Thousands of United Methodist churches are saying goodbye to leaders they have come to love and depend on and welcoming new pastors — it is the United Methodist way.
As the season of itineration progresses, a growing number of pastors won't just have to deal with physically moving and saying good-bye in person. Many will need to find a way to disconnect in cyberspace.
"I was thinking, how do you leave with grace and make that separation while still being connected through social media?" asked the Rev. Laura Heikes who moved in mid-June from First United Methodist Church, New Braunfels, Texas, to Bee Creek United Methodist Church in Spicewood.
Over the past three years, Heikes has added about 250 "friends" through her Facebook account linked to the New Braunfels church. "This is a connection I have encouraged a lot of my church members to make with me. I have encouraged them to be on Facebook," she said.
|The Rev. Laura Heikes|
|Photo Credit: AMBER WALTERS|
Social media has helped her connect with the congregation beyond the church walls. "I have been surprised at all the ways Facebook can be used for pastoral care.
"I have had young people especially message me on Facebook when in the old' days they would have come to my office." She has also received alerts from members of the congregation when someone is in the hospital.
"We have a family that is adopting a child and instead of having to call that family and see how things are going, she posts what is going on on her status updates," Heikes said. "I can also see how the congregation is responding to changes and issues based on the dialogue ... on Facebook."
The church's Facebook page is a quick way to communicate and hold meetings without worrying about child care or finding a room, said Ralph Leal, lay leader at New Braunfels.
Leal said churches need to be careful not to leave people out of the conversation going on through social media but should also take advantage of all the new technology. "More of the same is not going to cut it anymore," he said.
"Laura did a great job of getting that kind of communication up and going, which led to a conversation she and I had a month ago," Leal continued. "I have seen pastors leave and I remember that last Sunday sermon. What do you tell people when they are friends on Facebook and you are a pastor about to go to a new church?"
Heikes said this is a subject with which more and more pastors will need to grapple.
"I am going to be very careful," she said. "I have taken care to say as I leave, I am transferring all my pastoral duties to the new pastor."
She will use the privacy settings on Facebook to set up categories for friends from previous churches, family, college and seminary, and other groups.
"It can be done gracefully and quietly without anyone really knowing they are being excluded," Heikes said. "I guess I may have to consider whether I unfriend' some people who are just members of the congregation but not personal friends. I haven't really had to do that yet."
Kathy L. Gilbert, multimedia reporter, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.