In the United Methodist system, there is something called “itineracy.” For those of you unfamiliar with what this means, it means that Elders (ordained pastors) can be moved each year, to a different church, depending on a multitude of factors. Who moves and to where is guided by a group of church leadership, and pastors fear getting the call every year that they will move. That is, unless the pastor asked for the move, in which case they anxiously await the call. Either way, the emotions connected to this system are not very positive.
Some conferences are changing how this system works to a more congregational system; the congregation puts out a “job posting” and pastors who think it’s time to move to a new church can apply and interview for the position. In the United Church of Christ system, which is far more congregational, this is what happens (no itineracy – instead, it’s called a “call” system).
When a leader changes in a church, some pretty messy things can happen – people leave, people come, structures fall and change. Not all of this is bad, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely messy.
In the business world, leadership turnover causes the same kinds of things. Some people quit due to changes in management, because they were attached to a certain boss. Some people quit because the new management is different or difficult to deal with. When my boss was set to leave a government job I had enjoyed, I started thinking about leaving to find something new… it’s a reality. It happens.
There’s not necessarily a “right” answer about which systems are best for leadership transition, but the fact that leadership transition is so hard teaches us a simple truth:
People are more likely to follow people than institutions.
In the “glory days” of the church (read: the 1950s, if you ask people about a time when the pews were full), the institution was more important. We weren’t quite yet to an age of suspicion of the institution, and people trusted that their churches, jobs, and systems of influence were steady and reliable.
But the bottom has dropped out of that mentality throughout the decades, leaving the institution open to criticism, exposed in its weaknesses, and vilified as untrustworthy and suspicious. Whether or not you think these things are untrue, this shift has opened the door to a world of people called “influencers” – people that are widely trusted for their insight, advice and approach to the world.
How does this mindset shift affect churches?
Honestly, it changes how to convey your church, how you communicate about leadership, and how transient pastors hurt (rather than help) the continuity and trustworthiness of your institution.
In other words, I have some news for pastors and church planters that will make you uncomfortable:
Church planters often shy away from this reality, but I feel like it makes their social media presence more luke-warm if it’s only casual sayings or Scripture verses.
Traditional pastors shy away from this even more. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with pastors about doing live videos that talk about themselves – it goes against everything we’ve ever been taught (and any kind of body image issues we have stacked against us!).
I was listening to a leading expert named Faith Mariah talk about the importance of putting yourself out there, and she had a few interesting insights that I think can translate well into the world of church marketing:
- People want to see where you were and where you are, as imperfect as it is. There is beauty in your journey – this kind of conversation humanizes you and helps people connect with your leadership.
- There’s a reason why small businesses continue to thrive, and even smaller-scale influencers can amass a large following: people relate to people, not to businesses and institutions.
- You’re probably telling yourself that no one is interested in your life and journey, but that’s not true. That story is a limiting belief and a fearful mindset that will kill your ministry and your online presence.
And before you start calling someone to do your makeup and hair because you’re already panicking about putting yourself out there into the world and oh my goodness what if something happens and alltheanxietyIjustcan’tdothis – STOP!
We’re going to get through this mindset shift together. Here, you can hold my hand.
But I’m afraid, you say.
I know it’s scary, but it’s time for you to believe in yourself and the ministry God has called you to. Believe enough to put yourself out there, in all your imperfection. You do not need to be perfect and curated – social media has enough people who are always putting their most “put-together” face forward. Keeping yourself real will set you apart from the rest.
Here’s a quick psych moment: if you keep listening to the thoughts in your mind that tell you something like this is too scary for you to do, you’re going to start believing that. But you are not your thoughts. Just because you think that something is scary, doesn’t mean you have to believe the thought. Observe it. Tell the thought “well, aren’t you interesting.” Let the thought flow down the stream of consciousness. Whatever you have to do to keep that fear from manifesting in your life and keeping you from putting your face and vision into the world.
What else are you afraid of? Are you afraid of being judged by your peers? Or are you afraid that you’ll begin to see and judge yourself even more harshly than you already do?
Are you afraid of technology? Are you afraid of getting in “over your head” or overextending yourself in ministry (although if we’re honest you probably already are doing that!)?
