Episcopal leadership in the age of social media

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"For Anglicans in particular, the Reformation taught us that communicating the gospel in the vernacular was a core value…Well, social media is the vernacular now," says Susan Bell, bishop of the diocese of Niagara. Image: Bernardo Ramonfaur/Shutterstock. Adapted.

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. The growth of social media platforms has made digital communication a ubiquitous part of modern life and transformed the way we connect with each other. For leaders of large organizations, the new dominance of these online tools offers both challenges and opportunities.

The Anglican Church of Canada is no exception. In an age ruled by electronic forms of communication, the bishops and archbishops who are some of the most visible leaders of the church are increasingly expected to maintain a regular online presence, to communicate with Anglicans and the wider public.

A survey by Signal Leadership Communication (SLC), a public relations counselling firm for senior leaders, found that 42% of respondents believe it is “important” or “somewhat important” for CEOs of leading companies to communicate with the public. Studies cited by SLC indicate that communication is viewed as a more important skill for leaders than ever before, and that digital forms of media have become the main driver of almost all communication in the public sphere.

At the same time, social media is viewed as the medium most likely to cause damage to the public image of an individual or organization. A Nanos Research poll found that more than half of Canadians (54%) say social media is a major source of PR disasters for companies. Yet 70% of Canadians also believe that the best way for an organization to respond to these disasters is to “acknowledge the problem and communicate on social media.” Meanwhile, 61% feel it is important or somewhat important for CEOs to use social media to “directly communicate with the public” when a company has a crisis.

The prevalence of social media has elicited a range of reactions from bishops and metropolitans of the Anglican Church of Canada, from enthusiasm to skepticism.

Bishop Susan Bell of the diocese of Niagara, who uses Facebook and Twitter, believes that the effect of social media on episcopal ministry has largely been positive.

“As a communication tool, [social media] has a reach that traditional media just doesn’t have,” Bell says. “It also has an immediacy that is exciting. But this also carries with it an impermanency that is hard to transcend.

“It is relatively easy and democratic,” she adds. “Both of those things have their shadow side, too, but again, in general, it is exciting to be able to speak to people so directly and from the heart.”

Bell has used her social media accounts to share timely posts, brief videos and compelling images from the diocese of Niagara.

Bell says that the growth of platforms such as YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat and Tumblr provides an opportunity to reach new constituencies, which in turn demands a “creative and innovative Christian response.” She sees the use of such tools as firmly rooted in the Anglican tradition.

“For Anglicans in particular, the Reformation taught us that communicating the gospel in the vernacular was a core value…Well, social media is the vernacular now, and we are bound by our polity, tradition and the Great Commission to preach the gospel to the whole creation using whatever tools the Lord makes available to us.”

Bishop Michael Oulton, of the diocese of Ontario, views communication as “job one” in the ministry of a bishop, and says that social media can be a powerful tool for episcopal ministry.

“The first chapter of Mark’s gospel is the best biblical image I can think of to describe the power of social media,” Oulton says. “Jesus began his ministry of proclamation and called the first disciples. By the end of that first chapter, the news about his teachings and actions had spread so far and wide that he was not able to go openly into any town, yet still the people found him.

“That’s the power of social media, first-century version, in action.”

For Oulton, the growing use of social media has enhanced his own ministry. When he visits a parish or attends an event, the bishop will often compose a related post and share photos, which are then picked up by the diocesan Facebook page, eNews Weekly bulletin, or the diocesan newspaper Dialogue.

“Social media has allowed me to put a human face on the office of bishop each and every day,” Oulton says. “Social media has also allowed me to stay connected with the folk among whom I minister, the communities I serve and the church, both nationally and internationally, in ways that were not available to my predecessors.

“In its best sense, social media assists the Body of Christ to stay closely connected, so that when one rejoices, all rejoice, and when one suffers, all suffer.”

At the same time, Oulton acknowledges that there is a “dark side to the world of social media,” as evidenced by stories of online harassment, bullying, and hate. For that reason, he believes, it is important to have protocols and policies in place for how social media is utilized.

Archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson, of the diocese of Calgary, concurs on the need to exercise caution in posting online, having recently attended a workshop on the use of social media among clergy. His own social media use is primarily limited to a personal Facebook page.

Kerr-Wilson describes himself as “slightly skeptical” about the underlying impact of social media in any significant way, other than as another means to connect to people within the church.

“Communications is very important, but I think in terms of quantity, we have way too much these days, to the extent that people tend to not even notice stuff as it comes through—or they notice it, but then they dismiss it because they move on to the next thing,” the archbishop says.

“It’s quantity, but not particularly quality, [in] my experience. By the time you’ve done with all the emails that come through…to go and then do Facebook stuff on top of it means that your life starts to be dominated by electronics, rather than by face-to-face communication.”

In dioceses with significant populations, such as Toronto and Montreal, bishops often co-ordinate their use of social media with diocesan digital communications coordinators.

Lee-Ann Matthews, web and social media co-ordinator for the diocese of Montreal, meets once a week with the diocese’s Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson to ensure they are on the same page. While Matthews runs diocesan social media accounts, Irwin-Gibson posts photos from her work as bishop on her personal Facebook page.

“It’s not too strategic,” Matthews says, “but we’re in touch with each other…We have a sense for the momentum that it’s gaining, and we receive a lot of positive feedback.”

In the diocese of Toronto, suffragan bishops are all on social media, but largely left to their own devices, while the diocesan bishop works closely with digital communications co-ordinator Martha Holmen.

Since Bishop Andrew Asbil, of the diocese of Toronto, took over as diocesan bishop at the beginning of 2019, Holmen has worked with the bishop to determine how to best use his own social media platforms, which include an episcopal Facebook page.

“Anglicans really want to hear from the bishop what he or she is thinking about certain topics in the world, or events in the life of the diocese,” Holmen says. Social media, she adds, “gives bishops an access to speak to people beyond just visiting parish by parish each Sunday.”

With use of social media only increasing, the expectation that future church leaders will be able to effectively communicate online will likely continue to grow.

“People in general are on social media— that’s where they gather to talk to have conversations about any kind of issue, including religious issues,” Holmen says. “So having a bishop on social media gives them access to people who are already there and lets them speak directly to them.”

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Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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