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On Leaving Social Media

By Cole Hartin

I did not expect that pastoral ministry would require me to spend so much time with a computer. I anticipated using Word to compose sermons. And I anticipated corresponding by email. But I did not expect to spend much time on social media. Even after the dark months of COVID-19, it was still threatening to take up significant time. I know I am not alone.

So I made a decision a few months ago. For the first time, I left social media entirely. I was never on Twitter, but had been a user of Facebook for over 15 years, along with LinkedIn and a variety of other apps and programs. All of these accounts are now gone.

I think this was a prudent choice for me, but I still have some remaining ambivalence about the decision. The short of it is, that with a growing family and a demanding vocation, life was feeling especially stuffed. There were fewer and fewer things that I could set aside, and the time it takes to scroll through a newsfeed was one of the few things I could jettison.

Much of this scrolling was benign. It was a harmless distraction, and something of a break from the hustle of life. We have time for these things when we are teenagers (or we think we do), but my hairline is receding, and my age is creeping up. I don’t have time for social media anymore.

That time is short, and that we have better things to do is a kind of humanist argument against social media. One does not need to be a Christian to suggest that time spent on TikTok is time that could be better spent reading a book or visiting with a friend. Whether social media are best likened to a drug, demon, or donut, despite some good uses, they are not leading to human flourishing. My experience has told me this much as well.

I know there are healthy ways to use social media. Social media have their upsides. In fact, you’ve likely found your way to this article through social media. But for the most part, it seems that “healthy social media habits” have more to do with limiting harmful effects than enriching life.

I am not throwing shade on anyone who uses social media, by the way. I know that for many people, social media can foster genuine connection with others. They are a means to stay in touch with parents living far away, or friends from college. And for many of the laptop class, they are part of the job, a necessary evil. Journalists can’t avoid social media, folks working in politics can’t ignore it, educators often need to be attentive to it for important updates. Sadly, priests and pastors are increasingly sucked into the laptop class, with significant time spent stuck in front of screen. This not only applies to specialized roles in a larger church, such as a pastor for adult ministries and online engagement or an onlne host team pastor, but to the regular parish priest.

I couldn’t find much quantitative data on the way pastors use social media, but even a rather dated (circa 2015) Barna study suggests that most pastors used computers at work, though at the time just under 40 percent used them to access the internet. Pastors in higher income brackets tended to be more sanguine about the utility of the internet as a ministry tool.

Seven years later, I have little doubt that the majority of pastors are using the internet and social media regularly. This is especially likely on the far side of COVID-19. Further, there is qualitative research that looks at the way some pastors use social media in their ministry. Some research highlights social media use among celebrity pastors, such as how Rick Warren and Andy Stanley use Twitter. But how does this affect ministry to parishioners? And how does this shape our souls?

Certain age groups are digital natives on one platform or another. Millennials and older are the lion’s share of Facebook users, and in my experience Gen Xers use it most religiously. Millennials also take to Twitter and Instagram. And the younger folks use TikTok and Snapchat (two forums I’ve never really explored). This means that to connect with people where they are requires mastering a handful of different platforms. This all requires time and curation. It requires attention, which I have only in finite quantities.

Should pastors spend the copious time it takes to have a presence across digital platforms? I know there are pros and cons, but I don’t think so.

I have watched colleagues air grievances over social media. I have watched them complain about family life and confess secrets that would be better left to a spiritual director. I have watched them campaign militantly for political causes that are deeply polarizing. These misuses of social media are too frequent, too common.

On the other hand, I have watched a patient few who have used forums like Facebook to foster genuine, humble conversation. It seems it is possible to develop virtue through the use of social media, but it is unlikely.

There are some things I miss about social media. It is easy to keep some loose connections to old friends. I “saw” them regularly on Facebook or Instagram, even if this seeing was passive. Pastorally too, I’ve worked really hard to remember the names of parishioners and their families that I see less often. Facebook was an excellent tool for reinforcing who was who. I can no longer rely on those pictures.

As I have discerned a call to the writing life in these past few years, I have come to realize that having a slim-to-nil social media following means publication is unlikely. This is not yet true for academic texts, but for anything written for a popular audience, publishers want to know what kind of following a prospective author has.

For instance, I have manuscript for a spiritual memoir that I’ve been pitching, and one of the questions publishers ask is how many people I can reach on social media. That some of my favorite living writers — Annie Dillard or Karl Ove Knausgaard, for instance — don’t have a social media presence provides some hope, at least.

Despite these downsides, it seems that a calling to pastoral vocation or the writing life should give one good reason to disconnect.

Here is what I mean. Pastors need to write a lot, usually at least one sermon per week, plus email, letters, Bible studies, and devotionals. This is aside from any writing for magazines, journals, books, or blogs. To write well requires both wide reading (as Austin Carty reminds in The Pastor’s Bookshelf) and deep reflection. Social media steal time and attention from both. What parishioners need are not funny memes and tweet-length hot takes. They need women and men who are attentive to Scripture and attentive to the world. They need pastors who can listen, in other words, pastors who listen to God, to their people, to their own hearts. And this kind of listening is scarce.

Finally, pastors need to pray. Prayer is difficult work. It too requires dedicated time and attention. Perhaps it requires more time and attention than anything else. One can use social media and be a prayerful person, but it is a challenge.

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