Let’s be real. Walking in fear is exhausting. And Jesus talks way too much about His yoke being easy and his burden light… I bet that has a little something to do with how many times He also says “fear not, for I am with you.” Leave the fear behind, and step out into the light.
But who am I to speak up, you ask?
Soapbox time. You are divinely created for a time such as this. The Spirit is stirring in you because you are being called to manifest one of God’s dreams for this world.
Who are you? Moses asked the same question, and he led God’s people to the promised land (granted, he didn’t get to go there himself, but that’s another story). Moses complained that he couldn’t speak, wasn’t an expert, so what possibly could God do with his life?
You might feel like an impostor (acting sus?) or like you’re not expert enough to speak about God’s vision for your life and ministry. You might feel like “who am I to speak up?”
Here are the thoughts that might creep into your mind:
- I don’t have the right credentials to talk about that.
- I’m only just starting, what do I know?
- I haven’t gone to seminary (or college in general), so I don’t have the authority.
Or even the comparison trap:
- But that person wrote a book about this, they should be the ones to speak
- But that person has done more keynote speeches or sermons, they are more qualified
- But that person… well, you get the idea.
The best way to move past these doubts and questions is to ask another question:
What happens to your target audience, to the people you are trying to reach, if they never hear the message and vision that you’re called to share? What will they miss out on, if not knowledge of God’s abundant grace and love in their lives?
Faith Mariah said something beautiful that cut to the core of why we need to get out of our own way on this one:
That sounds like a pretty urgent call to action, no matter who you are. A pretty urgent call to tell everyone about your vision, to put yourself out there, and to walk forward bravely in faith.
You don’t need to be an expert. Moses wasn’t. You just need to show up. And keep showing up. Your message will reach the right people. So many people need to hear what God has put on your heart to say.
But I’m not building a cult of personality, I don’t want it to be all about me, you say.
This is a tricky question to tackle. I saved this one for last because it’s a big intellectual and emotional hurdle. But it’s normally the “easiest” question that the other two questions/thoughts are hiding behind (so stop fooling yourself). I would be remiss if I didn’t give this question space to be heard and felt.
This fear appears to contain both an intra- and inter-personal level, and I’ll try to address both.
First, there’s a fear of appearing prideful or “non-pastoral.” Check your assumption if you’re in this space: since when does putting yourself on social media definitively equal pridefulness? Why can’t humility and social media go together? Humility does not mean invisibility. There are ways to share your story and put your face out there that can stay true to your values. After all, if your social media strategy doesn’t follow your values, then it’s not authentic at all (and authenticity is what we’re going for here).
Second, there’s a fear of building a church around a person (a person who isn’t Jesus). If you’re feeling like this is the camp you’re pitching your tent in, then I’d ask you to re-read the beginning of this article. You’re a means of grace, showing people the love of God. People follow people, not institutions.
And here’s the sneaky secret: if you’ve been a pastor at a church for a long time, it’s going to get dicey after you leave no matter what you’ve done or not done. Being a part of the church’s social media strategy will not change that; transition is hard and pastoral transition is even harder. It makes sense for you to put yourself out there and build a strong, authentic social media presence, because not everyone will leave when/if you do.
This fear often leads into the trend of “hiding behind your brand.” In other words, pastors and church leaders will hide behind using a logo over using people’s faces. Church leaders will hide behind the name of their new faith community instead of being bold and up-front about themselves and their journeys. But people follow people, not institutions. You can have the coolest name in the world for your ministry, but without a soul, without a person or people telling their stories, it will still seem shallow and unconvincing.
It doesn’t have to be just you. You can (and probably should!) incorporate stories from your leadership, and their faces and voices too. That’s an even heavier lift, to get past their own limiting thoughts to really pursue evangelism… so good luck with that, friends.
But this personal, authentic approach to social media does work. A client I am working with did her first Facebook live to announce that they’re doing a podcast, and she got more engagement with her adorably awkward Facebook live video than with any other posts so far. I took some informal footage from another client of mine walking around her property, telling stories, and plan to transform that into a video that is personable and connectable.
Both of these clients were worried about how they looked and sounded. I was worried about how real they were, and that’s what’s most important.
That’s what people gravitate towards: real, authentic people and their stories. Because people follow people, not institutions. Get out of your own way and get your face and your story on social media – there’s no time to waste.