I knew from his body language that he was struggling to say what was on his mind. His eyes looked pained as he paused repeatedly, weighing his words. “Stephanie, you are my pastor, and I respect you. But I need you to know something.”
My parishioner went on to tell me that, several months prior, I had shared a controversial article on a social media platform. Intrigued, he had read the article, only to discover that it used negative, unfair language about people with a particular political leaning—his political leaning.
He said, “I’ve tried to let it go, but every time you preach I am reminded of what you shared. I feel judged and unwelcome.”
My stomach dropped. I did not remember the specific article, nor did I remember the language it used that he cited. But I had no doubt I had shared something of that nature—fancying myself a prophetic voice on issues of import. I probably hadn’t even read the article thoroughly enough to notice the exclusionary rhetoric, yet I had done damage to my parishioner and to our relationship by my failure to steward my pastoral voice well.
We are familiar with stewardship as it relates to Christian finance—managing the resources with which God has entrusted us, to God’s glory and for the sake of the world. A wise preacher might also be acquainted with stewardship as it relates to the pulpit, recognizing it is a weighty thing to preach to the gospel.
However, I fear many—myself included—have not considered the gravity of the stewardship of our pastoral voice in the digital space. A pastor no longer speaks to her people exclusively from the pulpit, in a classroom, or across the table over a meal. A pastor also speaks to her people through what she shares, tweets, and posts.
We paint “the other” in broad strokes while extending the privilege of nuance and containing inner multitudes to ourselves.
In a fashion disturbingly reflective of contemporary society, we often share divisive, unreflective material, propping it up with gospel language. We paint “the other” in broad strokes while extending the privilege of nuance and containing inner multitudes to ourselves. As I demonstrated with my thoughtless post, we sometimes arrogantly presume the role of prophet, and—while we may gain traction with the masses—we tarnish our voice with the localized people we have been called to shepherd.
I understand why an encouragement toward circumspection could be met with resistance. I am an individual person, not just a pastor. I have a right to share my thoughts like everyone else. I should be free to voice my opinion unhindered, just like everyone else.
Is this true, though? Do we deserve such freedom? When I knelt at the ordination bench and took my vows to Christ and to the church, I publicly declared that my life was not my own and that I would in fact surrender my life in service of the gospel. Does that not extend to every part of myself? Does that not extend even to the stewardship of my pastoral voice in every space in which I speak—not merely the pulpit or church classroom?
Pastor, we are not free to speak as we wish without consequence. We are not free to hop on the latest flaming bandwagon of controversy and expect to disembark with voices intact and clothes free of the stench of smoke. The trust of our people will not remain unscathed by such behavior
I feel the angst and the resistance against such a limitation. It feels like an imposition on my personal freedoms, my right to self-expression, and my sacrosanct freedom of speech. It feels that way because it is. Pastor, we are not free to speak as we wish without consequence. We are not free to hop on the latest flaming bandwagon of controversy and expect to disembark with voices intact and clothes free of the stench of smoke. The trust of our people will not remain unscathed by such behavior.
Am I suggesting that we abandon all digital spaces for fear of offending people? Or that we never share challenging, confrontational information? While some pastors choose this route for their own mental and spiritual well-being, this is not a one-size-fits-all response. If every pastoral voice vacates the digital landscape, we will miss opportunities to model Christ-centered speech and behavior. We will also lose touch with the environment in which most of our people operate. Each pastor must discern a level of engagement that is both healthy and edifying.
Those of us who want to remain in digital spaces and engage them in healthy ways might be wise to consider a few guidelines:
1. Just as we would counsel a person to cool off before engaging in a potentially difficult conversation, so too ought we to post in a “cold” state rather than a “hot” one. If the urge to post or share immediately is strong, pause and assess motive: What will be gained from the post? Will it challenge the body of Christ in an edifying way? How is my ego served?
2. Is this a gospel issue or a matter of personal opinion? There is a difference, though it can sometimes be hard to see. Consider the apostle Paul, who—when giving advice—occasionally highlighted that his word on the matter was his informed opinion, not divine revelation.
3. Will your engagement on an issue create an opportunity for transformative dialogue, or will it incite people to retreat more deeply into their own opinions?
4. As you engage pastorally in digital spaces, who has permission to call you to account? With naked vulnerability, we must ask: am I teachable or self-righteous and defensive? Who gets to answer that question for you?
I think back to my parishioner. Instead of posting an inflammatory article, I wish I had modeled healthy engagement. I wish I had been honest about my ego and my desire to say something “important,” instead of displaying a flash-in-the-pan passion about an issue I can no longer even recall. What grace we might have experienced together if I had more faithfully stewarded my voice in that moment.
As ministers of the gospel, our voices are not our own—whether we speak from the pulpit or from social media. By the grace of God and through the empowerment of the Spirit, may we steward our voices well in the digital age.