By Eddie Pipkin
To meme or not to meme: that is the question! Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous repostings or take arms against a sea of boredom by constantly updating our online profile with a host of homespun witty phrases? To tweet, perchance to be retweeted—ay, there’s the rub: for in that scrolling feed what dreams of going viral may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal isolation, must give us pause—there’s the conundrum that makes ambivalence of so long a quarantine . . . alas, poor Yorick, read on, and we shall school thee well!
The lockdown drags on, and some of us seem to be losing our zest for social media engagement. (It’s probably more accurate to say that many of us are losing our zest in general – here’s an article from USA Today on why all those ZOOM gatherings are inherently exhausting.) But truth be told, for lots of churches, the slow decline in posts and creative expression represents a reset to the old normal: they never had much of a coherent social media strategy anyway. We’ve written about the need for a clear online engagement game plan for years, and gold stars to those of you who have gone all-in in trying to get up-to-speed on the fly. If you’ve drifted off course after a few weeks, here are some metrics to help figure out why:
- Are you trying to do everything yourself? That’s exhausting by definition. It’s exhausting to come up with something creative day after day. It’s exhausting to deal with the technical hassle of posting stuff. It’s exhausting to go back and monitor what you posted.
- Even if you’ve moved beyond solo social media mogul status, is your limited (and perhaps overwhelmed with a weird new assortment of responsibilities and never-really-enthused-about-this-project-in-the-first-place) staff trying to do everything related to social media engagement?
- Are you spending too much time trying to come up with fresh ideas? Just feeling like it’s all been said at this point?
- Are you seeing healthy engagement happening between church members on social media platforms and assuming they “have it covered”?
Here is advice we have been offering all along, and it’s relevant now more than ever when online engagement has moved to the front of the queue:
- It is essential to have a unified, agreed-upon, intentional social media strategy.
- This social media strategy should have stated goals and metrics (as to frequency of posts, variety of kinds of posts, measurement and reporting of engagement related to posts, etc.).
- The lead pastor should not be the person bearing chief responsibility for implementing this strategy. Somebody, however, should be clearly identified as the social media manager / point person. This can be a staff member, or it can be a layperson. If someone says, “Who is in charge of your social media strategy?” and you can’t answer that question with a name, you do not have a working strategy.
- Move beyond using social media as an electronic bulletin board. Don’t just use these platforms to make announcements about upcoming events. Share stories! Share hope! This is a perfect platform for sharing stories of hope and encouragement: are you wasting it?
- Expand your authorial resources. If you have a clear point person for your social media strategy, they can solicit ideas and help from throughout your congregation. One of the things they can do is monitor the feeds from congregation members and ask if some of them can be reposted on your church accounts. (People are already out there sharing some great firsthand stories and photos.)
- Get creative people involved. Creative people not only love getting involved, it’s the way they respond to any crisis: creatively!
- Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel every day. Repost things that have impact for you and your community. Monitor what other communities of faith are doing and use their ideas.
- Use multiple platforms! Not everybody is on Facebook. If you are generating any content at all, it’s simple to post the same content to multiple platforms. (Again, if there is a designated point person who is passionate about your social media presence, this is a manageable task. If not, it just becomes another chore for someone who would rather be doing something else.)
It’s easy, if you inhabit the Facebook environment, to see the posts from people in your congregation and assume that people are connecting and supporting one another in meaningful ways, so maybe there is no pressure to have a lively social media presence on behalf of the church. But this assumption can leave so many people falling through the cracks. These include people who are on Facebook or Instagram, etc., but who are not “friends” with the people you see sharing with one another, as well as people who are actively looking for a faith community at this time who are not currently part of your congregation.
It is powerful to read a first-person account of a health care worker on the front lines of this crisis. It is 10 times more powerful if someone from your own faith community can share their personal story. Similarly, personal accounts of real struggles with job loss or isolation are a compelling witness. Personal stories of hope shared through helping others can have additional impact if they are from within our congregation. The lead pastor may hear such an account, but they probably don’t have time for the process of helping that account find a home on social media. How blessed are those ministry leaders who have a clear procedure for handing that off to someone who is passionate about publishing such good news on the widest possible platform.
