC Chicago Temple also serves United Church of Rogers Park. She is joining the board of directors of United Voices for Children.