A Sermon In 140 Characters: Clergy See Twitter and Other Social Media as a Core Part of Ministry

Bishop Gregory H. Rickel takes a selfie with the choir at St. Columba Church in Kent, Wash. (PHOTO: JENNY JIMENEZ)
Bishop Gregory H. Rickel takes a selfie with the choir at St. Columba Church in Kent, Wash. (PHOTO: JENNY JIMENEZ)

Every morning, Burlington, Vt., Bishop Christopher Coyne wakes at 5:30 in his rectory home, prays, reads Scripture, and comes up with the day’s first tweets.

By 8 a.m., his followers on Twitter and Facebook know the day’s saint and gospel reading and the latest news from the pope. In the evening, the Catholic bishop often posts again—a short video of his visit to a school or a picture of dinner, like the pork cutlets with a cherry-tomato-and-caper sauce that he recently made.

For him, social media is as much his ministry as visiting the sick in hospitals. “It’s where we need to be,” he says. “It goes to the core of spreading the good news.”

Faced with declining membership and participation, more priests, ministers, rabbis and nuns are on YouTube discussing tattoos and the dangers of gossip, tweeting regularly, and posting podcasts. Some clergy scrutinize Facebook analytics to see if a posting a psalm at 6 a.m. gets more traffic than 7 a.m. and hire consultants to help create an online identity for their church. Rabbi Jason Miller writes a blog called Jewish Techs and created another one called PopJewish.com, where “Hip Rabbis weigh in on the Zeitgeist.” Bishop Robert Barron, who founded the media ministry WordOnFire.org, has close to one million followers on Facebook, 85,000 YouTube subscribers and 400 video commentaries on everything from Christian martyrs to “The Martian.”

After arriving at a new post in Olympia, Wash., Episcopal Bishop Greg Rickel, a former hospital administrator with a master’s degree in communications, hired an internet strategist to update church websites and a young hipster communications director to offer classes on Twitter for clergy and set up Facebook pages for small rural churches. Bishop Rickel blogs about gun violence and the Central American refugee crisis, and posts his sermons on his webpage, below a picture of him taking selfies with children. His goal, in part, is to reach those 35 and younger. “We have to learn their language and the world they live in,” says the 53-year-old bishop, whose Facebook home page features a picture of him with his surfboard.

Social media aren’t always a comfortable fit for priests and ministers. As communications chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Coyne is charged with trying to get more priests to use social media. It can be a hard sell. “They feel digital media can become a black hole that sucks up all their time,” he says. He himself draws the line on responding to comments posted on his blog, saying it would take too much time, and invites people to email him instead.

Meredith Gould, author of “Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways,” advises churches and clergy on developing a social-media strategy, and she sees a lot of wariness. “When it’s always been done one way, changing that is scary,” says Dr. Gould. Many ministers are used to delivering a message, but social media quickly generate two-way conversations, which may turn negative.

Many clergy feel they need to maintain a proper distance from their congregations and aren’t comfortable with disclosing too much about themselves, their personalities, quirks, or hobbies. They also fear a digital message will undermine the in-person Sunday worship experience. Often, too, they have no clue where to begin: whether to have private or public Facebook pages, where to post sermons, how to do podcasts, and when to use hashtags and Instagram.

Dr. Gould, a sociologist who was raised Jewish, confirmed as Catholic, and attends a Lutheran church, urges clergy to think visually. Videos are particularly effective because they tend to be remembered, liked and shared, as long as they are short—no more than five minutes and preferably less than three, especially when it is an interview or commentary.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Clare Ansberry

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