People are looking for a steady stream of encouragement and guidance from ministry leaders, and social media has become the place to find it. A steady stream of content gives them a reason to make your church’s social media accounts one of their “favorites” whenever they are browsing on their phone or laptop. It’s a perfect time to build your branding and tell the story of your unique community:
- Give people a chance to get to know your staff and leadership more intimately.
- Let the creative types strut their stuff! (And we’ve seen a lot of musical offerings, but don’t forget those visual artists and writers.)
- Share photos! By the way, many of you are finding out that if you just solicit a photo challenge (the now classic send-a-photo-of-your-family-worshiping-at-home, for instance), the response can be limited to the few same gung-ho families (still awesome, but . . .). Here again, a passionate social media point person can take the time to give other families a nudge to participate.
- Recommend books, movies, and TV shows that lift people up and reinforce your ministry message.
By all means, repost things from other sources that gel with your social media strategy and your ministry vision. Yes, a recurring pandemic devotional from the pastor hits the spot with your congregation (especially if it’s a video devotional), and if you are feeling the energy and inspiration to undertake such a project, you should go for it! But it’s also fine to repost an on-the-mark devotional that got you through the day.
Avoid reposting pitfalls. Here’s an overview of “18 Things Your Church Should Never Post on Social Media.” It includes some fairly obvious caveats:
- Stay away from politics (unless, of course, mixing it up in politics is your congregational brand).
- Avoid inadvertently being the facilitator of fake news.
- Rely on trusted (or verifiable) sources. Be careful of posting something of random or dubious provenance. There have been incidents when a church has reposted something innocuous content-wise that turned out to be from a person whose values were antithetical to the local church who did the reposting.
- Be careful with humor. I am remembering the account of a youth director who thought it would be funny to post a meme making fun (in an edgy way) of cats, who immediately received a vociferous education as to exactly how many cat lovers were in his congregation. There is no reason to alienate people (and certainly no Gospel record of Jesus making fun of cats). Tread lightly in general where edgy humor is concerned (unless, of course, edgy humor is an essential part of your local church brand). There are lots of safe, long-popular memes out there (like Arthur the PBS Aardvark). Don’t poke fun at church members unless it is good-natured, and they are in on the joke (and don’t assume someone is on the joke – make sure).
- Always keep it positive. Avoid negative comments or commentary (even implied). When you receive an inevitable negative comment in the “comments” section, respond with positivity if possible, neutrality if positivity is elusive, and a firm but unemotional clarification if someone posts a comment that is at odds with your ministry vision and values. Know the technical steps for deleting any offensive or NSFW comments.
- Be careful with emojis. Check in with emojipedia.org if you’re not sure what something means (eggplants are not what they were in John Wesley’s day).
- Be sure you are staying within legal bounds for reuse. Here’s a guide to walk you through this tricky topic (although not as tricky as we sometimes fret over).
Following those guidelines, having a point person and a general strategy, and pursuing a robust posting schedule can pay great dividends. It is an online version of a dynamic, engaged community. I leave you with a reposting that you may likely have already seen. It’s from Cameron Wiggins Bellm, and she has generously granted permission for its reposting to the entire universe, and it’s a perfect example of something worthy of reposting on our social media accounts:
May we who are merely inconvenienced
remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
remember those who are most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home
remember those who must choose between
preserving their health or paying their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for our children
when their schools close
remember those who have no options.
May we who have had to cancel our trips
remember those who have no place to go.
May we who are losing our investments,
remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country,
let us choose love.
During this time, when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us each find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.
What social media habits have you refined during this time of physical isolation? Do you have your own tips to share and suggested pitfalls to avoid? How has your church blossomed in this online environment?