Every Idle Word: 8 Cautions For Ministers (& Others) On Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool for good, for evil, and for mischief. These eight ideas can help keep conversations civil and reputations intact.

Social media has become our face to the world.

When we use it well, it can be a great tool for ministry and relationships. But when it’s done badly it can cause massive, sometimes irreversible harm – to others, ourselves, our churches, and the message of the gospel.

Some pastors have lost ministry positions because of their negative online behavior.

People will monitor our social media before deciding whether-or-not to attend the church we pastor. And churches looking to hire a pastor do the same thing. If they can’t trust our online behavior, churches won’t hire us and prospective members won’t attend. And they don’t limit their judgment to the church website, but to our personal social media sites.

In this article, I’m not referring to such obviously sinful behaviors as watching pornography. I’m referring to seemingly innocent behaviors like giving someone on Facebook a piece of your mind or tweeting a snarky observation.

We should be at least as kind, moral and truthful on social media as we are in person. Click To Tweet

Many people say things on social media that we would never dream of saying face-to-face. We should be at least as kind, moral, and truthful on social media as we are in person.

Others can mouth off all they want. But we can’t. As Christians and as ministers, we’re held to a higher standard. When we don’t live up to those standards, especially in the public forum of social media, people can get hurt. Including ourselves, our churches, and our families.

Here are eight rules that help keep me out of trouble as I produce content and make comments on blog posts, podcastsFacebook, Twitter and more.

1. Be Accurate

Few things are more infuriating than being criticized for something I didn’t do, say, or believe. But it happens online with surprising frequency.

People convince themselves that if I say one thing, I actually mean another thing. And they’re ready to take me to task – even call me a heretic – for the thing I must have meant, even though I never said or wrote it.

For instance, not long ago I was accused of not preaching against sin or believing in hell because I dared to say “more people will be loved into serving Jesus than yelled into it.” (For the record, I do preach against sin and I do believe in hell.) Accusing someone of saying something unchristian, but doing it inaccurately and unfairly? Pot, meet kettle.

It’s okay to criticize what I write or say. In fact, I welcome helpful correction. Just criticize what I actually said.

2. Be Fair

Before offering criticism, here’s a helpful hint. Read the entire book or article, or watch the entire video first.

Not long ago I offered that simple advice to someone who had falsely criticized someone’s video that he obviously hadn’t watched all the way through. His response? “I didn’t have time to watch the whole stupid thing.”

If you don’t have the time to read or watch it, you don’t have the time – or the right – to criticize.

3. Praise With Abandon, Criticize With Care

Do you really want your criticism to matter? Use it infrequently.

Do you really want your criticism to matter? Use it infrequently. Click To Tweet

The rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes.

Some people are so full of criticism that we discount them automatically. Even if what they’re saying is accurate, a constant critic is exhausting. But there are other people whose criticism we pay attention to because they almost never speak negatively.

Our conversations, both in real life and online, should be at least 20:1 positive to negative. Maybe 100:1.

4. Seek To Build Up, Not Tear Down

Even when we offer necessary criticism, we should always aim to be constructive, not destructive. Corrective, not punitive.

In addition to asking “is this criticism accurate?” we should ask, “is this criticism likely to be helpful?”

If not, why bother?

5. Criticize By Invitation Only

Walking up to a random person on the street to tell them you don’t like what they’re wearing? Not okay. Responding to a friend or spouse who asks “what do you think of these jeans?” Okay. Dangerous, but okay.

So do we need to have a personal relationship with someone before offering a critique of their words or work online? Of course not. If they made it public, it’s an implicit invitation for commentary.

Our criticism needs to be about content, not motivations. Only God knows the heart. Click To Tweet

But our criticism needs to be about content, not motivations. Only God knows the heart.

6. Grow A Thicker Skin

Just as we have the right to offer criticism when someone makes their thoughts public, we need to realize that we’re offering that permission to others when we make our thoughts public.

Too many people are quick to criticize the faults of others, but can’t hear criticism themselves. If you give it, you have to be willing to take it.

If you don’t want feedback, don’t post it.

If you do put it out there, be prepared to hear criticism. And remember to respond graciously when treated unfairly.

7. Write It Offline First

This is the simplest, best practice to keep out of trouble online.

Whenever I have anything lengthy, angry or important to say, I write it offline, then sit on it for a while. Sometimes for a day or two. Sometimes just for an hour or so.

That pause allows me to think a little deeper and/or calm down a little more.

Even if I copy-and-paste it right away, keeping it one step away from the too-easily-pushed ‘publish’ button has saved me many moments of embarrassment.

You’ll never regret the angry message, comment or blog post that you don’t publish. Click To Tweet

You’ll never regret the angry message, comment or blog post that you don’t publish.

8. Know That The Internet Is Forever And Has No Context

Before you post something online, especially in anger, pause for a moment and ask, “would I be okay having this carved into my headstone?” That’s how permanent the internet is.

Even if you delete it, it can always be found.

Plus, everything we post can be picked up by someone who knows nothing else about us. That one regretful moment can become a permanent, exclusive epitaph about us to them.

The next time you get angry and want to vent online, take a moment to consider whether-or-not you want that comment to be the only thing some people will ever know about you. Because it will be the only thing you write that some people will ever see.

They’re judging us for every idle word. And they’re not the only ones.


This is a follow-up to my previous article, Avoid Foolish And Stupid Arguments: A Simple Plan For One Small Corner Of Social Media.


(Photo by Eugene Zemlyanskiy | Flickr)

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