Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

If there are problems in the pews these days, most pastors will learn about them the way they learn about almost everything else -- their smartphones will blow up.

It may be a text messages, a blitz of tweets or an online post that ignites a long comments thread with the faithful trading theological jabs or making pious, passive-aggressive remarks about church life. Other messages will be specific and personal, often leaving pastors confused about the urgency of these terse signals.

"People can create online personalities that are simply not real. … A lot of what they say in social media has little to do with who they really are and all the fleshy, real stuff that's in their lives," said the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Thus, Alvaro and the church's other clergy are committed to this strategy: Always move "one step closer" to human contact. "What we want is coffee cups and face-to-face meetings across a table. … You have to get past all the texts and emails and Facebook," he said.

In fact, Alvaro is convinced that online life has become so toxic that it's time for pastors to detox. Thus, he recently wrote an essay for Baptist News Global with this blunt headline: "Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever." His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability."

"Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence," wrote Alvaro. "Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don't leave your system peacefully."

After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.

This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote.

Memory eternal: Healer for the healers

Some of the seminarians in the Bible Belt chapel were shaken when Dr. Louis McBurney described -- in gentle, but clear terms -- the hurdles and pitfalls that awaited them in their first churches.

"I talked about ministers' problems and how, sometimes, professional counseling was what was needed," said the witty physician, whose counseling work was built on his evangelical faith, as well as psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic. "When I was through, the seminary president strode to the microphone to deliver the benediction. He said, 'Lord, we're glad that you have called us to be your servants and that all we really need is Jeeee-sussss. Amen.'

"There is still a whole lot of resistance out there to ministers getting help."

McBurney shared that story in the mid-1980s, a decade after moving to Colorado with his wife, Melissa, to open a private and for years secret facility dedicated to helping ministers save their marriages and careers. I visited the Marble Retreat Center as a journalist, entering with the understanding that patients could remain anonymous and that I wouldn't publish its exact location. It was crucial, you see, for troubled clergy to be able to tell their flocks that they were spending two weeks taking a break in Colorado -- period.

The lodge, in those years, was packed with symbolic details, like the toy owl named "Sigmund." There was always a fire burning in the stone fireplace in the 12-by-15 foot den that patients simply called "the room upstairs," even on summer days. The flames consumed dozens of tear-soaked tissues during group-therapy sessions.

McBurney was a true pioneer, serving as a healer for men and women who -- as spiritual leaders -- struggled to find a haven in which they could face their own sins. The 70-year-old therapist died recently of complications from head injuries suffered in a household accident. He was semi-retired and his work continues at the lodge in the Crystal River Valley, which has worked with 3,600 patients in 36 years. Today, there are nearly 30 centers that do similar therapy for clergy, part of a national network ( that the McBurneys helped create.

"The world has changed and we can be thankful for that," said Dr. Steve Cappa, who now leads the center with his wife, Patti. "It's hard for us to explain the kind of religious stigma that surrounded discussions of mental illness when Louis and Melissa began their work, especially if you were talking about trying to help troubled ministers."

The challenges clergy face are easy to describe, yet hard to master.

* Lay leaders often judge a pastor's success by two statistics -- attendance and the annual budget. Yet powerful, rich members often make the strategic decisions. As a minister once told McBurney: "There's nothing wrong with my church that wouldn't be solved by a few well-placed funerals."

* Perfectionism often leads to isolation and workaholism, with many clergy working between 80 and 90 hours a week.

* Clergy families live in glass houses, facing constant scrutiny about personal issues that other parents and children can keep private.

* Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

* While most clergy sincerely believe they are "called by God," they also know they are human and, thus, wrestle with their own fears and doubts. Many ministers have dreams in which they reach their pulpits and discover they are naked.

To be perfectly frank about it, said McBurney, it shouldn't be hard for traditional believers to understand that Satan tempts ministers in unique and powerful ways.

Yet, in the end, sin is sin and most ministers know it.

"Pastors are used to telling people about right and wrong," he said. "Knowing what to do is not their problem. They feel a special sense of guilt because they know what God wants them to do, but they can't do it. ...

"It's hard for ministers to confess their sins, because they're not supposed to sin. They also struggle to believe that God will forgive them, because they have so much trouble forgiving themselves."

Pulpits, pews and CEOs

Anybody who knows anything about religion knows that people in pulpits have a different view of the world than people in pews.

Years of data and front-line reports have yielded two clich? The first is that most ministers in the old mainline Protestant churches are more liberal on matters of doctrine and morality than their people. And the second is that most evangelical and fundamentalist pastors are more conservative than their people.

"There's actually a lot of truth in both of those, especially if you fine-tune the second one," said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research ( in Phoenix. "It's probably more accurate to say that most evangelical pastors are more conservative than the lives their people are living. ...

"But any way you look at it, there is a gap between the pulpits and the pews. What fewer people seem to realize is that there is an even bigger gap between pastors and the people who are leading their national churches."

Thus, Sellers and his team recently raised eyebrows with data reporting that 40 percent of Protestant pastors say some of their beliefs clash with official positions taken by their national denominations or conventions. Theologically, 19 percent say they are more liberal and 23 percent say they are more conservative, while 59 percent mesh with their leaders.Politically, 16 percent of the pastors say they are more liberal and 27 percent more conservative than their national churches.

This 50-state survey was not large enough, said Sellers, to provide individual results for all of America's Protestant flocks.

But there were glimpses of life in some of the trenches. For example, United Methodist pastors were the most likely to clash with their leaders. Only 33 percent felt their theological positions matched the hierarchy, with 25 percent saying they are more liberal than the denomination and 42 percent saying they are more conservative. A mere 29 percent felt their political beliefs matched stances taken by the national church.

The survey raised far more questions than it answered. One reason is that most of the labels that have defined Protestantism in America are becoming increasingly blurry. Clergy simply do not know what "conservative," "liberal," "evangelical," "charismatic," "traditional" and even the newer term "seeker-friendly" mean anymore.

"Things are too complex out there," said Sellers. "Even when you try to define the basics words like 'evangelical' or 'mainline' -- everything breaks down. Just to give one example, there are many conservative, evangelical pastors out there in the Episcopal Church, even though that seems to make no sense whatsoever when you look at the national church."

The bottom line: A sign in a church's front yard is no longer a dependable indicator of what is happening inside the doors.

Listening to a few sermons may not even do the trick, since many pastors seem to be using highly personal dictionaries. The survey found "seeker-friendly" Lutherans, "charismatic" mainline Presbyterians, a few Southern Baptists who do gay union rites and many other examples of clergy and their churches that refuse to fit into familiar boxes.

Nevertheless, many clich?did ring true. Conservatives preach longer than liberals. Older, smaller congregations are more devoted to traditional hymnody than younger, larger congregations. Bible Belt pastors like religious television more than their Frost Belt counterparts. Clergy in the National Association of Evangelicals are twice as likely to vote Republican as clergy in the National Council of Churches.

But the overall impression left by the data, said Sellers, is one of diversity. This is especially true among mainline Protestants, where hot issues -- most linked to marriage and sex -- are dividing clergy into warring camps of painfully similar sizes. This is making life brutal for national-church leaders.

"It's like in a large corporation, where the CEO is surrounded by people who share that vision," said Sellers. "Then the further you go down the food scale the more diversity you're going to find. By the time you reach the mailroom, people are going to have all kinds of opinions about what the CEO is saying.

"Precisely the same thing is happening today in all of these national denominations. No one is sure what the vision is and what all the words mean."